American Ballet Theatre's Whipped Cream

photo by Gene Schiavone

Last month, The Kennedy Center hosted American Ballet Theatre’s brand new production of Whipped Cream (Schlagobers) by Richard Strauss, and what a treat for the orchestra it was! There was a palpable excitement in the orchestra pit all week as we got acquainted with the very difficult and completely unknown score, and we were as dazzled as the audience by this DC premiere.

ABT’s production is a reinvention of this neglected masterpiece. At the end of World War I, Strauss was commissioned to write a ballet for the struggling Vienna Staatsoper. In this post-war environment, Strauss chose a subject as light and frothy as its title suggests; "I cannot bear the tragedy of the present time. I want to create joy," he wrote. The 1924 premiere was part of a lavish celebration for his 60th birthday, a gift to the composer so long associated with Vienna, and Strauss himself conducted. Yet sadly the ballet was not well received, perhaps because it was insufficiently nationalistic, or high-minded, and with the exception of an orchestral suite that is infrequently performed, it fell into obscurity.

Fast forward nearly a century: as Music Director Ormsby Wilkins tells it, “Alexei  [renowned choreographer Ratmansky, Artist-in-Residence at ABT] found the only complete recording of the music in Tokyo and of course fell in love with it. But it was not until some years later when he was introduced to the work of Mark Ryden that he felt he had the perfect designer—and he certainly got that right!”

Although the “plot” for the ballet is thin, this wonderful production is sustained by many elements. Wilkins praises the score’s “ability to be both a sophisticated, symphonic score—and at the same time very appealing to the general public.” The over the top sense of fantasy and humor in Ryden’s spectacular costumes and imagery are delightful. Act 1 ends with the dizzying Schlagobers Waltz, danced by ballerinas in frothy white tutus who enter the stage on a slide. One youngster who has overindulged in whipped cream, ends up in an ominous hospital room, presided over by a doctor with a drinking problem (and a huge bobblehead), a disembodied eyeball, and a troop of nurses armed with 3 foot long syringes. An exuberant procession of fantastic creatures arrives to help the boy escape into a fantasy world of sweets. Principal Conductor Charles Barker enthuses: “The music is full of great riches, the set is like a Renaissance painting, and the choreography is some of the most difficult and fascinating I've ever seen. The entire production is one of the best things I've ever done.” 

About the preparation of this new (to us) work, Wilkins told us: “I like to spend as much time as possible in the ballet studio while the ballet is being choreographed. It's a very good way to get to really see how the music and steps fit together early on and also to have a modicum of influence over tempi and the shape of the phrasing, though of course the choreographer will often bring strong ideas about the music to the studio. So in the end, hopefully, the compromises are mutually satisfying to both choreographer and conductor. Needless to say we could not achieve this, given the comparatively small amount of rehearsal time, without an orchestra of such ability and experience as the magnificent Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra.”

ABT has performed their new production at the Metropolitan Opera House, Orange County, and The Kennedy Center, and will be bringing it to Hong Kong and back to the MET this summer.  We will be thrilled to see it in regular rotation in the Kennedy Center Opera House.

For more about Whipped Cream see this piece in Vanity Fair and this fun backstage video from the Metropolitan Opera.