ABT Whipped Cream Review: A Decadent Dish

A diet consisting of only of healthy foods such as kale, brussels sprouts, and carrots, is monotonous. Moderation is the key as one needs a bit of decadence every now and then for variety-crème brûlée or tiramisu washed down with a bit of vodka. Ballet is like diet; like nutritious fare, MacMillan and Balanchine classics are great, but sometimes frivolous, fun works provide necessary balance.

Alexei Ratmansky’s lavish American Ballet Theatre production Whipped Cream is the culinary equivalent of a rich chocolate soufflé. You wouldn’t want the artery clogging dish every night, but it hits the spot on special occasions, a reward for maintaining a steady, disciplined diet of Petipa, Balanchine, and Ashton.

The original production of Schlagobers (Whipped Cream) premiered in 1924 to the Richard Strauss score. Strauss, as the co-director of the Vienna Straatsoper, sought to revive the fortunes of the resident ballet company struggling after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, according to Wikipedia. Strauss collaborated with choreographer Heinrich Kröler on a number of productions. Most ambitious was Schlagobers, which premiered during the official celebrations for Strauss’ 60th birthday. The ballet was not well received by critics.

Whipped Cream Ratmansky. Cassandra Trenary and Jeffrey Cirio.

Cassandra Trenary and Jeffrey Cirio. Click for more photos.

The story is thin. A boy and his friends receive their first communion. To celebrate, they are taken to a Viennese cake shop and served their favorite treats. The boy eats too much whipped cream, falls ill and is taken away. The shop’s confections come alive, marzipan, sugar plums, gingerbread among others. The first act ends with the boy dreaming of his favorite, whipped cream. The boy is taken to a hospital, where a fearsome giant doctor and an army of nurses “care” for him, sometimes with giant syringes and even larger needles. The doctor drinks too much booze allowing the boy, with the help of Princess Praline, to escape to the kingdom. In the lavish kingdom, there is a giant celebration.

In the current production, the star of the show is not Ratmansky’s choreography but pop surrealist artist Mark Ryden’s imaginative costumes and sets, a breathtaking explosion of colors and fantasy characters. Ryden is the real star in this production with his complex and rich backdrops. I spent much of the last act trying to comprehend the complex background of the kingdom rather than watching the dancing (is that a portrait of Abe Lincoln in the upper left of the kingdom?). His Act I confectioner’s shop is multilayered, allowing the characters representing sweets to come alive. The fantasy costumes are bizarre, including the 8-10 foot tall priest and baker played by dancers on stilts and enormous heads. I hope ABT’s insurance premiums are current as some of the dancers are dangerously off the ground. The choreography is simple throughout with basic steps. Nothing in the dancing stands out, allowing for full attention to the fantastic, surreal setting Ryden presents. An example is the Act II doctor’s office scene which features a backdrop with a massive blinking eye.

Ratmansky’s production premiered at Segerstrom Center in California in March. The Monday gala was the New York premier, followed by three more performances last week. ABT has a lot riding on the production as it will return for eight more performances June 26-July 1. I attended the Tuesday performance and was surprised by the attendance in the orchestra area. For an unknown ballet, the first non-gala Met turnout seemed robust. The production is one of the shorter ballets in ABT’s rep, with two acts of about 40 minutes separated by one 20 minute intermission. With the lavish costumes, vivid colors, and short run time, the production is perfect for children.

Whipped Cream Ratmansky

Curtain call, Whipped Cream. Click for more photos.

The Tuesday cast featured Jeffrey Cirio, who replaced the injured Herman Cornejo as The Boy; Cassandra Trenary as Princess Praline; and Hee Seo and Cory Strearns as Princess Tea Flower and Prince Coffee. The work featured some razzle-dazzle from Jeffrey in a solo with frenetic steps one would expect from a boy on a massive sugar high. Cassandra handled the tricky fast footwork sections well while Hee and Cory were elegant in their pas de deux.

More reviews:
Alastair Macaulay of The New York Times: Met Premier
Alastair Macaulay of The New York Times: California Premier
Laura Bleiberg of The LA Times
Haglund: Met Premier
Haglund: California Premier
Claudia Bauer of DanceTabs: California Premier
Marina Harss of DanceTabs