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Monday, May 22, 2017

Ratmansky's Whipped Cream is Empty Calories

Princess Praline and Boy (Lane and Simkin), photo @Matt Masin

ABT's spring gala began with the usual boring speeches, and then an announcement from Kevin McKenzie that he was basically giving choreographer Alexei Ratmansky a blank check -- the "Ratmansky Project" would allow this prolific choreographer $15 million to create ballets for the next five years. Ratmansky is obviously a hot commodity and ABT will do anything to keep him -- a few weeks ago, his new piece Odessa was also the raison d'etre of New York City Ballet's Spring Gala.

The Sweet Shop, photo @ Gene Schiavone
And then the eagerly awaited New York debut of Whipped Cream. This ballet had its premiere in Costa Mesa in March. Everyone marveled at Mark Ryden's sets and costumes. And when the curtain went up, I looked at the sets and costumes and thought, wow, they are amazing!!! They look like a Macy's Thanksgiving float come to life, with enormous blinking and moving stuffed animals, tutus that contain expertly wrinkled tea leaves, and an army of corps girls that actually look like puffs of whipped cream. This is the ballet for the sort of balletomane who is obsessed with opulent designs and fabrics.

There were pleasures to the performance that had little to do with the ballet itself. David Hallberg finally made his return to the Met stage after a 3 year long absence. When he climbed out of the "Coffee" bin the hardcore ballet fans cheered loudly. This was a moment where everyone breathed a sigh of relief. And he's still DAVID HALLBERG of the impossibly beautiful feet and remote, handsome manner. His role was more partnering than anything but how great it is to have him back!


Another was a closer check of the program. I found two names -- Justin Souriau-Levine (as Nicolo) and Catherine Hurlin (as Mademoiselle Marainne Chartreuse). Way back when they were picked as Little Mouse and Clara, respectively, in Ratmansky's original Nutcracker. What wonderful continuity to see them dancing on the Met stage in adult roles now. 

Whipped Cream puffs, photo @ Matt Masin
The actual ballet, however, is a meandering, muddled mess. No other way to put it. Part of the issue is the music -- Richard Strauss's 1924 score keeps a very even keel of unrelenting, waltzing sweetness, but has few musical climaxes for the choreographer to achieve its effects. Everyone says Balanchine's ballets are "abstract," but ever notice how dramatic his musical choices were? The loud crashing chords in Allegro Brillante, for example. Without musical climaxes to choreograph to, Ratmansky's inspiration comes in fits and spurts.

The other issue is the "storyline," which is like cotton candy -- sweet, but evaporates on contact. Basically a Boy loves whipped cream too much. He gets sick. He's brought to the hospital. The Sweets in the Sweets Shop come to life to dance. In the hospital the Boy is saved from the grips of a sadistic doctor and his army of needle-wielding nurses by Princess Praline and alcoholic beverages. The alcoholic beverages (played by actual dancers dressed as liquor bottles) get the doctors and nurses so drunk that Boy is whisked away to Princess Praline's Land of the Sweets. The end.

There were undoubtedly some very clever moments -- the dance of the whipped cream girls and the nightmarish nurses were funny spoofs of the Petipa ballet blanc. The whipped cream scene recalls the Kingdom of the Shades in La Bayadere, the nightmarish nurses draws inspiration from the Wilis in Giselle. Princess Praline (a pert, charming Sarah Lane) was given bossy, staccato marching steps to establish her take-charge "You're coming with me, Boy" personality. And the Princess Tea Flower and her tea leave sisters have some cleverly "crumpled" choreography --  pirouettes done with the leg bent at an exaggerated angle. The pas de deux between Tea Flower and Coffee was a sendoff of the classical Petipa divertissement.

Abrera and Hallberg, photo @ Gene Schiavone
But Ratmansky used his most tiresome tricks -- one is the by-now obligatory throwing of the main character up in the air, trampoline-style, by a group of guys below. This happens near the end of the ballet to the Boy (an androgynous, child-like Danil Simkin) without much rhyme or reason. The other is the cutesy, cloying romantic gestures -- Princess Praline ends a pas de de deux by shyly pecking Boy on the cheek. Princess Tea Flower (Stella Abrera, ever graceful) and Prince Coffee (David Hallberg -- welcome back!) end their act one pas de deux with Tea Flower held aloft by several men over Coffee's head, as if she's flying down for a kiss. A little of this first grade puppy love goes a long way.

Other times Ratmansky seemed to be doing a weird parody of ABT's virtuoso, overstuffed spring season tastes. For instance, is it an accident that Daniil Simkin actually plays an anonymous Boy, and also expresses his boyishness by a series of split leaps, 540's, barrel turns, and other YAGP gala tricks? Or that Act 2 actually has a parade of stuffed animals and enlarged float-heads? Even though the actual time of the ballet is short (less than 1.5 hours, with an intermission), interest lags and the final scene at Praline's kingdom goes on for way too long. Whatever the case, this Ratmansky work ends up being more empty calories than substance. Beautiful decor, but it's all dressed up with nowhere to go. And although all the sugar you see onstage is mouth-watering, it touches only the taste buds and not the heart.

Here's a video I took of the curtain calls:

2 comments:

  1. It wasn't as bad as his awful Sleeping B. And I saw Tiler Peck wandering around after the show in a lovely black dress.

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    1. I enjoyed his SB. At least that ballet had interesting historical value. This was just dreadful.

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