“I cannot bear the tragedy of the present time. I want to create joy.” Thus Richard Strauss described his motivation in creating the scenario and score for his ballet, Schlagobers (Whipped Cream): A Merry Viennese Ballet in Two Acts, in 1924. But with Vienna still on its knees after the devastation of the First World War, the ballet was not instantly received as the blessing Strauss had hoped. Perhaps a fantasy of indulgent children and confections come to life in a time of food shortages and hyperinflation may have seemed superfluous to a public ravaged by loss. But Strauss knew that only through joy could the pain of loss be relieved, and that only through the innocent eyes of childhood could a new ideal of hope in the future be advanced.
Times may have changed, but today, as doubts and fears continue to dominate the political and cultural landscape, it is in this same spirit of joy that American Ballet Theatre’s Artist in Residence Alexei Ratmansky has ventured to revisit this monumental and buoyant work of art, currently running through July 1. And it is easy to see why. Ratmansky, arguably the most prolific creative force in contemporary ballet today, as well as among its most devoted historians, is always on the lookout for works that jog his creative impulse. Beyond its simple outline, Whipped Cream offers a gold mine of colorful characters with a rich irresistible score and the opportunity for a wild journey into fantasy that only the art of ballet can provide. In revisiting this wondrous tale, Ratmansky has chosen as his creative collaborator the uniquely masterful visual artist Mark Ryden. In his first foray into stage design, Ryden, a pop surrealist celebrated for his witty, mysterious and highly detailed canvases, brings his technical virtuosity and uniquely personal vision to the task, and in his stunning designs, adds to the innocence of childhood a note of menace and foreboding. As in all fables of childhood, Whipped Cream is not only a celebration of youthful dreams but also carries the cautionary tale of nightmares. Ratmansky’s Whipped Cream is more a reimagining than a recreation of the original, and it is from the ravishing music that the choreographer derives his greatest inspiration.
The ballet’s original choreography by Heinrich Kröller and designs by Ada Nigrin have long been forgotten, but the music has endured as a popular concert favorite in Europe. While refashioned by the composer into an orchestral suite of eight sections, premiered in New York in 1933, the full ballet score has remained largely unknown on this side of the Atlantic. More celebrated for his operas, Strauss was no stranger to ballet, having composed the music for The Legend of Joseph for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in 1914. No doubt Diaghilev’s visionary force was an inspiration for Strauss when he conceived the ballet after taking over as director of the Vienna State Opera in 1919. Strauss has written that after probing the darker corners of human psychology, and weary of the dark turn of mood and lack of humor in the German theater, he had come to the conclusion that an artist’s primary goal was to make people happy. Whipped Cream nevertheless uncannily resembles the more familiar The Nutcracker in its two-act structure, child protagonists and sugar fantasies. Though it is possible Strauss may have been aware of the Tchaikovsky work, that ballet was not known outside of Russia until five years after Whipped Cream had its Viennese premiere. Strauss’ rich and complex score follows faithfully the form of traditional ballet in its leitmotifs and lively divertissements, including its spectacular first act conclusion in a “white scene”—a defining feature of classical ballet since the 19th century, with its cadres of women, whether swans or sylphs, personifying the ballet’s theme in pure dance imagery—as the whipped cream of the title comes vividly to life, a direct parallel to the snow scene which closes the first act of The Nutcracker.
Flip through photos of the show below:
American Ballet Theatre’s production rivals the lavish original with a full company of dancers and over 150 costumes, numerous props and elaborately designed scenic elements fancifully embellished with Swarovski Crystals, proud lead supporter of Whipped Cream’s New York Premiere. The formidable task of translating Ryden’s remarkable designs into stage reality has been achieved through the work of ABT’s resident house magicians and production supervisors Camellia Koo (scenic) and Holly Hynes (costumes). Expressing his admiration, Ryden said simply, “Their expertise made up for my lack of experience. Going over every detail was very different from the solitude I am generally used to working in. Seeing everything successfully evolve from abstract idea to physical reality has been a fascinating experience.” And it will prove to be no less fascinating for the audience. Fantasy and humor abound in Ryden’s spectacular imagery. Bringing his images to life, adult dancers portray child characters, so Ryden has fashioned the adult characters with giant out-sized heads, playing delightfully with perspective and the gulf between child and adult as well as between imagination and reality.
Ratmansky’s entirely original choreography is supersized as well, and despite the character driven nature of the scenario, he delves into the classical vocabulary for his richest inspirations. His seemingly effortless command and deep respect for the language of ballet is a hallmark of all of his work, and his dancers are willing accomplices, thrilled to place their trust in is his vision and invention. The excitement in the studio is palpable. Principal Dancer Stella Abrera, who dances Princess Tea Flower, the heroine of the first act confectionery shop, says that while Ratmansky’s choreography is always challenging, his approach is constantly supportive, and she delights is in his passion for detail. “He is always so prepared—the atmosphere, the steps, everything,” she says. “It is so clear in the original dynamics and then he goes on to often offer five or six more things to go even deeper.” Soloist Craig Salstein, who dances Ladislav Slivovitz, one of the liquors in the second act, relishes sharing in Ratmansky’s rigor and versatile command of the technique. “The character is always there in the steps,” he says. Large or small scale, the musical and choreographic arc is lucid, his demonstrations physically articulate, and the dancers rise instinctively to Ratmansky’s “very high standards. It’s game day every day!” he adds.
Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie has characterized the mission of ABT as multi-faceted. ABT is not only a company committed to the presentation of definitive productions of the classics of the past, but it is also a laboratory for the classics of the future. In recapturing this forgotten work of musical and theatrical genius through the eyes and ears of today’s great artists, we can re-visit not only old Vienna but also harness the joy and humor needed to build our own future, in ballet and in our own lives. Whipped Cream can be regarded not merely as escape, but rather as liberation into the world of childhood hope and dreams.
James Sutton was formerly associate professor of dance at Tisch School of the Arts/NYU.
He is currently a teacher, choreographer, and associate editor at Ballet Review.