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In This Ballet, a Sweetly Disturbing Confection From Alexei Ratmansky
By Roslyn Sulcas - March 10, 2017

Whipped Cream Backdrop image

A Viennese pastry shop, dancing sweets, a little boy who overindulges and a revolution by the lower pastry orders. An almost unknown Richard Strauss score. Decor and costumes by the pop-surrealist artist Mark Ryden. And a great title: "'Whipped Cream!' It's really wonderful," Alexei Ratmansky said of his full-length work for American Ballet Theater after a long day of rehearsal last week.

Mr. Ratmansky, who is 48 and grew up in Ukraine, is the artist in residence at Ballet Theater, and a fluent creator of ballets of all kinds. He has made pure-dance pieces, full-length narrative works and ballets that joyfully mix the comic and the classical. He is fascinated by ballet history and has shown a particular love for reworking forgotten Soviet gems ("The Bright Stream," "Flames of Paris") and for painstakingly remaking 19th-century classical ballets ("Paquita," "Swan Lake," "The Sleeping Beauty") to reflect their original choreographic intentions.

"Whipped Cream" falls into the "lost historical gems" category. And its premiere on Wednesday, March 15, at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, Calif., will have extra allure with the return of the principal dancer David Hallberg, after a two-and-a-half-year absence. Despite its Strauss score – one of only two ballets that the composer created (the other was "The Legend of Joseph," in 1914) – it is barely known, even to balletomanes.

Whipped Cream Character Image"I had no thought of trying to find out about the original or making this a research project," Mr. Ratmansky said, noting that there was no detailed account of the choreography by Heinrich Kršller, a ballet master who Strauss brought to the Vienna State Opera during his 1919-1924 tenure as co-director. "Mainly, the existence of a ballet score by Strauss, which hadn't been used, really excited me. The story is almost nothing; it's not exactly Tolstoy. It's about a little boy who eats too many sweet things, ends up in hospital and has nightmares that lead him into a fantasy world. But the music is wonderful, rich waves of sound, 10 things going on at once."

"Whipped Cream" – "Schlagobers" at its June 1924 premiere – was a resounding failure when it was created, said Wayne Heisler, the author of "The Ballet Collaborations of Richard Strauss." "Vienna was in a time of economic crisis, and the ballet cost a fortune and was seen as frivolous," Mr. Heisler said. "The score is, in some ways, a great one, Strauss's masterpiece of high and low art. It's really honest in that the spectacular aspect of it is not framed as high art or something transcendent."

Mr. Ratmansky discovered the music by chance in the early 1990s, when he spotted a CD on a trip to Japan soon after he and his wife, Tatiana Kilivniuk, had left Kiev to join the Winnipeg Ballet. "At the time, food was scarce in the Ukraine, you could buy nothing, and suddenly there was all this stuff," he said. "Tatiana loves whipped cream and would run to the stores to buy those cans you can squirt. After I found the music, I did a little extract for a choreography workshop where I was the whipped cream and she was a little boy, eating it."

The music stayed in the back of Mr. Ratmansky's mind, and a few years ago he began to discuss the project with Benjamin Millepied, at the time the director of the Paris Opera Ballet. "I felt very strongly that I needed a really powerful design element, because it's a fantasy land that has to become a very specific world onstage," Mr. Ratmansky said. "Benjamin and I had a lot of ideas, but we didn't find the designer that both of us felt was it."

They abandoned the idea. Mr. Ratmansky, who had decided that Mr. Ryden's strange, surreal melange of kitsch and gore (his work inspired Lady Gaga's famous meat dress) would be perfect, took the project to Kevin McKenzie, the artistic director of Ballet Theater, who had been interested in co-producing the ballet. "I was amazed there was a ballet by Strauss that I didn't know," Mr. McKenzie said.

Mr. McKenzie added that for logistical and financial reasons, Ballet Theater is often unable to take on ambitious and expensive projects. "Then other people jump on them," he said. "The ingredients for this were so good that I was determined to make it work." (The budget for "Whipped Cream," Mr. McKenzie said, is around $3 million.)

"Whipped Cream" is Mr. Ryden's first theatrical undertaking. In a telephone interview from his home in Portland, Ore., he said the experience of creating its costumes and decor had been a huge creative departure. "I am used to working in isolation and having complete control," he said. "I like to create everything with my own hands, but it was a real joy to work with a group."

He looked at some photographs from the original production but tried not to be overly influenced by the early designs. Instead, he wanted to incorporate "the 1920s aesthetic of a Viennese pastry shop in a very general way, and then give it a more modern, surrealist edge," he said. "One of the things I really like about the whole production is the contrast between sweet and disturbing – maybe even frightening – elements."

Whipped Cream Character Image

Mr. Ratmansky said that the yearlong process of collaboration with Mr. Ryden was not always easy but that there was a lot of respect. "The meeting of serious painting and the ballet stage is a difficult one," he said, "and I still don't know how it will balance. But in Mark's designs, I find a parallel to my own approach; the use of a classical, historical technique to say something different."

Mr. Ryden's fantastical designs, he added, had been a great help to him in creating the piece. "The score is wonderful, and there are amazing waltzes, gallops, polkas and a beautiful violin adagio, but it's challenging because not all of it is danceable," he said. "Parts are very symphonic, and when the music is saying something that I perhaps can't translate into movement, we have these huge heads and amazing backdrops to balance things."

A week before the company left for California, Mr. Ratmansky still had a few scenes to choreograph. Working intently with his large cast in the Ballet Theater studios on lower Broadway, he frequently consulted a small notebook as he gave detailed instructions about gesture and motivation, shaping the first minutes of Act 2, in which the little boy discovers the magical characters in a fantasy land of sweets. (The scenario is reminiscent of "The Nutcracker," although Strauss was unlikely to have seen the ballet when he wrote "Whipped Cream.")

"With Alexei, it's always a question of committing yourself utterly to the movement," Mr. Hallberg, who has the role of Prince Coffee, said in a break between rehearsals. "He wants you to always be totally on top of and attacking the movement, emphasizing how you are in the air, how you are on the ground." It was a relief, he added, to be making a comeback in a new role. "There is a kind of freedom in creating something, not living up to something," he said.

"It's super fun to dance," said Stella Abrera, who Mr. Hallberg partners as Princess Tea Flower. "Kind of over the top, grandiose, but never campy. She believes in that over-the-topness."

So does Mr. Ratmansky. "It's Strauss at his craziest, amusing his listeners and hoping to change the mood of depressed, postwar Vienna," he said. "He said, "My duty as an artist is to entertain.' I believe that, too."