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American Ballet Theatre’s ‘Whipped Cream’ a sweet, albeit overly showy treat

American Ballet Theatre performs a scene from "Whipped Cream."

American Ballet Theatre performs a scene from "Whipped Cream." | Gene Schiavone

It turns out our mothers were right. Consuming only dessert really can be too much of a good thing.

That’s the major takeaway from “Whipped Cream,” a 2017 ballet that more than lives up to its name as a sweet dance confection. But for all its cute, showy appeal, this 110-minute work cries out for some meat and potatoes to go along with the cupcakes and candies.

Or put differently, it’s too much spectacle and not enough substance.

A scene from “Whipped Cream” presented by American Ballet Theatre at the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago. | Gene Schiavone

The American Ballet Theatre presentation, which opened Thursday evening and runs through April 14, is the first in a new four-year partnership. The collaboration will bring the famed New York company to the Auditorium Theatre once a year through 2022 – a welcome boon to the Chicago’s already bustling dance scene.

American Ballet Theatre: ‘Whipped Cream’
When: 7:30 p.m. April 12, 2 and 7:30 p.m. April 13 and 2 p.m. April 14
Tickets: $44-$150
Where: Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Ida B. Wells Dr.
Info: auditoriumtheatre.org

Internationally celebrated as one of today’s top ballet choreographers, Alexei Ratmansky has created more than a dozen works for ABT, where he has been artist-in-residence since January 2009. Several years ago, he conceived the idea of reviving Richard Strauss’ all-but-forgotten work “Schlagobers (Whipped Cream),” which was originally choreographed by Heinrich Kröller for the Vienna State Opera Ballet in 1924.

The appeal of such a work is obvious. Though not known for his dance music, Strauss is one of the most celebrated composers of the late 19th century and early 20th century with such pieces as the comic opera, “Der Rosenkavalier” (1911).

Strauss’ lush, delectable music for this ballet, which was handsomely performed in the pit by the Chicago Philharmonic under conductor Charles Barker, falls very much within his romantic style.

In “Whipped Cream,” an unnamed boy and his friends are taken to a confectionery shop after their First Communion. After he eats too much, gets a stomach ache and has to leave, the sugar plums and other sweets come alive before the scene fades into the boy’s dreams of a land filled entirely of whipped cream.

Alexei Agoudine as “the Doctor” in “Whipped Cream.” | Doug Gifford

In the second half, the boy is in a hospital overseen by a doctor and his menacing nurses with giant syringes, but he manages to escape with the help of Princess Praline who transports him to her kingdom, with a final euphoric scene in a storybook town square.

This dreamy, make-believe world inevitably invites comparisons to “The Nutcracker,” but in the latter, there is a clear-cut story with a beginning, middle and end. “Whipped Cream” comes off as a string of fantastical scenes that merely provide excuses for extensive show and dance.

But, oh, what showiness! Mark Ryden, a painter whom Interview magazine dubbed the “godfather of pop surrealism,” has created an appealingly zany scenic and sartorial realm that is a combination of Walt Disney, Dr. Seuss and Takashi Murakami.

In all, there are more than 150 costumes, including imaginatively anthropomorphized marzipans, pralines and even vodka and liqueur bottles as well as oversized headpieces for characters like the doctor, priest and chef that give the production an animated sensibility.

Sarah Lane is Princess Praline and Daniil Simkin is The Boy in a scene from American Ballet Theatres “Whipped Cream.” | Doug Gifford

Ratmansky’s enthusiasm for this escapist romp is palpable in his rowdy, exuberant choreography that has a suitably old-fashioned feel except for a few updated touches like fist bumps among the bottles or Princess Tea Flower’s un-ballet-like bounce twists.
The choreographer has a flair for the extravagant crowd scenes, and if there was no one memorable moment from the land of whipped cream, he knew how to deploy the 16 dancers (dressed in white body suits, pointed hoods and sheer wraps) in a graceful, flowing manner worthy of the old masters.

The ABT dancers have clearly bought into this work, ardently throwing themselves into the merriment and delivering no shortage of first-rate performances, especially the four main characters.

Daniil Simkin manages to convey the youthfulness of the boy and simultaneously deliver manly acrobatic moves. He is well paired with Sarah Lane, who injects the right doses of perkiness and bashfulness into the role of Princess Praline.

Catherine Hurlin brings jazzy pizzazz to the role of Mademoiselle Marianne Chartreuse as she smartly realizes Ratmansky’s syncopated step combinations and leads the pratfalls and pranks with the equally strong Duncan Lyle as Ladislav Slivovitz and Marshall Whiteley as Boris Wutki.

But the star of the evening is arguably Stella Abrera who mingles playfulness and flirtiness and brings a polished flair to the role of Princess Tea Flower while sharing some smooth partnering with her well-matched opposite, Calvin Royal III as Prince Coffee.

Yes, all this froth and frolic are fun. But, as “Whipped Cream” makes clear, fun leavened with little else can wear thin.

Kyle MacMillan is a freelance writer.

Sweet dancing treats about in American Ballet Theatre’s production of “Whipped Cream.” | Gene Schiavone