IOWA CITY — American Ballet Theatre treated Hancher audiences to the most delectable pairing of artistry and excellence Saturday afternoon and evening with “Whipped Cream.”
This sight and sound dreamscape, penned by Richard Strauss in the early 1920s, folded 29 locals dressed as cupcakes, petit fours and more, along with Orchestra Iowa’s magnificent musicians, into the mix with professional dancers of the highest caliber. It’s the venerable troupe helmed by Mikhail Baryshnikov in the 1980s and now home to principal dancer extraordinaire Misty Copeland.
And no, Copeland wasn’t in this touring production, but ABT soloist Cassandra Trenary danced the lead role of Princess Praline fluidly and flawlessly during Saturday’s matinee, as did principal dancer Devon Teuscher, appearing as Princess Tea Flower. (Soloist Luciana Paris made her debut as Princess Praline in the evening performance.)
“Principal” is the top tier in ABT’s dance levels, followed by “soloist,” “corps de ballet” and “apprentice,” but when dancers join this New York company, they all are performing at the highest levels. And to see them in action in Iowa City was sublime.
The best part was seeing so many children and youths in the audience, invited to feast at this table by a storyline alluring for all ages.
It’s a re-imagined world blending the demanding, gorgeous choreography of Alexei Ratmansky with the delicious visions of set and costume designer Mark Ryden. Their creation premiered in 2017, finding the perfect swirl of classical dance, Old World charm and vibrant, fanciful colors in a candy-coated, pastel palette. The humans have ominous oversized heads, and all the animals look like cuddly stuffed toys.
The action unfolds with The Boy (Jonathan Klein from the corps de ballet) and his friends eating their way through a pastry shop following their first communion. The others show a bit of restraint, but not The Boy. He takes a bowl of whipped cream while The Baker is distracted, and devours so much frothy decadence that he ends up writhing in pain and has to be carried out on a stretcher. The others leave in a candy-pink trolley pulled by a lush and plush horse, prancing on dancing feet.
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With the shop empty, confections personified emerge from oversized canisters on the shelves and from the pastry closet. Soon, the Marzipan archers in black and white, the Sugarplums with pink and red diagonally striped pants and poles, and the Gingerbread Men, clad in brown and orange striped tights and armed with shields and mallets, square off in military exercises full of pirouettes and leaps to a booming musical battle cry from the orchestra.
The real fight, however, is for the hand of Princess Tea Flower, as she and her ladies begin a coquettish dance with Princes Coffee and Cocoa, their men and the rakish Zorro-like figure of Don Zucchero. This scene unfolds with exquisite pas de deux and trois, elegant arabesques, and effortless lifts and leaps.
The reverie continues with Sugar, of course, as well as a corps of gossamer Whipped Cream dancers topped with curlicues.
The second half takes a more sinister turn as we see The Boy in an austere hospital room, being poked and prodded by The Doctor and his syringe-wielding nurses. The Doctor treats his own headache with a spoonful of liquor, and soon bottles of Champagne, plum brandy and vodka come to his aid.
They provide enough cover for The Boy to escape with Princess Praline and her fanciful friends, including a delightful candy-striped worm. The Boy leaps out of his nightmare world and into a magical realm of dancing animals and sweets, who welcome him with regal pomp and circumstance.
The Boy and the Princess have the most superb solo moments, displaying their strength and beauty through grand jetés and pirouettes, as well as majestic pas de deux. Their artistry is the stuff of dreams — as is this entire production.
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