Alexei Ratmansky’s ballet “Whipped Cream,” which is wrapping up a week-long run at American Ballet Theatre, is the very opposite of a cautionary tale. A young boy gorges on whipped cream, only to be felled by a belly ache. He is dragged off to the hospital, where he is tormented by a bulbous-headed doctor and hypodermic-wielding nurses. But then, lo and behold, a princess conveyed on a snow-yak (that’s right) and three dancing liquor bottles come to the rescue. The doctor and nurses get drunk, and the boy magically travels to an enchanted place filled with dancing, happy people, where he is promptly presented with all the whipped cream he cares to eat, freed of guilt or indigestion. Not only that, but he earns universal acclaim and a crown for his efforts. A kid’s idea of heaven.
In short, it is a ballet that elevates happiness and excess and an unspoken but related value: kindness. The denizens of “Whipped Cream’s” alternative universe—the princess and dancing liquors and candies—are kind and good to each other. They laugh, and hug, and encourage the boy, tell him he’s strong and capable and can do what he wants. Perhaps this is why, in the ballet’s final moments, as the huge cast gathers onstage for a final minuet, I feel a pang of sadness. This apparently fluffy, frolicsome story is really about something quite deep: the value of playfulness and joy. The pang is caused by the knowledge that such happiness and fellow-feeling are fleeting at best.
In this, Ratmansky echoes Strauss’s original idea for the ballet, which was created in 1924, a time of bleakness and peril between the world wars. Strauss’s stated aim was to offer escape and joy. In Ratmansky’s staging, the ballet’s message is expressed visually, through Mark Ryden’s lush, over-the-top designs and costumes; musically, through Richard Strauss’s layered, oozing, and sophisticated score; and in movement, through choreography of great intricacy and detail. The devil is in the details, in the way Strauss layers one melody upon the other, or spins a violin line into endless loops, until the listener begs for mercy through harmonic resolution. In the set and costumes’ tiny details: Flowers dangling off of tutus designed to look as if they were made out of tea leaves. An entire city, filled with towers and windows and clocks, and a buzzing bee that never stops moving. Strange creatures (like the snow yak) with flicking tails and blinking eyes.
Ratmansky, also a lover of intricacy and complication, pulls out all the stops. The audience’s attention is constantly drawn by details: the way the carriage driver pets his pony’s mane, provoking it to paw the ground with pleasure (a very Ashtonian moment); the way one of the little girls in the first scene can’t stop dancing, even when things go wrong; the way the nurses peer at the boy’s chamber pot, as if looking for portents of the future.
The choreography for “Whipped Cream,” too, is among Ratmansky’s most decorative, stylish, and rococo, so filled with flights of the imagination that they overwhelm the story (what little there is of it). After the boy is dragged off to the hospital, the story grinds to a halt for a series of whimsical dances. First, a battle in which a battalion of marzipan, sugarplum, and gingerbread soldiers face off, creating Petipa-like patterns across the stage. Then, a suite for four zany characters: Princess Tea Flower, Prince Coffee, Prince Cocoa, and Don Zucchero. Tea Flower is a tongue-in-cheek dancehall diva, all heightened, winking femininity, manifested through elaborate bows, shoulder rolls, and frissons that ripple through the body. She’s like Marilyn Monroe in Some Like it Hot: a knowing, loving, and refined caricature of dated femininity. Her swain, Prince Coffee, is a Valentino in stripes who dives off of a shelf into his attendants’ arms and then seduces the target of his affection with a pseudo-pantherine tango. Their pas de deux goes on, and on, and on, pushing, pulling, lifting, swooning, and diving, while four women and three men echo their movements. The fact that there is one extra woman allows for an added layer of complication—who will partner her? How does she fit in? The pas de deux is followed by two intricate solos for the Alice-in-Wonderland characters of Cocoa and Zucchero. (José Sebastian was especially good in Cocoa’s stylish number, full of finicky coupé turns, turns that melt into attitudes, and hops.)
Of the three casts I saw, Isabella Boylston and James Whiteside (Oct. 22 matinee), great friends in life and frequent partners onstage, captured the scene’s spirit most completely. Boylston was yielding and free in Whiteside’s arms, and effortlessly comfortable in the balances on pointe. Both musical dancers, they managed to keep the momentum going, creating a flow from beginning to end, no easy task. (Devon Teuscher and Cory Stearns, the night before, were more flirtatious and sweeter, but equally stylish.) This was also Whiteside’s return to the stage after a long and difficult injury and surgery. There was a generalized good feeling onstage. The dancing gelled. On opening night, the ballet had still felt not-quite-ready for prime time, which dragged down the comedy.
The Whipped Cream Waltz that follows begins with the dancers, enveloped in gauze and topped with meringue caps, swooping down a long slide to the stage. The large ensemble dance is another tribute to Petipa; the dancers, all women, form portals and circles and criss-crossing lines. The steps are sharp, with a strong downward push propelling the women into low attitude front balances. But the upper body is lush. The dancers gesture again and again, as if gathering whipped cream and guiding it toward their faces. More, more!
The story, what there is of it, resumes in act two, which begins in the boy’s sinister, surrealist hospital room, dominated by a large, blinking eye. The boy runs in place, as if caught in a bad dream. But no sooner have the doctor and nurses left the room, than a procession of fantastical animals arrives, led by a diminutive princess (Princess Praline) in stripes. “I’m a princess!” she declares in balletic mime, to which the boy responds with an exaggerated version of her gesture. The aw shucks feel is reminiscent of Ratmansky’s dance-of-the-teenagers in his ballet for the Mariinsky, “The Little Humpbacked Horse.”
What follows is another series of stylish dances, mostly quick and sharp. The two dance a waltz that builds to a spinning shoulder lift that seems to take both of them by surprise. “How strong you are!” she points out, and he is proud of his prowess. His solo starts with small jumps to coupé, then moves on to turns in which his leg goes in and out, then small jumps, bigger jumps and a loop around the room filled with increasingly complex jumps. It’s a feast for a bravura dancer, and though Jonathan Klein (in the corps) acquitted himself with honor, it must be said that Daniil Simkin, flown in to replace an injured dancer, sailed through the steps with the hunger of a small boy at a candy store. Simkin was made to dance this role, which combines virtuosity with showoffiness and kid-like glee.
Princess Praline’s solo, no less showy, has a strong Russian, Nutcracker-y flavor: sharp, quick piqués in attitude, beaten jumps, a backward-moving series of passés, closing with quick sissonnes and a few fouétté turns. On opening night Skylar Brandt was impeccable and full of charm; Breanne Granlund, a soloist débuting in the role, had more sharpness of attack and more spontaneity (but had trouble with the fouéttés).
But there’s more! Three dancers dressed as liquor bottles dance a trio simultaneously vaudevillian and classical, shaking their foam costumes to simulate laughter. The role of Mademoiselle Chartreuse was created for Catherine Hurlin, who has since become a principal dancer of enormous promise. She returned to the role with the same glee and glorious comic timing, leading her two hapless admirers (Ladislav Slivovitz and Boris Wutki) by the nose. The comic interlude is one of the ballet’s great charmers, and the dancers seem to revel in it, each according to his own personal style. Katherine Williams was a more innocent Chartreuse, and Zhong-Jing Fang a more exasperated one; Eric Tamm and João Menegussi let loose their inner melodramatics.
Through their machinations, these mischievous liqueurs liberate the boy to his glorious destiny among the happy denizens of candyland, who welcome him with open arms and bowls of cream. A double pas de deux leads into a happy tarantella for all, to which the boy responds with a spectacular series of bravura tricks, revoltades and split jumps and turning jumps in which the legs change position in the air. He is rewarded by being tossed up in to the air, like Sancho Panza in Don Q. Then comes that poignant minuet.
“Whipped Cream” was originally created in 2017, a comparatively easy, hopeful time. Its driving inspiration, for Ratmansky, was the art of Mark Ryden, which he felt could stand up to Strauss’s lavish score. Embedded in the ballet was a happy memory, of watching ballets at the State Kremlin Palace theater as a young ballet student and indulging in the whipped cream treats laid out at the theater café on the top floor during intermission. Once, he told me, he indulged so much that he could barely make it through the second act of “Giselle”—where he was in standing room—danced by none other than Vladimir Vasiliev and Ekaterina Maximova. No wonder the ballet is so full of joy.
Today, in 2022, we are in a vastly different place than just five years ago. It is a fraught time on so many fronts: pandemic, war, economic and political instability. Just last week, it was reported that Ratmansky, who before coming to New York was the director of the Bolshoi Ballet for five years, and who since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been a vocal critic, has had his name erased from his ballets for the Bolshoi and the Mariinsky. He’s not the only one; according to TASS, the Russian Culture Ministry has called for “all cultural figures who left the country in this difficult time,” who “abandoned Russia” and who “publicly opposed its rich culture,” will have their names removed from Russian cultural institutions.
Under the circumstances, a ballet about joy and kindness feels like an act of defiance, a peal of laughter in the darkness.