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Caroline Calouche certainly didn’t bide her time before jumping aboard the aerial dance movement when it first appeared in Charlotte late in the summer of 2007. By the spring of 2008, she had choreographed and danced a new piece of her own – a two-person aerial called Enraged Rose, which instantly announced that Calouche was seeking to expand the form even as she was mastering it. Seven years later, with the world premiere of Carmina Burana, Caroline Calouche & Co. is still pushing the boundaries of a very circumscribed art form. Rather than a single silken loop dangling from the flyloft at Booth Playhouse, Calouche had three of them in a row across the center stage. Numerous other apparatuses crowded the Booth stage, including a velvet strap, a set of chains, a table, a trapeze, a huge net, and a dangling wheel that hung like a chandelier.
Tethered to one of these devices, aerial performers have very little latitude for lateral movement once they’re airborne. Vertical movement is also confined to a limited vocabulary, pulling yourself upwards hand-over-hand, holding yourself suspended by wrapping one or more limbs securely, and descending by either sliding down the apparatus or unwrapping it. Under a big top in a Cirque du Soleil-type production, a variety of aerial acts can provide a show stopping spectacle – but they also stop the narrative flow of such shows. So it’s fascinating to watch how Calouche & Co. are coping with the compound challenges of trying to keep aerial continuously engaging and wedding the choreography to sources that have story elements as well as musical riches.
Up on top of that suggestive wheel, Calouche placed a saturnine figure representing Fortune at the beginning and end of her show, prowling between the spokes like a vengeful Medea as the uniformly dressed ensemble, representing humanity, danced and ultimately agonized below. That tableau meshed beautifully with the familiar obsessive “O Fortuna” chorale by Carl Orff as it gradually crescendoed to a satanic fever of pagan intensity. Between those two powerful segments, Calouche struggled to duplicate the visceral connection between her dancers, the music, and the text. In the “Springtime” segment, aerialist Sarah Johns climbed the silks in a sky-blue bodysuit festooned with silvery glitter. In the tavern scene, various dancers cavorted on the suspended table, with Alexander Lieberman stamping the locale by drunkenly falling off.
Other segments helped widen the expressivity of Calouche’s work with a completely earthbound staging. Stephanie Cantrell was intermittently showered with rose petals as she danced her “Noble Forest” segment, vividly conveying the vernal and amorous aspects of the music and poetry even though Orff’s settings go with Medieval Latin texts. A lingering Cantrell, joined by Marcia Fresquez and Constance Stamatiou, conveyed the gist of Orff’s next text less precisely, going through a series of smiling, preening, puckering, and self-admiring moves that approximated the rouge hinted at in “Salesman! Give Me Colored Paint” and the song’s come-hither refrain.
All of Calouche’s choreography didn’t chime so well with the 25 scenes in Orff’s score. When Fresquez, Alison Johnson, and Amanda Rentschler climbed the silks for “All Things Are Tempered,” the text seemed entirely forgotten, though the coordinated movements of the trio corresponded subtly with the music. The true miscalculation here was in the staging: the big wheel-sized chandelier for the Empress Fortune hadn’t been lifted for the long interval between her two appearances, so it partially blocked our sightlines to the aerialists who performed further upstage. Neither disregard of text nor visual obstruction was the reason Rentschler’s stint on the velvety strap was so lame. The “Sweetest Boy” segment is just too short – 37 seconds on the recording I own – for an aerial act to fully coalesce.
Rentschler was involved in the most bizarre disconnect between choreography and text when she took to the trapeze for “Once in the Lakes I Made My Home,” the tragicomic lament of a once-beautiful swan who is now a beautiful roasted main dish. The punkish white wig that Rentschler wore atop her black costume obliquely referenced the roasted protagonist of the soprano’s bathetic outpouring, but she never made the fowl transition from air or water to the tavern table below, satisfying the male chorus’ savage gluttony. It was almost as if this costume and choreography had been the unforeseen result of giving up – after trying to follow the scenario of “Once in the Lakes” with absolute fidelity. That result remained striking, eclipsed only by the aerial duet performed by Calouche and Johns together on one loop of silk, “Come, Come, Dear Heart of Mine.”
It’s the longest segment in Orff’s score, allowing for all the prep that goes into a memorable aerial piece. The ensemble gathered into a circle on the ground, tapping out a steady beat with their hands and feet as Calouche ascended and performed more than the usual amount of wrapping – because the silks were about to bear more than their usual load. When Johns stood up, we could see the real action was ready to begin. Weight wasn’t my chief concern as Johns climbed the silks and her partner’s body. Risk became paramount, and I must confess that I often forgot the relatively innocuous orchestral interlude that was in the background. My preoccupation with the action intensified when it became clear that Calouche, uppermost when the piece started, was going to switch places with her partner and alight. Of course, the entire maneuver was executed faultlessly, and my suspended consciousness of Orff’s music was restored as the ensemble sprang back to life for “If the Whole World Were Mine.” Calouche’s risky edge returned soon afterwards at the tavern when she returned for more aerial action, working with enough chains to spook Ebenezer Scrooge. Since that apparatus was lugged onstage and hoisted during a complete blackout, I was a little spooked by the noise myself.
Note: The biographies of the performers in Caroline Calouche & Co. can be found here.