This month, American Ballet Theatre will premiere its new ballet, Whipped Cream, with choreography by Artist in Residence Alexei Ratmansky and set design by pop surrealist Mark Ryden. The ballet tells the whimsical story of a boy’s adventures through a confectionary dreamland after an indulgent sweet spree at a Viennese candy store. The World Dances spoke with 20 year-old ABT dancer Rachel Richardson about working with Ratmansky, the thrill of dancing in a premiere, what it’s like to join ABT, and more. Whipped Cream will performed at Segerstrom Center for the Arts March 15-19. More info and tickets are available here.
Please tell us about Whipped Cream and your impressions from working on it?
That is a big feat! It’s a very whimsical and grand ballet and it’s been a lot of fun to work on it. This is my first time working with Alexei Ratmansky when he’s actually choreographing a new ballet. I’ve worked with him a lot reviving old ballets or setting previously performed ones, but this is my first time working with him when it’s all completely new. It’s been really interesting and fun to see his process and how he choreographs. A lot of the characters are candy canes and things like that, and it’s fascinating to see how he translates that into movement. That goes for the creation of the different realms in which the story takes place as well: the normal world, whimsical whipped cream world, the scary hospital scene (which is really dark), and the candy land. There’s stark contrast between the movements and yet there are also traces of continuity. While there are differences in the movements, there are themes of movement quality throughout the ballet. It’s been intriguing!
What is it like working with Ratmansky through the creative process?
He comes in very prepared, which is awesome for the dancers. It helps to minimize time when you’re not doing anything, which can often happen when a work is in the choreography phase. He has his ideas written down in a journal. He’ll come in and teach us the idea for a section and a chunk of choreography. We’ll learn it and do it, and as we do it the second or third time, he’ll make adjustments. He’ll often ask what feels more natural. Sometimes someone might make a mistake or do something a little differently and he may like that version and make changes. That being said, to choreograph a full-length ballet is a lot of work. He’s only able to spend so much time on any given section. So he’ll lay the groundwork and make adjustments. Then as a team, when we’re in the cleaning process getting everyone together, we make adjustments to make sure we’re all doing the same thing.
What roles are you dancing in the ballet?
In Act One, I am a whipped cream lady, which is a women’s corps role. In Act Two, I’m a Nurse, which is also a corps role, then a swirl girl, which is one of Princess Praline’s attendants. And then I’m a little girl who is one of the main boy’s friends.
How are your characters’ natures translated into and represented by different movement styles?
When the ballet opens in the normal world and I’m a little kid, we’re not in pointe shoes, just street shoes because we’re children. Since we’re not yet either in the whimsical whipped cream world or the scary hospital, the movement is more every-day, classical almost. Then, in the whipped cream world, it’s totally fun. Many of the movements we do actually remind you of literally whipping cream, or of what happens to cream when it’s being whipped—little peaks and swirls. For the nurses, we have stronger, sharper movements, very edgy and dark. For the swirl girl, it’s very bouncy and upbeat and chipper. And the finale is just delightful. It’s been a joy to work on!
Sometimes Ratmansky will use the same movement in different realms, but because it’s being done in such a different way, and it might also be in tandem with different kinds of movement right before or after, you almost don’t recognize it as the same movement. So there is this unity throughout all these differences that are really interesting.
How is it different or special to be dancing in a premiere as opposed to a previously performed piece?
The first thing that comes to mind is definitely the amount of teamwork that it involves in a new and different way than when you’re reviving a piece or setting a classical ballet. It’s new material for all of us and it genuinely takes the whole company for this to work. It’s not just the choreographer setting the piece. It’s also us coming together and really being attendant to the ballet masters to get everything together and clean. We always have to work together, but this is special for the amount of attention you give to each other. You have to check with each other. “What head are you doing here? How are you doing this? Is my style matching yours?” This isn’t classical ballet when everyone’s arabesques look mostly the same. It’s a very new movement vocabulary, so it doesn’t come with any style guideline. The music is so fun, and everyone interprets it differently at first. Your natural dance look interpreting it might be really different than someone else’s. You feel like you want to do what feels best for you, but we have to figure out together how to make it look the same on everyone.
I cannot wait to see everything come together. I’ve only seen a few of the costumes and sets pieces. It’s going to be so much fun. It’s really an adventure and I’m so excited!
Ratmansky is such a nuanced musical choreographer. How do you think the music has shaped this ballet and your experience dancing in it?
It is a really beautiful score by Richard Strauss. The story is such a bizarre concept, this weird fantasy about whipped cream! It’s funny to me that this existed and I’d never heard of it before. Strauss is always great, but this is strikingly beautiful music. And it brings you back into to the differences between the worlds in the ballet or scenes in different acts. Strauss does an incredible job of what Ratmanksy’s doing, creating unity throughout the whole piece. There are a couple of sections that are my favorites, but there are so many interesting, catchy phrases. it gives Ratmansky a lot to work with. It’s really fun and it naturally makes you want to dance and move.
What is your dance background?
I’m from Oregon originally. I started ballet there when I was nine. A few years later I went to the Rock School in Philadelphia and trained there for about three years. I was offered a place in the ABT studio company through Youth America Grand Prix, in which I competed while I was at the Rock School. I was in the studio company for about a year and a half, and then I became an apprentice. All apprentices at ABT do a 21-week apprentice program, and I joined the corps after that. This is now my second year in the corps.
What’s the transition like from studio company, through apprenticeship, to company?
I think the apprenticeship is set up for both parties. It’s for them to see how you fit in with the company and for you to understand how it works and what it’s going to be like. Not all companies are the same. Smaller companies function a lot differently and companies in other countries can be really different. The apprenticeship is a chance to see if this is the right company fit for you.
When I was in the studio company, my life was sort of similar to when I was at Rock in terms of class and rehearsal schedule. When you join the company it’s a big learning process. It was completely different than what I’d experienced before. What I noticed most was that it was such a change in my everyday responsibilities, mostly a lot of learning. There’s so much to learn, from the artistry you learn from the dancers in the company to the logistics of joining the union, to just so much choreography. When you’re in a studio or second company, you get large rehearsal periods for a few shows. In the company you have shorter rehearsal periods and long periods of performing, so you have to learn a lot of choreography in a short amount of time. And you have to learn to be consistent in your performances, to dance as well as you possibly can every time you’re on stage, which is a lot more to prepare for than when you’re in the studio company.
I loved it. I love learning and feeling like I’m progressing. Since I’d had several years of the same thing every day, which I loved, it was fun to learn a different way of approaching the career of being a dancer and doing what I love.
What are your goals for the future?
I think my main goal is just to become the best dancer that I can be. That definitely means working hard in class every day, working on variations I’m given, gym session, etc. But it’s also experiencing more art and learning more about the world, doing whatever it is I can do to have a better understanding of the world and humanity. The way I’ve chosen to try to make a positive difference in the world is through my dance (although I do other things in my free time). I’m better able to give as a dancer if I better understand to whom I’m giving and what I’m giving. That involves becoming technically the best dancer I can be, but also learning about what touches the audience and humanity in general. What do people need that I can give as a dancer through the steps I’m given with the choreography?
What do you enjoy doing when you’re not dancing?
I love reading, writing, and math, so I try to do as much as I can. I’m not currently enrolled in college academic classes, but I really hope to be soon. I love music, so I try to listen to live performances and see Broadway shows whenever I can. I LOVE the out doors, so whenever I squeeze in a bike ride or camping or something like whenever I can. I’m really interested in learning more about politics, business, and religion when I start taking classes. And cooking! I love cooking!
What advice would you offer aspiring dancers?
Stay as grounded and worldly as you can. Keep a bigger picture in mind and realize that life doesn’t exist only within the dance world. It’s so much bigger, so try to understand your role as a dancer as existing within a wider context in society. Don’t get too consumed with just the one dance aspect of yourself.
Photo: Sketches for Whipped Cream by Mark Ryden