Photo: Gene Schiavone
This year’s Hong Kong Arts Festival dance offerings culminated with Whipped Cream, choreographer Alexei Ratmansky’s new American Ballet Theatre production to Richard Strauss’s whimsical score.
Echoing the Festival’s theme of “What’s Real to Me”, Whipped Cream totally epitomizes the Festival at a high point, with its tremendous realization of Ratmansky’s novel, challenging, but also close to home choreography with spectacular aesthetics that intoxicate the audience through Mark Ryden’s optical illusions and pop-surrealist designs.
Unlike other of Ratmansky’s contemporary work or his previous narrative ballet productions, Whipped Cream is a much lighter piece for a younger audience. The show is within two hours in length, which includes the 20-minute interval. Comparatively, the ballet’s story is very child-friendly. It is simple: a young boy and his friends get invited to the candy shop to celebrate their first Communion. The boy gets sick after eating too much whipped cream in the shop, and is taken to the hospital. There, the doctor and nurses drug the boy, and he starts to have illusions of seeing the candy come to life. They help the boy to defeat the army of nurses led by the doctor, and at the end, he enters the candy kingdom that becomes his reality.
It really sounds very radical and unbelievable, but again, if we ask the question, “What is real to me?”, is this the very story that proposes the question of what is real and unreal, not only for the boy but also for us, the audience. At least I found Whipped Cream absolutely riveting for an adult audiences to enjoy.
This is because Ryden’s imaginative design gives a welcome invitation for us to be children. Ryden is famous for distorting the human body’s proportion in order to give a surrealistically charming sense of reality. Ratmansky cleverly commissioned Ryden as his designer because of this special quality. Four of the adult characters are presented by dancers that require them to wear huge full head masks of animated characters. They convey a sort of eerie feeling to the audience.
Photo: Gene Schiavone
The heads of these characters are way out of proportion to the actual body of the dancers additionally, the masks portray neutral facial expressions of the characters, which seem funny yet scary at the same time. With Ryden’s stylized retro design, it reads ‘fairytale’ for the most part, with pink and white being thematic colors.
However, Ryden’s design does not cross that line into the tawdry territory of a second-rate children’s theater show that force-feeds stereotypes. It still remains tastefully executed, showing us a world that may be new for children but is probably part of their parents’ childhood memories. For example, at the end of Act I, when, in a coup de théâtre, dancers in diaphanous white costumes slide down a chute onto the stage, the candy shop is transformed into a whipped-cream land; the borders and wings of the stage and the framing of the proscenium arch of the theatre all painted as swirls and giant dollops of whipped cream. It is beautifully done without being overwhelming, but because of that, it adequately supports that scene’s highly artificial nature.
And here is where Ratmansky’s magic comes in. With Strauss’s glorious score that is highly emotionally driven, persuading an epic vision for the ballet, Ryden’s design fulfills a fundamental support that is brilliantly in sync with Strauss’s music, allowing Ratmansky to paint on its canvas.
Ratmansky is famous for preserving classical ballet language while explore contemporary methods in choreography that focus more on the emotions of the piece without cutting down on the spectacular nature of the art form. In Whipped Cream, the ballet tropes are not subtle, especially in Act I with each type of candy coming to life and performing a dance. The libretto actually echoes The Nutcracker or Sleeping Beauty, which also involve quite a number of showcase dances.
Yet, Ratmansky’s choreography balances the familiar and the novel, trying to persuade the audience to see past the tropes and really see the relationships between each character through the dances. That is why I see genuine reactions from the dancers. Even those who are masked, I can see their reactions expressed through their bodies as well.
And that, with the strong support of the production design, makes it is easy for the audience to react to the story playing out on stage rather than just focusing on Ratmansky’s challenging steps, which are, nonetheless, riveting to see. The audience freely reacts, laughing at the opening of Act II, when an army of nurses enters the ward where the boy is kept, with needles as big as they are. Into a scene that has a creepy dark feeling with the boy lying in bed and dimly lit in the center of the huge space, the dancers arrive on stage with abrupt, in-sync movements - because they are ridiculous, it makes the moment funny.
This is one of the examples in the piece where the audience reacts due to the fact that they feel something rather than are just being entertained. Not to mention the parade of the fantastical creatures led by Princess Praline, as well as the last scene when the boy finally arrives at the candy kingdom. There is a mixture of excitement because of witnessing the skillful dancers performing the difficult choreography as well as the enjoyment of seeing a fantasy comes to life.
But of course, it is still an entertainment done in good taste, and the company has to be highly praised. The night I saw was probably the best cast among all, with Daniil Simkin as the boy and Sarah Lane as Princess Praline (both were originally cast in the roles). They exhibit tremendous skills in their profession but also genuinely show innocence in their characters. Simkin’s solo in Act II deserves an ovation. Ratmansky hellishly needs Simkin to be able to show his strength through various leaps but also needs him to constrain this strength at the end for the landing, while doing complex swift steps. Simkin completes all flawlessly, like a star.
graduated from Royal Holloway, University of London with an MA Theatre (Applied Theatre) and earned his BA English at University of Central Oklahoma. Lee is a playwright, screenwriter, theatre director, acting workshop convener, and performer in Hong Kong as well as a researcher in heritage and immersive theater.
Whipped Cream Choreographer: Alexei Ratmansky Performance: 22 March 2018 19:30 Grand Theatre, Hong Kong Cultural Centre