We all got to be kids in the candy store last week, in an unusual stroke of good fortune, when Southern California audiences were treated to the World Premiere of Alexei Ratmansky’s enchanting new story ballet for American Ballet Theater Whipped Cream (March 15, 2017). Think Pink – with dancers popping out of canisters on the confectioner’s shop counter like Jacks-in-the-Boxes ready to dance their rambunctious tableaus. With a dash of merriment and a pinch of the surreal by designer Mark Ryden, we “oohed” and “aahed” on seeing the cartoonish gigantic head-masks on the adult characters, along with the adorable bigger than life-size fluffy animals stuffed with dancers who cajoled them to life.
First up, we see a huge huggable horse attended by a jaunty carriage driver, waiting outside the church for the children who have just made their first communion. Then, all dressed in white, the children burst into the sweet shop and begin their exuberant dance with each other, spinning tables and eating their favorite sweets, as the Chef whisks up a big bowl of – you guessed it – whipped cream. The Boy (remarkably danced with youthful panache by Daniil Simkin) gets sick from eating too much whipped cream, so the ambulance is called and the children leave with their pal on a stretcher. And then the real magic begins – with the delightful dancing of Princess Tea Flower and her Attendants, Prince Coffee and his Guards, Marzipan, Sugar Plum and Gingerbread Men, and Princess Praline’s Swirl Girls taking the stage in turn. We are reminded of fanciful fairy tales where the toys come to life while the adults are sleeping. The principal dancers for this Whipped Cream performance expertly executed Ratmansky’s virtuoso challenges in the classical ballet steps – the pas de deuxs, arabesques, fouettes, and pirouettes that we expect to see – yet somehow more beautifully choreographed with a twist of the modern here and there mixed into the sequences. Even the mini-moments are noteworthy, for example, Sugar spins himself dizzy as he propels around the others commanding them off the stage. A celebration of Ratmansky’s movement was danced with dazzling artistry by principals Sarah Lane (Princess Praline), Stella Abrera (Princess Tea Flower), and David Hallberg (Prince Coffee) who was welcomed back at this evening’s performance after being in rehabilitation for 3 years following an injury. The corps de ballet women, costumed in all white with a frothy peak on their headdresses, danced a swooshing “whipped cream” sequence that completed Act 1. This is not a “Nutcracker” on sugar but a ballet of pure joy, which was just what composer Richard Strauss intended. His score is expansive, intricate, and delightful with hints of his Rosenkavalier waltzes, expertly conducted by ABT Music Director Ormsby Wilkins, and played in sparkling style by the Pacific Symphony. Looking around at the opening night audience, full of children and adults alike, one could see wide-eyed wonder and delight at Mark Ryden’s magical set and costume designs. ABT’s scenic designer Camellia Koo, costume designer Holly Hynes, and lighting designer Brad Fields brought Ryden’s paintings to life with exemplary style.
As the playful pink disappears at the beginning of Act 2, we are startled by a big blinking “eye in the sky” overlooking the Boy’s gruesome hospital scene, complete with nurses ready to administer shots in oversized syringes. The whimsy of Act 1 becomes a surreal scene when The Boy is left all alone to cope with an intoxicated, menacing doctor. Yet, not to fear, Princess Praline rescues The Boy back to her magical kingdom peopled with cupcake children, gum-ball and cake ladies, chocolate chip men, a snowy yak and a slithering peppermint worm. This whimsical tale closed much as it began with the characters celebrating their luck amidst the joy of sheer dancing, while the pink polka-dotted giraffe with long flirty eyelashes toting a pink cane waved good-bye with a promise of “happily ever after”.