Once upon a time in America, people were hopeful of progress and their hearts were light. From that sweet place came movies like "La La Land" and its happily surreal relative, a ballet called "Whipped Cream."
That place doesn't exist anymore. And now the sunny entertainments left over from that time seem, despite their fabulousness, rather thin.
This is the case with "Whipped Cream," the evening-length story ballet that asks you to care deeply about pastries and pralines, which American Ballet Theatre is performing at the Kennedy Center Opera House. It's partly a children's ballet, with dessert motifs that bring "The Nutcracker" instantly to mind, but with a screwy, madcap, adult sensibility. The story centers on a boy who gorges on sweets to the point of hospitalization, from which he's rescued by said sweets, who whisk him off to a sugary paradise, where he's feted with a blinding shower of gold confetti.
Comparisons with "The Nutcracker" give this ballet too much credit, because the story, while simple, progresses in fits and starts. More important, "Whipped Cream" doesn't have a great score. The music is by Richard Strauss, who wrote it in 1924. His ballet, called "Schlagobers" (the Austrian term for whipped cream), premiered in Vienna but faded away. Maybe the music had something to do with that. It brings to mind heavy ballgowns and luxe high life, but it's neither terribly dancey nor memorable.
ABT's attempt to make something of Strauss's original concept is the work of the ever-resourceful and reliable choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, ABT's artist in residence. He teamed up with pop surrealist artist Mark Ryden for the sets and costumes. A Ryden painting, apparently, inspired Lady Gaga's meat dress, so that gives you a hint of the cockeyed view he's brought to the stage here.
The sets and costumes are glorious, and they're the focus and chief reward of the ballet. Among the standouts: Huge bobbleheads on the doctor and chef; a giant pink carriage; a big, furry snow yak; a candy-cane worm the length of a Cadillac; and bouncy little cupcakes and petits fours (danced by children, and they're the most adorable things you ever saw).
But there's darkness, too: A giant rheumy eye overlooks the hospital room, blinking menacingly. Hairy, enlarged bacteria stud a sparkly night sky full of stars and glowing bonbons.
"Whipped Cream" premiered a year ago in California and New York, when a nation newly Trumped was undoubtedly grateful for the diversion. This ballet does divert. The dancers, at Thursday's opening, were splendid throughout the ranks, particularly the ravishing Stella Abrera in the leading role of Princess Tea Flower; David Hallberg, a natural comic who gave a very witty, slightly hostile edge to Prince Coffee; and Daniil Simkin as the affable and highly virtuosic Boy. Sarah Lane was a lovely Princess Praline. What more can one say? Everyone was lovely. The ballet is a vehicle of loveliness, and pinkness.
Yet, there is just no argument here. "Whipped Cream" doesn't pump up much excitement, through story or visceral momentum, nor does it spin forward any meaningful theme. The Boy goes back to lapping up whipped topping at the end (the mom in me crying out, "Can't anyone see he's lactose intolerant?") But so what. By that point we've been lulled by all the charm and pompons and sweeping pas de deux.
I came away feeling that the dancers' talents were spent on fluff when they could have been put to better use, on art that brings about a new understanding, that sends one's spirit on a journey, that speaks to the heights of human potential at a time when we are mired in its depths.
"So much money, so little truth": That's how the trenchant modernist choreographer Antony Tudor saw the overstuffed excesses of big-story ballets half a century ago. The same words suit "Whipped Cream."
American Ballet Theatre performs Alexei Ratmansky's "Whipped Cream" through Sunday. Call 202-467-4600 or visit kennedy-center.org.