Our dance calendar would not be the same without an annual trip to New York to check in on the latest work by ABT’s artist-in-residence, Mr. Alexei Ratmansky. His endearing ballets have a 19th century flavour, and are typically crafted using traditional ballet vocabulary, but they mix this traditional choreography with highly individual details, so Ratmansky’s ballets also seem completely fresh, thanks to a pool of rich cultural references and idiosyncratic touches, aka #Ratmanskyness.
And so to the Met this summer in time to catch the final two Ratmanskys of the season: Whipped Cream, a new full-length story ballet, and Souvenir d’un Lieu Cher, part of the Tchaikovsky Spectacular mixed bill, which also contained extracts of other Ratmansky works (Aurora’s Wedding or the Nutcracker pas de deux, depending on the evening) presented alongside Balanchine’s Mozartiana and Marcelo Gomes’s AfterEffect.
Let’s start with Whipped Cream. This is a grand-scale, blow-the-budget production (made on a $3 million budget, wow!) and the product is impressive indeed. The idea to collaborate with pop surreal artist Mark Ryden was a stroke of genius, resulting in a look that is “so meta”. Ballet, like Ryden’s own art, has that quality of looking cute and frivolous on the surface, while being capable of revealing deeper ideas and symbology once you engage with its themes.
Here, it’s almost as if we have a ballet of ballets. Many reviews have noted the similarities with The Nutcracker, and nods to other classics such as La Bayadère (a scene featuring a corps de ballet of whipped cream – delicious! – reminiscent of the shades scene) and perhaps Giselle (in the veils worn by the whipped creams and in some of the choreographic patterns). As in Coppélia, there is also that contrast between comedy and dark mystery: the light, colourful world of Princess Praline, inhabited by characters like the Chocolate Chip man, bouncy Cupcake Children and a Worm Candy Man who serpentines across the stage, in contrast to the grim and mysterious hospital room where an army of syringe-wielding nurses await, their fierceness reminding me of the Wilis in Akram Khan’s Giselle.
The plot centers around a boy who eats too much whipped cream in a confectioner’s shop. Lying in hospital, he is treated by a melancholic doctor (Alexei Agoudine wearing a giant doctor’s head with impressive skill) and later hallucinates about a candy kingdom where the beautiful Princess Praline and her assortment of colourful companions live happily. The score, by Richard Strauss, was originally composed for a ballet called Schlagobers (i.e. whipped cream) which was never a critical success and had been largely forgotten. In Ratmansky’s hands, this “Rosenkavalier-icious” piece becomes fast and vibrant choreography: the Boy is given the virtuoso solos, with Daniil Simkin thrilling in technique and hilarious in the theatrics. Princess Praline (Sarah Lane, delightful) makes her triumphant entrance to rescue the boy atop a signature Ryden Snow Yak in a breathtaking coup-de-théâtre, while Princess Tea Flower (Stella Abrera) and Prince Coffee (Marcelo Gomes) fill Strauss’s dreamlike and lush passages with a lyrical courtship pas de deux.
Another night, a different Ratmansky piece, albeit with almost the same cast. Souvenir d’un Lieu Cher is a short and sweet work made on Dutch National Ballet (and it’s interesting to note that while ABT was preparing to premiere it, DNB themselves had just acquired Ratmansky’s Shostakovich Trilogy). It is set to a haunting orchestration – by the superb Glazunov (who composed the masterpiece that is Raymonda) - of Tchaikovsky’s piece of the same name.
The score has an earworm-like quality, in particular the Scherzo section where we see a dance off between Marcelo Gomes and Alban Lendorf (think Les Lutins minus whimsy), and the choreographic response seems to have two distinct sections, a split which is perhaps a bit problematic: the first one, full of feeling, made me think about Tudor’s Lilac Garden, where Stella Abrera’s character is now attached to Gomes, but clearly has a history with Lendorf’s character, who in turn dances passionately with Sarah Lane, a tour-de-force preamble where none of the dancers leave the stage. In the second section, which leads to a big finale, the dancers respond to the score with fast footwork, they are now full of energy. It is almost the reverse of Russian Seasons: the emotional punch happens early in the ballet, and the innocent playfulness closes it. Could the title refer to our own souvenirs of childhood and to a desire to go back to leisurely, uncomplicated times?
In addition to discovering Souvenir d’un Lieu Cher, the Tchaikovsky Spectacular programme offered us the opportunity to see the one and only David Hallberg returning to the stage. Balanchine’s Mozartiana, by Hallberg’s admission one of his favorite pieces, is a pure dance work that suits his danseur noble frame, and he looked super stylish alongside a glamorous Christine Shevchenko, crystal clear in technique and newly promoted to the rank of principal dancer. Another programme highlight was Marcelo Gomes’s AfterEffect, which is set to the evocative piece Souvenir de Florence. Despite being centered on three symbolic characters – The Man (Cory Stearns), His Loss (Cassandra Trenary) and His Hope (Jeffrey Cirio) – Marcelo shows great skill and musicality in deploying large male and female sections of the corps de ballet. How fabulous to see this wonderful dancer move to a different phase of his career by creating work on his younger colleagues. I remember reading an interview a while ago where Gomes expressed a desire to one day choreograph a new full-length story ballet and, with Ratmansky leading by example at ABT, the stage seems to be truly set. We can only hope for more.