Mid March saw the World Premiere of the fantastical new piece "Whipped Cream" choreographed by the acclaimed Alexei Ratmansky with incredible set and costume designs by famed artist, Mark Ryden. We sent along our LA blogger, Dawson White, to see the show and send us back the magic.
Celebrating his first communion, a young boy eats too much whipped cream and is stricken with the tummy-ache to end all tummy-aches. He falls into a sugar-induced coma and dreams of a land built on confectionery delight complete with dancing sweets, charming royalty, and the warm reception of a disenchanted child into an enchanting fold.
No, it’s not The Nutcracker, but Whipped Cream - choreographer Alexei Ratmansky’s resurrection of Vienna State Ballet’s 1924 Schlagobers (German for whipped cream). Performed by American Ballet Theatre, Whipped Cream shares more than a few thematic similarities with the well-known and well-loved ballet—a military fight scene, an icy Act I denouement, a child’s escape into surreality—but under the guardianship of Ratmansky and visual artist Mark Ryden, Whipped Cream mixes up its own personality, proving itself every bit as accessible as the holiday favorite.
The ballet is a spectacle, satisfying the appetite for extravagant whimsy whetted by the Kingdom of the Sweets. That said, Whipped Cream’s grandeur won’t put you at ease. Ryden injects the sets and costumes with his trademark visual hyperbole, the presence of which threatens a descent into fanciful nightmare at any moment. Each honeyed tone is tempered with something vaguely dark—I won’t soon forget the curtain rising on Act II to find our hero in a stark hospital room at the mercy of an alcoholic doctor in an unmistakably Ryden mascot head.
Ryden and Ratmansky are a serendipitous pairing. Both men are known for embracing tradition and ushering it, arm around shoulder, into the wonders of the current era. I’ll admit that it was odd at first to see turned in, Balanchine-esque bevels from the tutu-clad Princess Tea-Flower, but after a while it became clear that they had little to do with being out of place and everything to do with Ratmansky’s hand in the evolution of the art form.
Whipped Cream opened on Wednesday, March 15th at Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California. I attended the Saturday matinee and was glad to see the show a few days after opening with the company settled into the work. Gillian Murphy aced the flirty spirit of Princess Tea Flower and charmed the other sweets on the shelf into courtship. Princess Tea Flower pondered her choice of suitor with lovable, fainting dramatics before choosing Prince Coffee—danced by the ever-charismatic James Whiteside—as her mate. Soloist Joseph Gorak garnished the first act with his animated and technically pristine Prince Cocoa. He seemed to hang in the air like a chandelier in Ryden’s soaring rococo bakery set.
The Boy, danced by Daniil Simkin, spent most of the first indisposed but more than made up for his absence in the second. Simkin is an entertaining actor, his restraint keeping him far from caricature and in control of the audience’s funny bone. The show mines excitement from intricacy, which Simkin maneuvers with ease, but it was nice to see him get to show off his range with a series of big, physics-busting jumps in the finale. Sarah Lane’s airy and sprite-like Princess Praline was the perfect fit for his youthful exuberance and they danced together like two parts of the same body.
The most surprising ingredient in Whipped Cream was corps member Catherine Hurlin’s. mischievous mouthful Mademoiselle Marianne Chartreuse. It was Ratmansky the way it was meant to be danced, Hurlin’s mastery of his vocabulary allowing the nuance and humor of the choreography to reach its full potential. That’s part of why I love Ratmansky’s work: his utilization of corps dancers in principal roles as well as their usual large group numbers.
Whipped Cream let the corps dance—no posing or daisy waving here—and showcased the depth of Ballet Theatre’s roster. Coming off a year of several high-profile retirements, it’s encouraging to see the future looking so bright.
Whipped Cream is short and sweet, clocking in at ninety minutes with one intermission. The music by Richard Strauss is enjoyable but unobtrusive, almost sacrificing itself for the sake of the sugary tableau. Whipped Cream is a must see for art and ballet fans alike, as much a Ryden exhibition as a Ratmansky ballet. And though it’s been nearly one hundred years since its first staging, I think it’s safe to say that Whipped Cream is a bellwether for the future of modern story ballet.
Written by Dawson White