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American Ballet Theater's surreal 'Whipped Cream' at the Kennedy Center

Whipped Cream (Act I), American Ballet Theater (photo by Gene Schiavone)

American Ballet Theater's visit to the Kennedy Center this week put a spotlight on new works by its most promising choreographers. After a mixed program of short works, it was time for the local premiere of Alexei Ratmansky's revival of Richard Strauss's lost ballet score, Schlagobers, seen on Friday night at the Kennedy Center Opera House. Ratmansky has dubbed the work by the English translation of Whipped Cream, and like that confection it floats light and fluffy on the tongue, quickly melts away to nothing, and may rot your teeth and upset your stomach.

Strauss apparently had plans for a third phase of his career, after symphonic tone poems and operas, as a ballet composer. The extravagant expense of Schlagobers, so soon in the wake of World War I, led to the end of his brief tenure at the Vienna State Opera's ballet company. The score is a frothy delight of decadent waltzes and phantasmagorical effects, worth studying for both balletomanes and Strauss lovers, a work that deserves to be heard again. Ratmansky did everyone a favor by resurrecting it, but he has likely not made the best version of the work possible.

Other Reviews:

Sarah L. Kaufman, American Ballet Theatre’s ‘Whipped Cream’: A fleeting sugar high (Washington Post, February 2, 2018)

Alastair Macaulay, Review: Alexei Ratmansky’s Ballet ‘Whipped Cream’ Is a Candyland Triumph (New York Times, May 23, 2017)

---, Review: Ratmansky’s Confectionery Shop Also Serves Ballet Poetry (New York Times, March 16, 2017)
The staging goes big, full frilly and pink, with a panoply of hallucinogenic costumes for the sweets that come to life in the indigestion nightmares of a Boy who overindulges in the candy shop while celebrating his first communion. Dancers playing the children are normal-sized, while the dancers playing adults wear large heads, some even seeming lifted up higher by their footwear (sets and costumes by Mark Ryden). After a series of dessert divertissements, Act I ends with a scene for the corps de ballet in veiled white bodysuits fluttering through a surreal whipped cream landscape, many of them entering humorously on a slide -- in what seems like a spoof of the Kingdom of the Shades scene in La Bayadère.

Ratmansky's choreography is antic and jam-packed with cutesy action and movement, to a fault. Precious few delectable moments for dance materialize. In the first act there was a lovely pairing for the Princess Tea Flower of Hee Seo and Prince Coffee of Cory Stearns, accompanied by flute and violin solos as light as a feather, including a tender pas de deux. The two other solos in the divertissment, for Prince Cocoa and Don Zucchero (sugar), were more comic and not as memorable. The many crazy costumes -- from Dr. Seuss-like long-necked giraffalopes to delightful miniature bouncing cupcakes -- are an endless source of hilarity.

Act II takes a turn for the humorously nightmarish, as the Boy (an energetic Jonathan Klein) awakens in a hospital room, watched over by sinister eyes, right out of a Salvador Dalí painting. The appropriately carnival-time lesson on gluttony switches from sweets to liquor, as the alcoholic doctor takes nips from the bottle in his pocket. In his own set of hallucinations, three liquor bottles come to life for another series of comic dances. Rising dancer Cassandra Trenary's Princess Praline was pert and adorable as she welcomed the still-delusional Boy into her kingdom of sweets. Some more space in the choreography, some room to breathe, would have been welcome, and the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra should probably have had a couple more rehearsal slots to pull this complex score together with more polish. Conductor Ormsby Wilkins's frantic gestures did not help at times, seeming to create more confusion among the musicians.

The next dance event at the Kennedy Center Opera House is the Washington Ballet's presentation of Romeo and Juliet, in the choreography of John Cranko made for Stuttgart Ballet, February 14 to 18.

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