The Nunes memo, election tampering by Russia, the refugee crisis, mass shootings, harassment and molestation, Olympic doping, North Korean nukes, climate change, fascism, nationalism, racism, terrorism…
We interrupt our regularly scheduled dread for Alexei Ratmansky’s Whipped Cream, a ballet about pastries.
The disruption will strike some as tasteless, evidence of an almost nihilistic obliviousness to the world’s woes and dangers. If all art were about desserts, I’d agree. But it’s not, and some art should be—especially when it’s done with the surrealistic flair of American Ballet Theatre’s frothy fantasia.
Moreover, a case can be made that Whipped Cream is relevant, after all, amid the contentiousness and violence dripping from today’s headlines. Yes, it’s a family ballet. Enjoy it, by all means, for its eye-popping visuals and seemingly innocuous story line. Boy, upon receiving his first communion at church, meets pastries; overindulgence sends boy to hospital; grownup doctor and nurses keep boy from pastries; pastries’ ally, liquor, distracts annoying grownups; boy escapes grownups and reunites with pastries. Never mind the Nutcracker. Here’s a story the greedy, sugar-buzzed prepubescent in all of us can relate to.
However, there’s the hint of a slightly bitter, sophisticated countertaste—something like the espresso powder mixed with cognac in an opera cake—that brings out the evening’s richness all the more.
Consider: A steadfast longing for pleasure, joy, fun—exemplified by a kid’s quest for a world of bonbons—is pitted against an austere, sadistic universe of medical surveillance. The profound childhood savoring of the silken sweet—watch a 6-year-old eat ice cream and you’ll be reminded just how grave and all-encompassing that craving can be—battles the inescapable self-consciousness and posturing of adulthood. An adulthood, come to think of it, that can sometimes manifest itself in today’s off-putting headlines, with all their clashing authorities, abuses of power, and trickery. Never trust anyone over 30? Hell, never trust anyone over 10.
The miasmic unsteadiness beneath the childish pursuits echoes in the playful but often menacing and tousled score by Richard Strauss, revived here from the ballet’s first iteration—in 1924, at the time with choreography by Henrich Kroller. The Kennedy Center’s Opera House Orchestra played dauntlessly and colorfully under Ormsby Wilkins’s baton; this is late romanticism inhaling a strong pipeful of modernism. Note too that Strauss wrote the ballet’s libretto. He could easily have written a tidy neo-Tchaikovsky sort of musical accompaniment—and he didn’t.
Mark Ryden’s astonishing set and costume designs present similarly unsettling contrasts. On one hand, pink, spun-sugar candylands are populated by giant, hilariously bobbing, living stuffed animals that watch over sundaes, cakes, and puddings, some with cherry tops. Children become adorable prancing petit fours. And a slithering candy cane exhibits a powerful striped tail. On the other hand, the hospital is dark, austere, and monitored by an enormous shifty eye. In Ratmansky’s fairy tale, the threat is elusively, officiously Orwellian. The doctor’s and pastry chef’s vastly oversized noggins—like New York Review of Books artist David Levine’s caricatures come to life—capture a kindergartener-minded polarity of good and evil.
closes February 4, 2018
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Ratmansky’s choreography hides its technical demands in a jazzy casualness, Ryden’s costuming sometimes downplaying if not actually obscuring the dancers’ efforts. That is, the story comes first here, but concentrate, despite the ample distractions, and you’ll be rewarded with lively performances.
On Friday night, Jonathan Klein was the confection-smitten Boy, amusingly charmed by Cassandra Trenary’s flirtatious Princess Praline. Princess Tea Flower, Hee Seo, was slyly seductive toward Cory Stearns as a haughty Prince Coffee. Calvin Royal III’s Prince Cocoa and Arron Scott’s Don Zucchero had a good-naturedly competitive dynamic between them. And among the three liqueurs, Alexandre Hammoudi’s Ladislav Slivovitz and Thomas Forster’s Boris Wutki engaged in flat-out Vaudeville pratfalls in their duel over the favors of Mademoiselle Marianne Chartreuse (Christine Shevchenko).
The army of nurses, each armed with a bazooka-sized hypodermic, was a hypochondriac’s worst nightmare—or perhaps perverse dream. And the appetizing corps of whipped cream, entering by slide as if spooned onto a delectable mousse, was enough to raise the audience’s triglyceride level.
A top-notch pastry chef speaks to an epicure on many levels. A serious choreographer does the same with his audience. There is more to this tale of embattled childhood gratifications than is immediately apparent—the eye and ear happily, regressively devour what the mind will savor more maturely for some time afterward.
Whipped Cream. Choreography by Alexei Ratmansky. Music and libretto by Richard Strauss. Set and costume design by Mark Ryden. Scenic design supervision by Camellia Koo. Costume design supervision by Holly Hynes. Lighting design by Brad Fields. Produced by American Ballet Theatre . Presented at The Kennedy Center . Reviewed by Alexander C.. Kafka.