Russian born Alexei Ratmansky joined American Ballet Theatre as Artist in Residence in 2009, choreographing several ballets including his latest creation, Whipped Cream which premiered at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, CA. The set is surreal, the costumes are a visual treat, and there are characters that look like they belong in a Dr. Seuss book or in the fantasy/drama film, The Neverending Story. Whipped Cream should be seen for the set and costumes alone.

Scene from <i>Whipped Cream</i> © Gene Schiavone
Scene from Whipped Cream
© Gene Schiavone

The storyline is simple. Following his first communion, a boy joins his friends at a sweetshop. He eats too much whipped cream, becomes ill and falls asleep. He wakes up in a strange hospital room, tries to escape, but is recaptured. He is later saved by the Princess Praline, falls in love and goes with her to the land of Nicolo.

Mark Ryden’s set design is incredible. In Act I, there is a church, a looming priest and a carriage drawn by a larger-than-life horse. Scene II occurs in a sweetshop where ingredients come to life. A flirtatious princess appears out of a tea tin and princes rise out of boxes on the shop’s counter. The large headed Chef whips cream while entertaining his customers and twelve soldiers carrying spears appear from a large cupboard. During the Sweetshop scene, the choreography tends to get overshadowed by the large, decorative set, and the overcrowded battle scene caused this reviewer to be concerned for the safety of the dancers. The performers who stood out were the beautiful Hee Seo as Princess Tea Flower; Cory Stearns as Prince Coffee, and Calvin Royal III as Prince Cocoa .

David Hallberg (Prince Coffee) and Stella Abrera (Princess Tea Flower) © Gene Schiavone
David Hallberg (Prince Coffee) and Stella Abrera (Princess Tea Flower)
© Gene Schiavone

Scene III involves sixteen women dressed in flowing white chiffon climbing from a large whipping bowl to sail down a slide onto the mist filled stage. Called Whipping Cream, the women swirl in and out of patterns that aptly represent the white foamy confection.

The staging in Act I is cumbersome and the story’s hero disappears from sight early on. Things improve in Act II, however, when the curtain goes up on principal dancer Herman Cornejo lying in a large hospital bed surrounded by over-sized medical equipment. Dominating the scene is a free-floating eye that peers at the action. A sleepy-eyed doctor, with an enormous head, is followed by nurses toting giant syringes. The lighting is dark and the floor reflective, producing a dream-like surrealism. Cornejo awakens, escapes, but is caught and returned to the bed. As the doctor leaves to enjoy a drink, his liquor bottle comes alive. In one of the highlights of the production, three animated bottles of booze perform a delightful trio in which two males, Vodka and Brandy, vie for the affection of the female bottle. Sadly, the names of these characters were not listed in the program. 

Artists of American Ballet Theatre in <i>Whipped Cream</i> © Gene Schiavone
Artists of American Ballet Theatre in Whipped Cream
© Gene Schiavone

Next is an amazing parade of fanciful characters from Nicolo, led by the beautiful Princess Praline, Cassandra Trenary. There’s a large, furry bear, a long-necked Seuss-like Piggy and a peppermint snake that slithers across the stage. The princess arrives atop an oversized dog with huge eyes and ears followed by a woman in a gown of balloons, a walking parfait and four adorable children dressed as cupcakes. As he dances with the princess, our hero falls in love, receives his first kiss and a romance is born. 

Waking up from this dream, Cornejo is re-captured, but humorously saved by the three bottles before being whisked off to Nicolo to forever live happily in a land of whipped cream covered desserts. The set for Nicolo includes Abraham Lincoln glazing out of a window and a giant Bumble Bee buzzing about on a flower laced balcony. All the desserts and toys that appeared earlier stand by to watch as Cornejo is crowned by a God-like figure atop a very tall upside-down ice cream cone.

Alexei Goudine and artists of American Ballet Theatre © Gene Schiavone
Alexei Goudine and artists of American Ballet Theatre
© Gene Schiavone

The dancing in the final scene is some of the production’s finest. Cassandra Trenary and Herman Cornejo are outstanding in their roles, and the finale is stunning. Ratmansky has created inventive partnering, floorwork not often seen in most ballets, and lifts with surprising directional shifts. Whipped Cream is a visual treat; each scene evoking an audible sigh and applause from the audience. The storyline is forgettable, and although Ratmansky artfully weaves his movement rhythms in and around those of Richard Strauss’s score, the choreography too often falls back into the traditional ballet symmetry and does not rise to the level of the bizarre world created by Mark Ryder.

The lighting by Designer Brad Fields helps realize Ryder’s fantasyland. The colors compliment those in the sets and costumes, and his lighting for the hospital scene is outstanding. The very large cast of dancers are wonderful, especially during Act II where they had room to move.