On Whipped Cream at American Ballet Theatre.
The story is almost too sweet to be savored. In the early 1920s, Richard Strauss wrote an extravagant ballet to mark his sixtieth birthday. Engaging the full resources of the Vienna State Opera, this “billionaire’s ballet,” called Schlagobers or “whipped cream,” was meant to reverse the fortunes of the opera house, where he was the co-director, and offer a sumptuous escape from the austerity measures of post-war Vienna. But faced with such abundance, the hungry audiences of Austro-Hungary did not bite. Another confection famously went on to take its place on the plate as the beloved ballet of the hungry billions.
There are more than a few sweet similarities between Schlagobers and The Nutcracker. Both have Divertissements of dancing chocolates, coffees, and teas. Even though The Nutcracker, with its endless delights beginning with its sublime score, cracked the nut of a ballet for children, it was not performed in the West until some five years after the Vienna premiere of Schlagobers on May 9, 1924.
Yet Tchaikovsky’s creation—made even more famous through Balanchine’s New York City Ballet adaptation—is now Strauss’s inevitable comparison. Performed next door to the home of City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre’s giddy new production of Whipped Cream is both an homage to that Christmastime spectacle and a cream pie to the face of wholesome family entertainment. If NYCB'’s Nutcracker is a ballet for the ages, ABT’s Whipped Cream is a ballet for our current age of punishing extremes.
With choreography by Alexei Ratmansky, Ballet Theatre’s artist-in-residence, and sets and costumes by the painter Mark Ryden, Whipped Cream stays true to the plot of Schlagobers, in which a boy eats too much whipped cream after his First Communion. But this new production, which premiered in 2017 and has returned to Lincoln Center for the second time, slathers on the froth in a sickly coating of contemporary corn syrup.
In many ways the ballet now belongs to its new designer. A West Coast pop artist, Ryden traffics in a popsicle aesthetic that mixes furry fandom, steampunk collage, and Japanese kawaii, or “cute,” culture. In Whipped Cream, he maniacally translates this sticky palette to a ballet of overindulgence. His set design tempts the senses like a Good Humor truck on an express ride to a very bad place. Towering Furby-like creatures abound, ably danced by company members, who should get hazard pay for performing in such giant costumes. Since this is a story ostensibly featuring children, the grown-up dancers are also scaled down by being surrounded by figures with enormous costume heads (one of which nearly tipped off a dancer’s shoulders during the evening performance I attended).
Much of Ryden’s artistic iconography has been translated verbatim to the Ballet Theatre stage, with little loss of strange effect. This is why even an image of Abraham Lincoln, from Ryden’s series The Meat Show, peers out from an upper story window of what is meant to be a Viennese street. Furry yaks and oversized bees make multiple appearances, as do the single all-seeing eye and other quasi-Masonic symbols. But it’s not all children and candies dancing in the sweets shop or up in the creamy clouds. In one scene, the overserved Boy lands in the hospital bed of a drunk doctor with a bevy of sadistic nurses, each of whom injects the Boy with oversized hypodermic needles.
Paired with Ryden’s sugary costumes, Ratmansky’s choreography distinguishes its various dancing treats. An ensemble of “Whipped Cream” dancers twirl into a diaphanous airy mixture. Prince Cocoa (Joseph Gorak, in my evening) comes off as haughty and aristocratic, while Don Zucchero (Arron Scott) plays his role flat-footed and dim. Prince Coffee (Thomas Forster) displays upstanding chivalry, while Princess Tea Flower, danced in my production by the sparkling Devon Teuscher, who took the cake, displays signs of caffeinated energy mixed with occasional weariness. A whimsical trio of liquors, led by Mademoiselle Marianne Chartreuse (Katherine Williams), also deliver plenty of the adult treats, toppling over the tippling nurses as these dancing bottles saunter on to the next party.
This rich serving of Whipped Cream can both satisfy and delight. As the lights went up on the opening scene of a cartoonish priest and oversized carriage driver—not to mention a white horse danced by two performers—my nine-year-old seatmate whispered, “I would never miss this.” For those young balletomanes who have seen it all, the phantasmagoria of Whipped Cream offers something new.
Nevertheless, for all of its family fun, the two of us agreed that the juvenile characters here were the least satisfying aspects of the show. Unlike The Nutcracker, in which real children are transformed into adults onstage and then wake up in Christmas Day apotheosis, “The Boy” of Whipped Cream (Jonathan Klein) is merely adult camp. Here is a character with hairy legs in knickers who merely transforms into something like the golden star of A Chorus Line. A show all about saccharine surfaces would taste even sweeter with some genuine depth of flavor. In this adult fancy, it still wouldn’t hurt to sprinkle in some genuine childhood innocence.