Lick the Bowl

By Leigh Witchel

Alexei Ratmansky’s recipe for his newest ballet, “Whipped Cream,” was simple, if dense. Take Mark Ryden’s designs, toss as many steps as you can into them, add two tabs of acid and beat until frothy. The results, if you didn’t overdose, were a pretty wild trip.

“Whipped Cream” first saw the stage in 1924 at the Vienna State Opera as “Schlagobers.” Richard Strauss wrote the score and planned the production to revive the Opera’s ballet company, which was suffering post-WWI. The work was criticized for not being dansante enough, and the production caught flak as being too extravagant in an era of runaway inflation.

For his revival, Ratmansky kept Strauss’ libretto. It was the barest excuse of a plot: Act 1 took place in a sweet shop, where a group of children went after their confirmations at church.
Several characters, including a priest and the shop’s proprietor, were brought to life as puppets by dancers sporting enormous heads with life-like detail and expression. But an immediate tummy ache for one of the boys left the coast clear for a group of confectioneries to come out and dance.

After the boy was carried off on a stretcher and the shop abandoned, an army of cookies and candy – three platoons of four soldiers each as Marzipan, Sugarplum and Gingerbread – arrived to do a ton of boy-oh-boy male dancing, followed by an extended divertissement.

A man in mocha stripes appeared first as Prince Coffee. Princess Tea Flower emerged from her tin and was soon joined by four leafy attendants. Her variation – huge ronds de jambes punctuated by a pitched stance forward – sketched her like the Lilac Fairy, if she had been danced by the Italian ballerina in “Gala Performance.” Coffee was fatuously smitten with Tea, and they danced the complicated curlicues of partnering that Ratmansky loves.

Stella Abrera and David Hallberg in “Whipped Cream.” Photo: © Gene Schiavone.

Two other men, Prince Cocoa and puffy white Don Zucchero, arrived. There were variations and rivalries, but the quartet disappeared back into their containers as the proprietor returned.
This Dance of the Common Kitchen Staples was a long slog that didn’t feel dancey. Some of that was Ratmansky, who packed the phrases as full as the boy’s overstuffed belly. A lot of it was Strauss. There’s a reason he didn’t do many ballets; the first act score felt more like a tone poem, sonorous but not melodic.

Until the finale. For all the density, in the first act Ratmansky stuck religiously to the structure and form of a classical ballet, yet without the dance coming to life.  But suddenly Strauss hit a tune and Ratmansky came up with a signature lunatic spoof of the 19th century repertory he adores.

In some verdant glade, Ratmansky readied the obligatory ballet blanc, much like the one in “La Bayadère.” There were the usual ladies in white, swathed in tulle. There was a ramp, just as in the Shades scene. But Ratmansky is ballet’s Dennis the Menace, so instead of dancing with hypnotic decorousness, the women slid down the ramp. The Kingdom of The Shades, moved to a playground.

The women were supposed to be whipped cream peaks, all in white leotards and tights – and topped with a kewpie doll tip. This was one of Ryden’s few unfortunate designs: the women looked less like whipped cream and more like condoms. Either way, the dance beat itself into a finale.

Act 2 opened in an infirmary backed by a drop cloth of thousands of surveying eyes: Hieronymus Bosch meets “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.” The hospital was overseen by another hyperencephalic adult, this time a doctor. Ratmansky used these characters judiciously; like the offstage wa-wa-wa voices in a Peanuts cartoon, they were the children’s perceptions of adult authority.

Jeffrey Cirio and Alexei Agoudine in “Whipped Cream.” Photo: © Gene Schiavone.

The young boy woke up in this frightening sickroom and tried to escape, but he was subdued by the doctor and his attendants, a corps de ballet of nurses. In the Act 1 finale, Ratmansky tweaked the conventions of the ballet blanc. In this neatly patterned corps of nurses, stalking and drifting with enormous metal syringes, he followed those conventions with logical absurdity.  Ryden and Ratmansky’s mischief became genius.

Three spirits – literally – arrived: chartreuse, slivovitz and vodka. The action caromed back and forth between their drunken antics, the infirmary and a procession of sweets and toys – pink fun-fur yaks and an immense candy worm – the défilé was Ryden’s tour de force of crazy. Ratmansky was smart enough to just array the creatures onstage and let us look at them.

This land of sweets came with a princess, natch. Ratmansky has his own tropes about royalty. As in “The Little Humpbacked Horse,” he sees princes and princesses not as exemplars of dignity, but almost feral: goofy children that are innocent of etiquette. The Princess Praline was one of these. If there is a mime equivalent to vocal fry, the princess had it, wiggling her hips as she announced who she was. The boy had found his soulmate, and after their duet she gave him a quick kiss.

Ratmansky cast pyrotechnicians (Daniil Simkin or Jeffrey Cirio in the casts I saw) as the boy, and gave them plenty to keep them occupied. The variation for the princess (Sarah Lane or Misty Copeland) was so fast that Copeland had to cut steps short to get it all in.

Scene from “Whipped Cream.” Photo: © Gene Schiavone.

After a vigorous finale, the doctor and nurses reappeared and dragged the boy back to the infirmary. But the blessed spirits came in bearing martini glasses, and pretty soon, everyone was smashed and passed out. The spirits dressed the boy in gold and spirited him to Praline’s princessipality.

Ratmansky is not one to edit. His “Namouna” seems to have at least three finales, and there was one apotheosis after another here as well. The mix of village square and sugary kingdom was a mashup of Act 2 of “The Nutcracker” and Act 3 of “Coppélia,” liberally sprinkled with angel dust.

Everyone returned for the danse générale. The boy and the princess danced, the creamy condoms returned, the dancing confections from Act 1 came back for a mazurka. The real ending finally arrived, a huge galop for the full cast.  The group threw the boy in the air and crowned him king. It was as energized and exhausting as a sugar high after eating a bag and a half of candy.

“Whipped Cream” was so dense that the specific dancers didn’t seem to matter all that much – yet.  Of two casts; either one had much the same effect in the barrage of steps. As with much of Ratmansky, that could change in six months as the dancers discover more in the ballet.

Ryden’s designs were the show, and if they stole it, they still worked. If the ballet has any message, it’s as child-like as the designs: In the final section, the chef reappears with a huge bowl of whipped cream, and tells the boy to lick the bowl and gorge – even after his last episode sent him to the hospital. Throw caution to the winds, and whether it’s drink, drugs or sweets, give in to your indulgences.

In this corner of Ratmanskyland, more is more.

copyright © 2017 by Leigh Witchel
“Whipped Cream” – American Ballet Theatre
Metropolitan Opera House, New York, NY
May 22, 2017
June 26, 2017

Cover: Sarah Lane and Daniil Simkin in “Whipped Cream.” Photo: © Gene Schiavone.

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