Be careful what you wish for. The Boy in Alexei Ratmansky’s Whipped Cream wishes for unlimited sweets; overfulfillment sends him to the hospital with sugar hallucinations. Ratmansky wished to re-create the 1924 two-act story ballet Schlagobers, using the original libretto and score by Richard Strauss. American Ballet Theatre gave his creation its world premiere on Wednesday, March 15, at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa California, and what the audience got was a wafer-thin story heaped with decorative icing.
The Boy (Daniil Simkin) and his friends have just received their First Communion, and how better to celebrate than with unbridled gluttony at Vienna’s finest pastry shop. The Chef (Alexei Agoudine) can’t keep the whipped cream away from the whisk-licking Boy, who gets toted out on a stretcher.
After hours, the spirits of the Konditorei come out to play. Princess Tea Flower (Stella Abrera) is their queen, chased by a lothario Prince Coffee (David Hallberg, in his first US performance following a two-year injury hiatus), suave Prince Cocoa (Joseph Gorak) and overeager Don Zucchero (Blaine Hoven). Marzipan Men, peppermint-stripe Sugar Plum Men and Gingerbread Men wage light warfare and make peace with the Coffee Guards and Tea Flower Attendants. A 16-woman corps tops off Act I with a whipped-cream waltz.
Act II finds the Boy in a fitful fever dream, thrashing in his hospital bed and subdued by a tippling doctor (Agoudine again) and a corps of nurses wielding giant hypodermic needles. The Doctor’s got some hallucinosis of his own, and envisions a slapstick battle of the sexes in which femme fatale Mademoiselle Marianne Chartreuse (Catherine Hurlin, costumed, oddly, as pink champagne) tames suitors Ladislav Slivovitz Vodka (Duncan Lyle) and Boris Wutki Plum Brandy (Roman Zhurbin).
Princess Praline (Sarah Lane) comes to the rescue, having recruited a baker’s dozen of fantastic beasts to spring the Boy from his gloom: the massively furry Snow Yak, Pink Yak and Long Neck Piggy, plus Parfait Man, magenta-bubble-clad Gumball Lady, the marvelous tail-flicking Worm Candy Man and a gaggle of Cupcake Children. (The drugs must have been really good.) All ends well in Praline’s pink principality, where an animatronic bee surveys gleeful dancing and the crowning of the Boy and Praline as the sweetest sweethearts in the land.
The ballet is indeed as fluffy as Schlag, comprising high-concept characters in spun-sugar divertissements – it’s the Land of the Sweets writ large, and veers close to being a children’s ballet. Actual children in the cupcake costumes adds a drizzle of treacle. Ratmansky rightly doesn’t try to make the ballet more than what it ever was: an indulgent distraction from the hard times of post–World War I Vienna. On the other hand, Whipped Cream is essentially eye candy. Ratmansky adds contemporary interest by tweaking the classical idiom, mixing bent arms into the lush port de bras, restraining extensions to quick flicks, and including expressive floor work.
Hallberg has some cobwebs to shake off, but the glowing affection between his Coffee and Abrera’s Tea Flower gave the first act much-needed grounding. Simkin’s impish gaiety perfectly suits the Boy, who even in the darkest depths of delirium is never more than a glucose molecule away from being restored to sangfroid; Simkin could finally cut loose in a double-manège finale (one of many endings-that-weren’t-endings necessitated by the high-octane coda music). Casting Sarah Lane as Praline was savvy matchmaking, as her flirtatious chemistry with Simkin made for delightful dancing.
What satisfies is the loads of batterie, so underutilized in new choreography and generously applied by the Bolshoi-trained Ratmansky. Gorak, Hoven and the cookie battalions deploy fusillades of sissones and brises volés in the first act, and Lane is a swirl of peppermint footwork in her Act II variation.
What the Southern California crowd seemed most excited about was the visual design by Mark Ryden, a Pop Surrealist who was based in Los Angeles for 35 years; he received a hero’s welcome at the curtain calls. (Ryden recently relocated to Portland, Oregon.) In Ryden’s airbrushed childhood-nightmare imagery, Ratmansky found the inspiration to re-mount Whipped Cream, a project on the choreographer’s wish list since he first heard Strauss’ darkly sparkling score.
The artist’s furry, big-eyed cartoon animals look like Margaret Keane girls after a fancy-dress paintball fight; they stare out from the pastry-shop’s boiseries, then come to oversize life in the dream parade. Prince Cocoa’s satin cape evokes molten chocolate, the ladies are crowned with macaron tiaras, and the assorted bonbons, frosted cookies and meringues are embellished to the last crumb. Less appealing are the rubbery liquor bottles and the whipped-cream corps, whose gossamer capes kept getting stuck on the stiff-peaked caps of their unitards.
A horse-drawn carriage conveys the young communicants to the pastry shop, where the princes and princesses emerge from labeled tins on the shelves. The hospital’s dyspeptic wallpaper is decorated with a delightfully creepy mix of blinking eyes, candies and bacteria. The multilayered painted backdrops are frothy confections spun from pink and gold, and Ryden’s staging is immensely clever, particularly for a first-time ballet designer. However, the Segerstrom doesn’t have enough depth for this production, so at times the dancing looked cramped; the Met, where Whipped Cream opens in May, won’t have that problem.
Most brilliant are the giant-headed Chef/Doctor and Priest (Regan Bryant), whose massive faces distort the senses and also force the scale, so that the adult dancers look pixieish in comparison. The costumes are essentially giant masks, and Agoundine and Bryant portray legible, amusing characters through physical acting.
Produced for a reported $3 million, Whipped Cream will likely return for a few seasons. Many viewers will be satisfied enough with the visual feast, but others will wish for something more substantial.