After his first Communion, a boy, celebrating in a European confectionery shop with his friends, eats so much whipped cream that he falls ill and has to be hospitalized. If that odd premise, for this season’s premiere from American Ballet Theatre, strikes you as an unlikely scenario, you’d be right, although, to be fair, just last week an Irish woman died after a salmonella outbreak at a Dublin Communion party.
Alexei Ratmansky found the idea for his two-act Whipped Cream in a ballet score by Richard Strauss, first performed in 1924 and more or less neglected ever since. He persuaded surrealist pop artist Mark Ryden (whose work inspired Lady Gaga’s meat dress) to design it for ABT, and stirred a mélange of familiar ballet tropes into a froth of flirtation, competition, and gluttony.
The dirty secret of this production is that Ryden’s décor, a visual feast, quite overmasters the good dancing. The Metropolitan Opera House’s tall stage asks a lot of a mere human form; even the best performers, less than six feet tall, look insignificant surrounded by huge set pieces, including one of Ryden’s iconic Snow Yaks, rendered as an enormous version of a cute, round-eyed stuffed toy you might find in a nursery. There’s also a huge Keane-eyed pink cherry doll, an etiolated pig, a large bee on a balcony, and, oddly, a small portrait of Lincoln, apparently one of Ryden’s recurring icons, hanging above the bee. The backdrops behind the dancers, including the confectionery and a grim hospital wall that sprouts a surrealist spread of images — mega-magnifications of bacteria and viruses — are so busy as to be distracting. A giant animated eye blinks and scans the patient’s room.
Whipped Cream is spring’s answer to the holiday excesses of The Nutcracker, without the magical transformation of the tree. Instead of snowflakes we get a corps of sixteen female dancers representing the eponymous dessert topping, sliding out of a large metal bowl and down a ramp in a procession that parodies the entrance of the Shades in La Bayadère. We get actual children playing cupcakes and petits fours. The cast I saw featured tiny Hee Seo as Princess Tea Flower; rangy Calvin Royal III as Prince Cocoa; and Christine Shevchenko, Alexandre Hammoudi, and Thomas Forster as three amorous bottles of liqueur — French, Polish, and Russian — conniving to inebriate the doctor and the nurses so the sick, hallucinating Boy can escape the hospital. Jeffrey Cirio, a recently appointed principal dancer, replaced injured Herman Cornejo as the Boy last Tuesday, whipping off a bunch of fouetté turns and winning the heart of Cassandra Trenary’s Princess Praline.
Several of the adult authority figures wear enormous sculptured heads: a chef, a doctor, a coachman, a priest. The Doctor, already practically stone-faced, falls into a drunken stupor, leading to freedom for the Boy, who joins a party in progress in the town’s central plaza, a classic coronation (seeming to substitute for the romance these fresh-faced revelers are probably too young to want), with a tall, wizardly Master of Ceremonies (Max Barker) on hand to crown the Boy and his Princess.
Europe between the First and Second World Wars did not know what to make of this trifle, but in 2017, Southern California has already hailed it, and New York will do so as well. When all the news is bad, we seek frivolous distraction. Composer Strauss himself declared that his duty as an artist was to entertain. He, Ryden, and Ratmansky have certainly managed that.
You’ll have to wait until June 26, when it reopens for another week at the Opera House, to catch the piece onstage; meanwhile, check out the drawings and paintings Ryden made to guide ABT’s scenographers and costumers, on display in a Chelsea art gallery through July 21. Or order the T-shirt he designed for the show, adorned with a heap of schlag, or the Whipped Cream sticker sheet, boasting images from the ballet, from porterhouseart.com.
American Ballet Theatre
Metropolitan Opera House
Broadway, between 64th and 65th streets
Through July 8
Mark Ryden: ‘The Art of Whipped Cream’
Paul Kasmin Gallery
515 West 27th Street
Through July 21