Is it a cartoon, a surreal nightmare, or a frothy excuse for a balletic sugar-high in fabulously inventive costumes? In its Chicago premiere, running April 11-14 at the Auditorium Theatre, American Ballet Theatre's “Whipped Cream,” is a mixed confection of visual spectacle, first rate dancing, and choreography at cross-purposes with its music and pencil-thin libretto.
ABT resident chroreographer Alexei Ratmansky’s treatment of the original Richard Strauss 1924 libretto is mostly standard ballet vocabulary that barely skims the surface of Strauss's music with a silly, insubstantial story.
On the one hand, artist Mark Ryder’s lavishly whimsical sets and costumes promise a magical journey into the fantasy land of childhood, where confections come to life in the enchanted sweet shop of your dreams. Adding to the sense of fun are Ryder’s marvelous giant sculpted heads worn by the adult characters of Priest, Chef, Coachman and Doctor, rendering them as cartoon-like caricatures in both their appearance and movement.
But Strauss’s very grown-up score, performed live by the always excellent Chicago Philharmonic, told a contrasting story of drama and romance in long, sonorous passages. It’s as if Strauss, in his treatment of his own libretto, couldn’t decide between the frolic of a Nutcracker-like story and the contemplative moodiness of his symphonic tone poems. Something as playful as his music for “Til Eulenspiegel” would have been more fitting.
It’s tempting to label Ratmansky’s 2017 remake of German choreographer Heinrich Kröller’s 1924 Vienna State Opera production as satire, but story treatment is all over the map, beginning with the fairy-tale opening of life-size horse and bigger than life coachman.
The entrance of a gaggle of would-be children, portrayed by clearly adult dancers fails to induce voluntary suspension of disbelief, especially of the men-as-boys. Dressed in muscle-revealing white satin shorts and waistcoats, their boyish enthusiasm for dessert, while deftly showing off the dancers’ technique, is merely mawkish, neither childlike nor believable, and doesn’t make it over the finish line to either satire or humor.
Are these teen-agers or seven-year-olds? Hard to say, especially given the lead Boy’s infatuation with Princess Praline and their clearly romantic, very grown-up Act II pas de deux.
The women fair slightly better in their portrayal of girlish innocence, a role which ballerinas have been universally groomed to fill throughout ballet history. The oversize heads of the adult characters may be designed to create the illusion of the towering dominance of adults over small children, but the choreography betrays the would-be children with movement that is anything but child-like.
The obvious Act II lampoon of medical practice with a not quite madcap corps de ballet of nurses who wield giant hypodermic needles, and the wizened doctor who inexplicably drinks on the job lead us back into the realm of satire, but only momentarily.
Add to the mix the random appearance of three dancing liquor bottles, a hospital happy hour, a cyclorama of surreal eyeballs, and several out-of-this world abstracted backdrops, and what could be a harebrained unravelling simply becomes yet another round of dance variations, with no real story consequences.
A hint of parody could go a long way toward uniting the Act I grocery list of candies-come-to-life with the spooky surrealism of Act II. The difference between caricature and parody may be subtle, but here, the self-conscious attempt at the former (mere exaggeration for comic effect) and the absence of the latter (pointedly-drawn behaviors calculated to ridicule), are crucial factors that contribute to story-telling confusion.
Reminiscent of Maurice Sendak’s illustrations for his book, “In The Night Kitchen,” a nightmare, to be sure, “Whipped Cream,” would be difficult for many children to track or engage in. Neither does it sustain the adult need for thematic development or a story structure with something real at stake at the center of it. Even the silliest excuses for a story need grounding in believable stakes, but the stakes in “Whipped Cream” are so contrived, and developed choreographically with so little real need on the characters’ parts, as to leave the audience not caring what happens to them. The question then becomes, are the wonderful dancing and brilliant sets and costumes enough?
The one exception to this is the Act I finale a legitimately gorgeous corps de ballet conceptualization of whipped cream, and it achieves what one would wish the entire production had aimed for, namely movement that serves the imagination of the story.
In the tradition of the 19th-century so-called “white ballets” of “Swan Lake,” “Giselle,” and the early 20th-century “Les Sylphides,” this utterly mesmerizing sequence goes a long way toward forgiving the monotony of what has gone before it.
To begin the scene, the baker stirs the ingredients in his bowl. The scene quickly transforms into the swirling fog environment of a gigantic bowl. Sixteen egg-whites (read ballerinas) in gauzy white gowns, capes and skull caps with a suggestive egg-white peak at the top, slide, one at a time, down the trajectory of the baker’s now gigantic spoon (read slide) into the fog (read batter) of the stage floor (bowl) and into the mix where their movement suggests the stirring by the baker’s unseen spoon. This actually looks like whipped cream! Hooray!
With the Chicago performances of “Whipped Cream,” American Ballet Theatre begins a four-year partnership with the Auditorium Theatre. Founded in 1939 by Lucia Chase and Oliver Smith, ABT has been long-revered as one of world’s premiere custodians of the classical ballet canon. The company also has a history of having featured many of the world’s great 20th-century ballet pioneers, including Antony Tudor, George Balanchine, Leonid Massine, Michael Fokine, Jerome Robbins, Kurt Jooss, Frederick Ashton, Twyla Tharp and Agnes DeMille, among many other dance luminaries. With “Whipped Cream” as a modest appetizer, we hope Chicago audiences can look forward to a sumptuous buffet to come.
American Ballet Theatre presents “Whipped Cream” April 11-14 at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E Ida B. Wells Drive; tickets are $44-$150 at 312-341-2300 and www.auditoriumtheatre.org, or by clicking the event page below.