Within moments of the curtain being raised, the audience gasped audibly and began applauding — before any of the dancers had made even the simplest leap or pirouette. The crowd was awed by its first glimpse of Ryden’s grandly beautiful set, a multistory painting that depicted a bucolic natural wonderland bordered by a quaintly rustic church. Looking like an overgrown stuffed animal, a ridiculously cute toy white horse with a cartoonish pink mane towed an ornately styled carriage of children to a Viennese pastry shop.
The pastry shop was even more fantastic, as fanciful marzipan soldiers, gingerbread men and flowery nymphs spilled forth from boxes and jars of tea and coffee arrayed on the large countertop of a colorfully vibrant pink playhouse. Swaddled in a skirt layered with green leaves and crowned with a pink floral wreath, Princess Tea Flower (an impressively lithe and vivacious Stella Abrera) was wooed by the dashing Prince Cocoa (Joseph Gorak), Don Zucchero (Blaine Hoven) and Prince Coffee (a redoubtable David Hallberg) before succumbing coyly to the latter’s heroic charms.
The nonstop circuslike visual distractions were heightened by Ratmansky’s often-thrilling choreography. Flower-girl ballerinas flitted about the large stage in airy, elegantly threaded, hummingbird-like sorties. Dancers converged in knotty huddles and burst outward again like psychedelic blooming petals. Abrera picked up her knees and did a jiglike dance that made the flowery tendrils tied to the ragged-leaf-shaped hem of her skirt fly upward like synchronized fuzzy dice.
ABT’s production is based on Richard Strauss’ overlooked 1924 ballet Schlagobers, and the German composer’s score is something of a revelation. At first, Pacific Symphony sounded a little muted, boxed in by Segerstrom Hall’s orchestra pit, but conductor Ormsby Wilkins finessed the musicians through Strauss’ boisterous, ebullient melodies. Wilkins and the Orange County orchestra were especially attuned during some of the more oddly intimate and quietly affecting passages.
Opening night attracted a near-capacity crowd that included such celebrities as Dita Von Teese and Aaron Paul. Candy glowed like shiny gems in bowls in the lobby, and the merch table of Rydenesque paraphernalia was protected by a velvet rope that corralled a long line of fans — some of whom had driven or flown in from out of state.
The plot centered on a nameless boy (an exuberantly childlike yet powerfully soaring Daniil Simkin) who gets sick and passes out from eating too much whipped cream, preceding a surreal parade of battling confections, mythical creatures, adorable toys and sentient flora. The boy ends up in a hospital run by a sadistic, boozy doctor (Alexei Agoudine) who’s ensconced in a creepy, gigantic-headed outfit before the child is rescued by the wiles and trickery of enchanting Princess Praline (an endearing Sarah Lane on Wednesday night; the cast varies at each performance, including veteran ballerina Gillian Murphy in a beguiling, eloquently lyrical and slyly sensual turn as Princess Tea Leaf at the Saturday matinee).
The story echoes Tchaikovsky’s venerable The Nutcracker, but Strauss’ music possesses its own distinct allure. Ratmansky’s inventive flight plans made vintage versions of Schlagobers seem campy, stiff and inept in comparison. And each of Ryden’s spectacular backdrops was seemingly followed by an even more astonishing tableau vivant. A blinking blue eyeball presided over a black ocean filled with stars, protozoa and candy. Bellhops were decked out in burgundy suits with vertical black stripes that accented the sinuous twists of their legs. A coven of dancers wrapped in sheer, snow-white veils slowly unfolded their arms, evoking the slow swirl of whipped cream.
Sexy nurses impaled the boy in his bed with a spiderlike weave of bazooka-size needles. Gumball Lady (Clementine Greely) was imposing in a floor-length gown of stacked red globes, and the captivating Mademoiselle Marianne Chartreuse (portrayed with sassy comic timing and nimble-footed dexterity by Catherine Hurlin) wore a shiny pink foil headpiece shaped like a cork as she led a trio of dancing liquor bottles. And, in addition to the white-and-pink giraffe-like beast who loomed quizzically over the dancers like a big candy cane, it was plushie heaven as a giant pink yak (Pierce Bryant) and an even larger snow yak (Anthony Jackson & Mariana Vargas) slowly patrolled the stage like furry mammoths, batting their oversized eyes with doll-like eyelashes.
With such delightful music, choreography and design, ABT’s production of Whipped Cream has all the potential to be a massively popular perennial, a kind of postmodern Nutracker. But will the ever-restless Ratmansky and Ryden repeat themselves long enough for that to ever end up happening? It seems just as likely that this madly brilliant ballet will been seen in just a handful of cities before it disappears into the foamy haze of dreams like its title.
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