Classical ballet is in ascendance, and it’s growing more diverse. Nearly a decade ago the life of classical ballet was in question. (Neoclassical was, and is, speeding along on a parallel track.) Then came the current generation of creators, most prominently Christopher Wheeldon and Justin Peck at New York City Ballet, and Alexei Ratmansky there and at American Ballet Theater (ABT,) where he is resident choreographer. Just last year, the company premiered Ratmansky’s The Golden Cockerel and Serenade After Plato’s Symposium. With this season’s ABT debut of Whipped Cream, he has created a visually resplendent, imaginative, narrative ballet that will no doubt be seen regularly for years. ABT’s two-month season balances a dozen performances of mostly full-length, traditional classics with a week of short repertory to Tchaikovsky; this review covers the first five weeks.
Whipped Cream features astonishing sets by artist Mark Ryden including a sweet shop, a hospital, and a whipped cream land. Disney-worthy creatures populate the ballet, such as a boat-sized cat (one of Ryden’s fabulous “snow yaks” in his menagerie of Keane-eyed creations) on which the princess rides in, cupcake kiddies, and a peppermint newt.
As in many enduring ballets, the lead character—in this case, an impetuous boy (Daniil Simkin) learns lessons and matures. He and his companions leave church and hop into a horse-drawn trolley to visit a sweet shop. After he falls ill from stuffing his face, the shop comes alive. Princess Tea Flower (Stella Abrera) pops out of a tin (she might be decaf, as she slouches languidly between arabesques, slipping to the floor to nap). Prince Coffee (David Hallberg) comes to the rescue with his upright posture and crisply held limbs. He becomes enamored with Tea, winning her over with the help of his three mates. In the meantime, three sumptuously costumed cadres (marzipan, sugarplum, gingerbread) perform variations. Witty demi-solo roles are danced by Joseph Gorak (Prince Cocoa) and Blaine Hoven (Don Zucchero, in white with marshmallow pompoms).
With a nod to the classics, the female corps wear white in both of the scenes in which they appear—first as poofs of whipped cream, in chiffon shrouds and peaked caps, then as nurses in smart, empire-waisted mid-length gowns and head scarves. Ratmansky quotes the Shades from La Bayadère in their entrance, entering one-by-one in a line. One of the choreographer’s strengths is moving masses of dancers in fluid and unpredictable ways; movement can shimmer and flow like a school of fish, as it does here. Richard Strauss’s score is dotted with the rhythmic waltzes for which he is known. And Ratmansky has fun with some of the brasher passages.
In the cacophonous, visually riotous finale, Simkin is surrounded by all the assembled characters, and Ratmansky lets loose this most acrobatic of dancers in a display of breathtaking tosses, leaps, and splits. It’s pure show biz fun, and an ideal role for Simkin. Toward the end, as a more mature character (signified by his previously white, now gold lamé, shorts suit) he is paired with Sarah Lane (Princess Praline: saucy, sweet, and strong) for the carnivalesque grand finale.
In Whipped Cream, there is an underlying theme of succumbing to one’s temptations—whether it be sweets, love, or alcohol—suffering consequences, and conquering, or at least controlling the affliction. The trio of beverages, each from a different country (Slivovitz, Poland; Chartreuse, France; Vodka, Russia) could carry geopolitical meaning—at first sparring, but ultimately cooperating and becoming allies. Ryden, a visual artist, worked with Holly Hynes to brilliantly execute the costumes. In addition to shimmering, striped, or dotted fabrics and unique headpieces such as flat-topped hats and starburst tiaras, he crafted surreal, giant foam heads for the baker and doctor.
Ratmansky infuses Whipped Cream not only with the humor and fantasy of his charming pas de deux and group dances, but also with a sense of being grounded in the world—another strength that can be traced throughout his oeuvre. The alcohol bottle characters create a tense love triangle, and instead of fighting, settle on being friends. One of them helps the boy take off his hospital smock, stuffing it into a hidden pocket. And some dancers help the peppermint newt keep up with the parade by dragging her along behind them. They’re practical solutions to problems for otherworldly creatures, which might just sum up the essence of Ratmansky’s talent.
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The season was dotted with assorted celebrations and milestones. Diana Vishneva will make her farewell performance in Onegin. Marcelo Gomes celebrated his 20th year with ABT by perfoming Albrecht in Giselle, with Stella Abrera in the title role. Gomes is tapering down his stage time, taking on more character roles while choreographing on the side. But over the past decade, few, if any, men at ABT have danced with more passion, focus, dedication to partnering, or savvy showmanship than Gomes. David Hallberg returned after a two-year hiatus due to an injury and rehab. It’s impressive that he was able to dance the demanding role of Albrecht; in the signature chain of entrechat six, his feet fluttered like butterfly wings, and he seemed less self-conscious than ever. His Giselle, Gillian Murphy, is somewhat too strong and cheery a stage personality for the tremulous character, but her descent into madness was affecting.
Crowd favorite Misty Copeland (she has her own merch table in the Met gift shop) was spirited and warm in her rendition of Kitri in Don Quixote, paired with Jeffrey Cirio as Basilio—clean and precise if a shade short to partner her when she’s on pointe. Calvin Royal III was Espada, exuding a bullfighter’s charisma and power, and commanding the spotlight whenever he was on stage. Accomplished young corps dancers to watch include Jonathan Klein (pirate) with pristine lines, and Catherine Hurlin (one of Kitri’s friends), projecting brightly, with superb technique.
With a year to settle beyond the hype of its 2016 premiere, weaknesses in Ratmansky’s The Golden Cockerel have become more obvious. The obtuse story concerns an astrologer’s vision of a beautiful queen, a golden cockerel who warns of impending conflict, and a tsar, his sons, and his troops. There are sections of ballet and folk dance, but more often it’s pageantry and mime, which are insufficient plot communicators without a close reading of the synopsis. The sets and costumes by Richard Hudson (inspired by Natalia Goncharova) are bright and lavish enough to merit a viewing, and the score by Rimsky-Korsakov is witty and dreamy. Cassandra Trenary danced the Cockerel (she skillfully channeled the role’s explosive power), and Abrera the Queen (languidly cunning), but James Whiteside (Astrologer, buried in a black lamé cloak and heavy makeup) has little to do in a top billed role.
Soloist Christine Shevchenko was tapped to perform the lead role of Medora in Le Corsaire four times due to injuries to both Gillian Murphy and Veronika Part. (Dancers usually perform lead roles once or twice over the course of a week’s run.) She debuted in the role with Alban Lendorf, also a member of the Royal Danish Ballet. She is a technically solid and lovely dancer; no doubt with some seasoning, she will relax into lead parts and imbue them her own character. Lendorf is muscular and ardent, but at times seems intent on pushing positions and steps to the nth degree, lending them tension. Simkin was an ideal Ali, a humble aide in the key trio, in which he is relied upon to partner and lift Medora (he did so impressively; lifting has been a weakness for him). And no one in ABT can wow crowds with the requisite high-flying leaps and spins as can Simkin.
Devon Teuscher debuted in Swan Lake as Odette/Odile, opposite Alexandre Hammoudi. These two soloists have been at the ABT for, respectively, ten and fifteen years, and it’s always heartwarming to see dancers rise to top roles. Besides her elegant lines and steely delicacy, Teuscher has a wistful aura that is ideal for Odette, and she flashes icy fire as Odile. Hammoudi, unfortunately, seemed to be a shade off, and could be far more presentational, but he fits the princely mold and is an able partner. Royal danced the human Von Rothbart with wily bravura; one can imagine him taking on the prince’s role in the near future. As Benno, Zhiyao Zhang proved polished dancing with the luminous Zhong-Jing Fang and April Giangeruso; the latter has popped up in countless demi-solo roles this season. The Neapolitan dance featured Gabe Stone Shayer, who has quickly become an audience favorite with his engaging personality augmenting his impressive virtuosity; he danced alongside Klein, radiant and precise.
In addition to notable growth with regard to artistic output and individual careers, there’s been an increase in dancers of color from the top down. This increasing diversity and new repertory can only broaden the audience and please a whole range of fans. It’s definitely a good time for ballet, and ripe time to draw a wider range of audiences who can relate to the burgeoning ethnic and racial scope of the dancers.
SUSAN YUNG is a New York-based culture writer.