Mark Ryden
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'Whipped Cream' Review: A Glutton's Fantasia
Alexei Ratmansky partners with artist Mark Ryden to confect a deliciously sweet rendition of Heinrich KrÖller's 1924 ballet to a Richard Strauss score.
By Robert Greskovic - June 14, 2017

Wall Street Journal June 14, 2017
Sarah Lane and Daniil Simkin in Whipped Cream. Photo: Gene Schiavone.

Alexei Ratmansky's two-act "Whipped Cream"—part of American Ballet Theatre's current season at Lincoln Center, following its premiere in March in Costa Mesa, Calif.—has roots in "Schlagobers" (meaning "whipped cream"), a no longer seen ballet by Heinrich Kröller, named for its now little-known score by Richard Strauss, that had its debut in Vienna in 1924.

ABT's eye-filling and visually enchanting effort runs under 100 minutes with intermission. The lavish production has candy-colored settings and marvelously confected costumes by pop-surrealist artist Mark Ryden. Mr. Ratmansky, ABT artist in residence, reworked the original narrative, tweaking it somewhat from Strauss's to tell the story of a Viennese boy who, on the day celebrating his first communion, overeats whipped cream and finds himself ill and fantastically delirious. He ends up in a hospital from which he dreamily escapes into the realm of a Praline Princess, where he finds himself recovered and celebrated.

Act one follows the communicants—with adult dancers, albeit mostly short ones, playing these children with intermittent credibility—as they visit a deluxe sweet shop and gorge themselves. From the start, Mr. Ryden's designs aim to distinguish the action's children from its adults by having the latter performed by dancers costumed with outsize heads, like delicately painted bobblehead dolls.

After the young characters depart, with a central one, The Boy, carried off on stretcher, the stage is set for the shop's delicacies to come to life and animate the scene with often playful and fanciful dancing. In turn, we meet Princess Tea Flower, Prince Coffee, Prince Cocoa and Don Zucchero, as well as subsidiary characters of Marzipan, Sugarplum and Gingerbread.

Besides inventing classically felicitous moves (a recurring partnered configuration has the woman repeatedly spun, with her extended leg and arm evoking a stick candy's stripe), Mr. Ratmansky works to humanize these inanimate essences. So far, in the array of casts put on by ABT, only a few of the dancers in this scene provided much beyond clear dancing. The Prince Coffee of Cory Stearns proved the most individually flavored, as his palpable infatuation with the lithe and delicate Hee Seo as Princess Tea Flower notably infused his dancing and partnering to tell of an abiding flirtation.

The first act wraps up memorably as 16 women enter Mr. Ryden's scenic surround to evoke swirls of whipped cream spilling from a confectioner's bowl. Mr. Ratmansky's kaleidoscopically configured waltz presents these dancers as sprites embodying the ballet's air-filled title. In Mr. Ryden's inspired, sleek and simple white costumes, fitted with ponchos of gauzy fabric that float about them like dry-ice vapor, the corps de ballet chains and curls and amasses itself in responsive rapport with Strauss's stirring, sometimes staccato music.

At this point, however, it seems a missed bet that The Boy who disappeared early on isn't part of the fantastic scene to remind us of his plight. When, at the start of act two, he does reappear, in his hospital bed, we have to reacquaint ourselves with the ballet's storyline.

Mr. Ratmansky's use of a dozen women as dancing nurses brandishing hypodermic needles the size of bazookas gives the sickroom scene a wittily nightmarish touch. Eventually, scenes of a more dream-like and felicitous dimension transpire. A procession of droll characters attend the appearance of the narrative's main ballerina, Princess Praline, including a four-legged Snow Yak and a no-legged Worm Candy Man, all of which shows Mr. Ryden at his most inventive as Mr. Ratmansky gives this simple parade the impact of a coup de theatre.

Once a trio of liquors, enacted by dancing bottles of spirits in a near-slapstick interlude, has put the stern doctor and his sidekick nurses into inebriated stupors, The Boy finds himself clad in gold and happily recovered as the center of attention amid a glowing old-world city square. Mr. Ratmansky has generalized Strauss's original scenario here by doing away with any number of 1920s details, such as the leaflet distributing and rabble-rousing activities that Vienna's citizens would have recognized during the hardly easy-living times following WWI.

The finale and closing waltz of today's "Whipped Cream" become an ebullient showcase for The Boy as he joins in the general merriment amid wave upon wave of dancing by all the fantasy characters who have returned for the occasion. At select moments the teeming mass of characters stands back and clears the way for The Boy to circuit the stage with acrobatic jumps intermixed with dizzying turns.

For the season's penultimate week, ABT has programmed an eight-performance run of "Whipped Cream." It's a sweet prospect that could be sweeter still if the featured dancers take the opportunity to personalize their parts in this pretty confection.

– Mr. Greskovic writes about dance for the Journal.