Last night at the Segerstrom Center in Orange County, ABT served up sweet after sweet in its world premiere of Alexei Ratmansky’s Whipped Cream - a full length ballet to Richard Strauss’s music and libretto entitled Schlagobers (1924), which is the German equivalent of whipped cream. The ballet's main character, a young boy celebrating his Confirmation, over-indulges at a sweet shop, gets sick, goes to a hospital, and has one crazy nightmare. Strauss’s creation did not initially receive much respect from critics who complained that the composer had demonstrated a “dreadful tendency toward triviality and kitsch.” His retort was reportedly, "I cannot bear the tragedy of the present time. I want to create joy. I need it.” Oh, my. How much times have not changed.
Whoever said that ballet doesn’t always have to be "a big, pink, puffy, glittery nightmare" forgot to mention just how much fun it is when ballet is exactly that. (Christopher Wheeldon has since eaten his words and has gone on to create some pretty big and impressive puffy stuff himself.) This Whipped Cream, swirled throughout Mark Ryden's brilliant surrealistic designs of pink, pink, and more pink, earns two Michelin stars, i.e., Exceptional cuisine, worth a detour – if your aim is to find a good dessert. If you’re looking for hanger steak and veggies, this may not be the plate for you.
Upon walking through the doors of the Segerstrom Center, Haglund spied The Candy Table. Six dollars got you all the skittles, gummies, and you-never-know-what-you’re-really-eating sugary things that you could pack into a Chinese food carton. “Fill it up. You don’t have to be able to close the lid either,” said the candy-pusher who was also tending bar. “Sure, you can take it into the ballet. Hey, you can get a lot more candy into that carton.” All of a sudden the skittles and gummies were bouncing all over the table and onto the floor as Haglund tried to pack down the contents of his carton.
Up one flight to the Orchestra level lobby and there was another Candy Table and more! A pink Mark Ryden designed tee-shirt?! Gimme gimme. Who could resist the same design in black? Not Haglund. He was now out $66 in souvenirs and candy and hadn’t yet made it to the bar for a drink. The 5-minute bell rang not a second too soon.
Act I opened on a scene so magical that Haglund’s eyes started to mist up. First candy, now a pony! Not a real pony – better than a real pony! Ryden’s imagination was brought to life – larger than life – with enormous character heads spectacularly detailed with curling eyelashes, wrinkly skin, and expressive features. The huge size of the character heads worn by all the adult figures and animals overwhelmed the size of the dancers portraying children and helped to convince us of their youth.
The door of the chapel opened and out scampered children dressed in white confirmation clothes who climbed in the cart behind the pony and ventured off to the pastry shop. Among the children was Daniil Simkin as The Boy whose appetite for sweets got the best of him. Pettifores of petit allegro ensued until The Boy pinked-out with a stomach ache and was carried off to the hospital with his friends following, not to be seen again until Act II.
Now we were in the pastry shop by ourselves (Who hasn't had that dream?) but not really alone. The cakes, candies, and all the goodies suddenly sprang to life. From within the shelves loaded with delights appeared Princess Tea Flower, Stella Abrera, accompanied by her tea leaf attendants April Giangeruso, Catherine Hurlin, Paulina Waski, and Katherine Williams. For those unfamiliar, flowering teas are handcrafted into rosette bundles by tying tea leaves around a flower. The rosette is then placed in a clear glass tea pot or tea cup. As hot water is poured over the bundle, the flower magically begins to bloom as the tea steeps. It’s tea theater, or to some, tea thea-tre.
Princess Tea Flower is a step-intensive petit allegro role of the type that we have come to know in Ratmansky’s ballets. In fact, most all of the dancing in Whipped Cream is in a similar vein. Stella is exceptionally adept at producing the quick, off-centered changes of direction and the unexpected darting quality that the choreographer favors. More than most, she can execute it all while maintaining an airy lightness in the quality of movement thanks to her soft, quiet feet. This she did last night to spectacular effect. In her tutu of green tea leaves with narrow pink bodice, Stella was the jasmine tea flower in full bubbly bloom.
Enter Prince Coffee, David Hallberg, in percolating pursuit of Princess Tea Flower. Their PdD, a light roast with overly complex herbal essences, was always interesting to watch but it was so packed with choreographic minutia that there was very little room for the dancers to contribute their own artistry. In fact, a sense of hyperactivity pervaded most of the dancing throughout the ballet. David’s own solo wasn’t of the type that allowed us to admire his lines and general elegant style, but it was a happy relief to see him not only dancing well but seeming to relish being in the midst of a lot of craziness.
Prince Coffee had some competition for Princess Tea Flower’s affections in the way of Joseph Gorak’s Prince Cocoa and Blaine Hoven’s Don Zucchero, but of course, he ultimately won her over. While Joe Gorak’s variation provided some of the most dazzling dancing of the evening, we may have had trouble appreciating Blaine’s work due to the unfortunate costume design that was rather like a big white tent shift dress.
Act II provided nearly all of the thin story line. The Boy lay sick in his enormous hospital bed on a darkened stage. A glowering eyeball (a Ryden specialty) staring down from above told us that his environment was dangerous. He was, however, rescued by a sweet, slightly nutty Princess Praline, Sarah Lane, who danced her little feet off in allegro so complex and fast that it required Theme and Variations type skills to get through.
Sarah and Daniil (The Boy) danced an enjoyable kinetic PdD with no visible partnering issues. It was all just as complex as the PdD of Princess Tea Flower and Prince Coffee and even had similar choreography. Simkin’s part in this ballet allowed for the most amount of character development which we thought he handled the best that we’ve ever seen from him. His final solo to music from the main waltz of Strauss’s composition was a high-value technical display of the type for which Simkin is best known. But it fit perfectly; after all, here was a boy happy to have recovered from his stomach ache and ready to start all over again indulging in sweets if given the chance.
The final scene of this ballet is to die for. It will send the sugared-up kids of all ages over the edge. Mark our word, the matinees of Whipped Cream at The Met this year are going to be pure pandemonium.
For all the diehard classical ballet fans out there, rest assured that Ratmansky didn’t forget that we all want to see a White Act in a full length ballet. Actually, there are a couple of White Act-type scenes in this ballet. In Act I of Whipped Cream, you may observe something that reminds you of the white Shades in La Bayadere coming down the ramp – if you can think of them slip-sliding on their butts. And in the Act II hospital scene, you may see something that reminds you of a group of fierce Wilis – although they might also remind you of Nurse Ratchet (“It’s medication time, everybody”). Gosh, already we’re giving away too many details.
As for similarities to The Nutcracker, there were very few times during the evening when that came to mind. One of the times was during the PdT of Marianne Chartreuse (Catherine Hurlin), Ladislav Slivovitz (Duncan Lyle), and Boris Wutki (Roman Zhurbin) which came across similar to the three Russian bumbling buffoons in Ratmansky’s Nutcracker. Perhaps the two men made us think of the Nutcracker buffoons because they have always acquitted themselves so well in those particular roles, too. The Marianne Chartreuse character seemed to be modeled off of the Princess Tea Flower character in her ditziness and coyness – too much so.
Last evening was a complete pleasure and we’re looking forward to this evening as well. Whipped Cream is whipped cream. It’s not caviar. Some weeks ago, we wrote that we were anticipating this ballet in the way we approached The Met Opera’s Hansel and Gretel which isn’t many people’s favorite opera, but it draws large audiences of both adults and children due to the incredible production values. Our approach turned out to be right on target. The fantastical production values of Whipped Cream make this ballet a special treat and one that as many children as possible should see. Surely, it will draw the New York art crowd interested in Mark Ryden’s unique work and maybe bring them back for other ballets as well. For a first foray into translating his art for the stage, this is a spectacular success. If the choreography simply goes along for the ride, that’s okay, too.
Bravo to the whole creative team and especially to the dancers for their outstanding performances all evening. The proverbial icing on the cake last night was the return of David Hallberg to the ABT stage after a long injury-induced absence. We're so happy to see him on stage again.
The H.H. Pump Bump Award, a torta zapato, is bestowed upon Mark Ryden who back in 1998 presented a solo art show in Pasadena that was called The Meat Show and featured, yeah, that. Almost 20 years later, he's back in town with his desserts.