ABT Premieres Alexei Ratmansky's Whipped Cream at the Center
By Joseph Carman
Alexei Ratmansky, ballet's chosen choreographer of the 21st century, could well be regarded as family to the Segerstrom Center for the Arts audiences. Both his Firebird and Sleeping Beauty for American Ballet Theatre had their world premieres here, and his Nutcracker is now an annual ABT tradition at the Center. Next up: From March 15–19 on the Segerstrom Hall stage, ABT will present the world premiere of its newest delicious confection, a two-act story ballet titled Whipped Cream, about a boy who consumes too many sweets and conjures up a hallucination of sugary treats. The ballet is choreographed by Ratmansky with a score written for ballet by Richard Strauss, who also concocted the original libretto. The pop-surrealist artist Mark Ryden has rendered the set and costume designs with a keen sense of comedy combined with eeriness.
The idea for the ballet came to Ratmansky 23 years ago after hearing the colorful Strauss score with its lush orchestration. Ratmansky then created a short piece to part of the score for a choreography workshop. Also, he says with a chuckle, "desserts and whipped cream—I feel very passionate about that."
Years later, in a Japanese bookstore, the choreographer discovered a book of Ryden's paintings and images of sweet children juxtaposed with disquieting, sometimes threatening, figures. Ratmansky knew immediately that Ryden would be a perfect collaborator. "I needed a designer to create a wild world," says Ratmansky. "I came across these fascinating images—very detailed, beautifully done and disturbing and sinister—all of that hidden under saccharine, sweet images of children."
The story starts with Viennese children (performed by ABT dancers), who, after attending their first communion, ride from church in a big carriage to a pastry shop to celebrate. One of the boys shovels down too many desserts and falls into a delirium.
The end of the first act serves up a twist on the traditional "ballet blanc": a whipped cream corps de ballet of women dressed in white emerge from the mixing bowl and slide down a chute. When the boy ends up in the hospital, he dreams of a rescue from the doctor by Princess Praline, along with Prince Coffee, Princess Tea Flower and other fanciful, sugary characters. "To contrast with all the light and fluffy stuff, we have the dark, threatening scene of the boy in the hospital," says Ryden. The liqueurs seduce the doctor and nurses, who then become drunk. The ballet ends with a triumphant celebration of sweets.
"I am so very intrigued by this unique story and the approach Alexei and Mark are taking," says Kevin McKenzie, ABT's artistic director. "The combination of fantasy and surrealism will prove something dreamlike from both of them."
Ratmansky was very taken with the music. "It’s so very Strauss—so rich, so deep, so overwhelming," he says. "It's very symphonic. When I first moved to Canada from the Ukraine, I looked for stories for ballets and found this one."
After World War I, Strauss forged a strong relationship with Vienna. He set his opera Der Rosenkavalier there and a number of his other operas successfully premiered in Vienna. By 1919, Strauss had become joint director of the Vienna Opera. With Whipped Cream (Schlagobers in German), Strauss composed a valentine to the city and its rich culture that greatly influenced his life.
Strauss wanted to bolster the resident Vienna Opera ballet company, which struggled, as did much of Vienna, after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire. He engaged choreographer Heinrich Kröller from the Berlin State Opera to create the ballet. Strauss conducted the premiere in 1922, at the celebration of his 60th birthday. The ballet was not a success, partly owing to the fact that audiences were not ready for levity and fantasy while still enveloped in the shadows of the horrors of The Great War. But Strauss purposely wanted to eschew sorrow and guilt in favor of glee and laughter. "I cannot bear the tragedy of the present time," he declared. "I want to create joy."
For ABT's production, 11 costume shops are producing 200 costumes. Ratmansky clearly states that the ballet wouldn't have happened without Ryden. "I contacted Mark and he said, 'I've never done ballet or theater,' " he explains. "But since then, Mark led me into this journey. It all started to take shape."
Of course, ABT's Whipped Cream is whisked up with the ingenuity of Ratmansky. He has shown his dynamic emotional range from the dramatic (On the Dnieper) to the fantastical (The Firebird) to outrageously humorous (The Bright Stream). With its unparalleled cast of ABT dancers, Whipped Cream promises to deliver all that and more from the choreographer that ABT named as artist in residence in 2009. But most of all, it promises to serve up a heaping dollop of fun for everyone.
Joseph Carman writes frequently about dance for Center publications.
The Center's International Dance Series is made
With special underwriting from:
© 2017 Segerstrom Center for the Arts
All rights reserved