The Chicago Tribune
'Whipped Cream' at the Auditorium: This is ballet as sugar rush, with daffy furbies and dancing vodka – I fell for it
By LAUREN WARNECKE - APR 12, 2019
Once upon a time, a boy and his cronies go to celebrate their first holy communion at a candy shop in town. The boy gets a belly ache and falls ill, while the candy shop comes alive with magical marzipan, sugar plums and gingerbread cookies. A chef then whisks up a white world of the boy's favorite sweet treat: whipped cream.
This totally-not-normal premise is the first act of choreographer Alexei Ratmansky's "Whipped Cream." Performed by American Ballet Theatre (ABT), the ballet runs through Sunday at the Auditorium Theatre.
All the trappings of classical ballet are present in "Whipped Cream": a skinny plot anchored by variations and even a "white act." In the place of Wilis, swans, sylphs or Bayaderes, the women of ABT's corps de ballet don white head-to-toe unitards with gauzy ponchos and hoods which rise in stiff peaks atop their heads. It's hilarious, intensified by Ratmansky's demanding choreography pricking the stage with strong jabs of the feet, whirling tumbles to the floor and cyclone-like circles, the dancers tossed around as if whisked from above.
It's just one of maybe five or six scene changes in a ballet which outdoes itself with glitz and glam. Over-the-top costumes and sets by pop-surrealist Mark Ryden, Ratmansky's youthful choreography and a schmaltzy 1924 score by Richard Strauss – played by the extraordinary Chicago Philharmonic and not heard live in Chicago until yesterday – together create a flight of fancy that's hard not to love.
After a grand pas de deux in the candy shop pairing Princess Tea Flower (Stella Abrera) and Prince Coffee (Calvin Royal III), plus variations by a bumbling duo – Joseph Gorak as Prince Cocoa and Blaine Hoven as a sugar cube named Don Zucchero Ð vying for Princess Tea Flower's attention comes that white whipped scene. And from there, it gets weirder.
After intermission, the curtain opens on a dark stage with the boy, danced by Daniil Simkin, laying in a hospital bed. He's accosted by a giant-headed doctor (Alexei Agoudine) and an army of nurses, and things really go off the rails when the doctor self-medicates with a bottle of cordial.
By now, you know where this goes: the doctor's liquor comes to life as Mademoiselle Marianne Chartreuse, terrifically danced by Catherine Hurlin. She's joined by two off-brand bottles of vodka (Duncan Lyle and Marshall Whitely), who dance a flirtatious pas de trois before peer-pressuring the nurses into intoxication to allow the boy to escape. He's escorted to the magic candyland of his dreams to live happily ever after with Princess Praline – Oh, and is now a good time to mention that, in this world, there are weird furbies, and a snow yak, and a slithering salamander dressed like Where's Waldo gliding around the stage on a wheeled scooter? I'm pretty sure Ryden painted Abe Lincoln into the backdrop, too.
No corner is cut, and I'm sure "Whipped Cream" is as expensive as it looks. Some will make the argument that such a costly ballet shouldn't also be so ridiculous, but I'm not sure we'd be so willing to suspend disbelief were it not for the all-in outrageousness of every demented detail of this ballet. And if we simply disregard the irrational dreams of a child as nothing more than fluff, then we're discarding their capacity to teach us a lesson.
Let me be clear: "Whipped Cream" doesn't inspire meaningful philosophical or political discourse, but there's some conversation to be had around a plotline that ends with a mischievous, lactose-intolerant kid evading immorality and rising to rule his candy kingdom. Just as we don't condemn Charlie for drinking fizzy lifting juice and smudging Mr. Wonka's dome, maybe there's something hidden in here about coming of age or forgiveness that's worth a second look. Or maybe it's pure whimsy after all, but if that's the case, "Whipped Cream" is a gorgeous flight of fancy to behold for the brief hour and a half it occupies your imagination.
Still, it's hard to inject such a strange ballet with virtuosity. Boy wonder Simkin finds a way, gleefully bouncing off the stage in an extraordinary solo expressing wonder and delight at escaping that weird doctor and finding love with Princess Praline (danced by the sweet Sarah Lane) in a sugar-coated paradise.
I honestly loved this wacky world of "Whipped Cream," but wouldn't purport confidence that it will inspire other companies to add it to their repertoire. Strauss is, surprisingly, the weakest link here. His brand of heady romanticism just doesn't lend itself to dancing the whole way through. Variations trail off, leaving little opportunity for the dancers to enjoy applause or even hold a pose long enough for us to realize we should clap. You won't hum this music as you exit the theater, never mind hear it in Walgreens as you assemble your Easter baskets. Then again, time-tested ballet scores by Prokofiev and Stravinsky aren't always easy on the ears either, and Strauss' subtle use of dissonance adds a kind of raised eyebrow to the whole thing that serves Ryden's surreal settings and Ratmansky's zany characters. Had this been done to Delibes or even Tchaikovsky, "Whipped Cream" would have, more likely, been cloying.