BWW Review: Alexei Ratmansky's WHIPPED CREAM at ABT
A few years ago I bought a recording of Schlagobers, which had been written by the venerable Richard Strauss for the Vienna State Opera Ballet in 1924. I had a difficult time listening to the music-it didn't gel, nor did it leave any imprint on my mind. I suppose there was a reason for it not having many recordings-compare this with Rosenkavalier. I remember doing some research on this project: Strauss was serving as co-director of the Vienna State Opera with Franz Schalk and wanted to raise the prestige of the ballet wing after it had been decimated in the First World War. As a devoted admirer of Diaghilev company, for which he had once written Josephslegende, Strauss went about composing and writing his own libretto for what was to become Schlagobers, choreographed by Heinrich Kröller, who devised a mass spectacle that required 287 costumes at a cost of four billion kronnen, becoming known as the "billionaire's ballet." And at a time when inflation was climbing minute by minute.
The libretto was very interesting: Three liquors, representative of France, Poland and Russia, matzo balls, German manhood, a children's confirmation, Princess Praline, Princess Teaflower, a candy shop. I was thinking of that old expression: "He also threw in the kitchen sink."
Jack Anderson wrote in the New York Times on January 29, 1981: "Schlagobers, which takes its name from a type of whipped cream pastry, has not been revived much since then. It's easy to see why. The music is not top-drawer Strauss. However, the ballet's principal problems have to do with the scenario. What is wrong with Schlagobers is that it is artistically indigestible. It is so excessive, so unabashedly gluttonous and gooey, that one is repelled, rather than charmed, by it. Perhaps we're better off with The Nutcracker after all."
So what does a brainy, talented choreographer like Alexei Ratmansky do? He whips it up into his own version, a crazy, delightful, if at times, simplistic ballet called, appropriately after the German translation, Whipped Cream. There's really nothing wrong with it: beautiful sets and costumes by Mark Ryden, extraordinarily talented dancers like Herman Cornejo, Gilliam Murphy, James Whiteside and Cassandra Trenary in the principal roles, outstanding orchestral accompaniment under the direction of David LaMarche and a finale to end all finales (even if it did remind me of Ashton's Sylvia), guaranteed to send you home screaming bravo.
On the subway there were still screams!!!
The missing link: the music, especially in Act One, where we are introduced to the Boy, Princess Praline, Prince Coffee, Prince Cocoa and many others. Ratmansky does what he can to disguise the music's banality with interesting choreography that, unfortunately, he uses over and over. You can see his mind at work: "If she'll dance this now, it's an interesting step, let me use it later again, and then yet again." He'd like to partner the music, but its triteness is consuming. He wants it to take on new meaning so that he can stamp it with some startling revelation. But it won't let him move forward. Strauss had a problem with his own music, sometimes rehashing it interminably so that it would undermine an entire composition or opera. I wish there had been an editor on hand, cutting, pruning, re-adjusting. But without this, all Ratmansky can do is to mask a libretto that is its own worst enemy, even if it can become ABT's holiday staple from now on.
Act Two is more forgiving, offering a story that, without being condescending to its characters, allows things to bubbly proceed comically to the finale, where all are united in a land of confectionary. Well, it is a ballet meant for all ages, so why not?
Whipped Cream is a continuation of the Ratmansky Project, begun in 2015 as a $15 million, five year plan to support his new choreographic efforts. I have long been an admirer of Mr. Ratmansky, especially in his works for New York City Ballet, but not particularly at ABT. NYCB seems to offer more rigorous choreographic challenges. ABT, while just as demanding in some respects, is gentler, more accommodating. I can see Whipped Cream remaining in the repertoire for years on end, not because it is truly good, but it will fill a need for a box office bonanza. And there's nothing wrong with that. But I wish Ratmansky had made more demands oh himself, even the audience, to push the boundaries of ballet. Here he is complacent. I want to see him fired up.
There's always another time.
Photo: Gene Schiavone