ABT’s brand new “Whipped Cream”, the latest supported collaboration with the adventuresome Segerstrom Center for the Arts, opened last week in Costa Mesa. The show is a bustling blockbuster tricked out with sets and costumes by pop surrealist Mark Ryden who has made a big splash in his first live theatrical assignment. The dancing comes via ABT’s resident choreographer, Alexei Ratmansky. Ratmansky has built much of his well-deserved reputation as a choreographer and dance historian by rummaging around in ballet’s attic. His recent work encompasses restorations of forgotten ballets and semi authentic revivals of both classical and neo classical hits.

group of dancers leaping towards a Baker character in a sweet shop
'Act I, Kids at the Confectioners' of ABT's Whipped Cream − Photo: Gene Schivaone

The original “Whipped Cream”, which premiered in 1924 as “Schlagobers” for the Vienna State Opera, died a humiliating public death. It was a dance fantasy at odds with the socially damaged landscape of post WWI Europe. They dismissed the dancing, the music (an unremarkable suite by Richard Strauss that has little of the magic of his tone poems, Rosenkavalier’s dance music, or other big orchestral works), the trivial theater of a boy’s adventures at a pastry shop, and the poor timing of a ballet totally unmoored from a desperate and destitute Europe. Strauss, who wrote both the music and libretto, had said he wanted to cheer everyone up. It turned out to have been a harder task than he imagined.

"... it offers everything you could want from the saccharine to the macabre"

With the help of an in vogue pop artist like Ryden and 3 million dollars-worth of production values, Ratmansky’s reconstituted “Schlagobers” looks poised, at least for the immediate future, to become a success. Filled with fine detail and a wealth of characters, it offers everything you could want from the saccharine to the macabre.  It’s a production more about performances than choreography and in that context the ABT dancers fill the stage with nonstop enthusiasm and all-out commitment. High on the list of dancing to remember were Danill Simkin with his energized, waggish  portrayal as the ballet’s main character, Sarah Lane as Princess Praline (she has a thing for the Simkin character), and especially Catherine Hurlin, who shines in the ballet’s second act with her portrayal of Mademoiselle Marianne Chartreuse. She poured a charming, natural stage presence and coquettish style into her role as the leader of a trio of “liquor bottles” that helps The Boy plot his escape.  Strauss’ thin book is not so much an actual story as an amalgam of situations and fixed characters. In the sanatorium scene, Simkin, as The Boy, convalesces from a serious bit of indigestion from eating too much whipped cream at the confectioner’s shop. While he recovers he reels among the horrors there: a swarm of nurses with huge syringes, an alcoholic doctor, and an immense hovering, glassy eyeball surveying the action.

ballerina held sideways by 3 male dancers, and 4 other female dancers hovering over
"Act I, Princess Tea Flower and Prince Coffee" of ABT's Whipped Cream − Photo: Matt Masin

The biggest ensemble, Ratmansky’s whipped cream dancers, was also the biggest disappointment. Suited up in undecorated white body suits the diversion’s 16 women lacked the rich storybook costuming of the rest of the cast. Ratmansky fields them on stage as an almost static phalanx of dancers with little coming and going, or patterned movement. Where you might have hoped for something with the sweep of a Waltz of the Snowflakes, these whipped cream girls meandered in a choreographic world with little detail or purpose.

"The show is a bustling blockbuster tricked out with sets and costumes by pop surrealist Mark Ryden."

Ryden’s designs, which dominate this production, received enthusiastic applause throughout the evening. The last twenty minutes of the production is a dizzying apotheosis of dancing that never quits. Bringing back the cast of fantasy characters from the opening scene at the confectioner’s shop, Ratmansky turns his Marzipan Men, Swirl Girls, Gingerbread Men, and Prince Coffee with his guards loose for one more romp as part of a final coronation for Princess Praline. It’s all a sweet bit of business that makes good on Strauss’ original quest.

(The music for all performances was conducted by David LaMarche with musicians of the Pacific Symphony.)

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