The good news currently coming from the USA relates to stage dance. It is there that a choreographer – Alexei Ratmansky, originally from Russia – has dared to turn to ballet music which – relative to its author’s fame – has long gone unnoticed. Perhaps, coming from America the work, namely Richard Strauss’s “Schlagobers” (“Whipped Cream”), first produced in Vienna in 1924, will become what it was originally intended to be, a delicacy of the international repertory.
Although even the announcement by the American Ballet Theatre that “Whipped Cream” would be performed met with astonishment, naming the choreographer created an even keener sense of eager anticipation. For thanks to his studies of Petipa notation, in terms of professional skills, Ratmansky draws upon much richer material than most classical choreographers of his generation. While the language of these choreographers often conveys nothing more than globalized, meaningless politeness, giving the impression that ballet is a dead art form, in terms of professional craftsmanship, Ratmansky demonstrates that this is not the case. Using Petipa as his point of departure, he applies the existing vocabulary in all its fullness as delicately as pointedly, in a highly differentiated and varied manner.
Alastair Macaulay, the ballet critic of the “New York Times”, emphasizes precisely this virtue when he writes that the entire ensemble has grown through his work: “The subtle tilt of torso, the spiraling flourish of one raised arm amid supported pirouettes, the flicker of legs beating or circling in the air: these and many other details – delivered with grace and panache – ad up cumulatively, like threads in a tapestry, so the ballet becomes a complex visual luxury.” But is Ratmansky’s version of “Whipped Cream” a good ballet merely on the basis of the material used?
“A cheerful counterpart to the ‘Josephs Legende’, like a ‘Rosenkavalier’ following ‘Elektra’” (Julius Korngold)
Ratmansky’s “Whipped Cream” was premiered on March 15, 2017 in Costa Mesa, California, and was included in the American Ballet Theatre’s season at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. In the numerous, detailed as well as competent reviews of the production a general consensus is striking. Accordingly, the Viennese world premiere of the two-act ballet on May 9, 1924, choreographed by the Munich-born ballet master of the Vienna State Opera, Heinrich Kröller, was a flop. At fault was the “kitschy” music by Richard Strauss. The fact that these Viennese (music) reviews are familiar to a broader American public goes back to a 2009 book by Wayne Heisler Jr. In “The Ballet Collaborations of Richard Strauss”, the musicologist devotes himself expressly to Strauss’s ballet compositions and cites all influential personalities of contemporary Viennese cultural journalism: Julius Korngold, Ernst Decsey, Richard Specht, Elsa Bienenfeld, Heinrich Kralik, but also Karl Kraus. It is obvious that these reviews by well-known personalities intended to match their ridicule to the composer’s fame. Sarcastic comments by these literary critics, who were generally in favor of ballet, were noted. In rare agreement, the commentators found Strauss’s libretto to be ridiculous, as it was not “ennobled” by collaboration with one of the “taste-mongers” of the time, such as Hugo von Hofmannsthal; the score was unworthy of the creator of “Also sprach Zarathustra”. Concerning the performance itself, i.e. Kröller’s work, aside from the production’s immense costs – two (inflation) billion kroner – little interest was shown. This reflects the attitude of Viennese cultural life (not only) at the time towards ballet productions of the State Opera. Proceeding from the (absurd) idea that a good ballet consists solely of a libretto deemed valuable in literary terms plus a qualitatively excellent composition, at that time choreography was deemed a “silent game” which, if not provided with exact instructions for movement by the librettist, could in fact be altered by the composer himself. (In London in 1914, Strauss instructed Tamara Karsavina – then the portrayer of Potiphar’s wife – how she was to dance.) The choreographer’s role was understood to be that of a warden organizing a stage event, whose task it was to form a work combining literary ideas and music.
But this understanding of choreography by the “art world” already marked a considerably advanced point of view. Following the adage that “ballet is for children, senile dignitaries and hussars,” the social purpose of stage dance, ignored by other arts, was only to satisfy the viewers’ curiosity. This attitude changed around 1900, when a crisis of meaning demanded a search for new means of expression. Representatives of literature, music and painting found new possibilities in a “speaking body” (as opposed to body types) which could now be incorporated into their own art forms. This in turn differed principally from another simultaneous development in which – outside the institutionalized theatres – a “free” art of movement unfolded, based completely on the body’s facility for expression.
Heisler’s book is all the more valuable because it stresses that Strauss was one of the pioneers who saw in dance a possibility of renewing music theatre. Even before first attempts in this direction, which were undertaken at opera houses which later became important for Strauss, he worked on various projects; however, none of them were ever implemented. “Kythere” was one of the most important among these projects on which Strauss worked unsuccessfully.
After the turn of the century authors and composers turned to stage dance, which they then considered “spiritual body theatre.” In order to distinguish it from traditional ballet, this new form was often referred to as “pantomime”. One of these works was Alexander von Zemlinsky’s “Triumph der Zeit” (“The Triumph of Time”) of 1901, written in Vienna following a script by Hofmannsthal which had originally been intended for Strauss. Neither libretto nor music impressed Court Opera Director Gustav Mahler. Part of the work (a “Dance Poem”) was first performed only in 1992 in Zurich, choreographed by Bertrand d’At. Franz Schreker’s “Der Geburtstag der Infantin” (“The Birthday of the Infanta”) was presented in 1908 in Vienna, choreographed by Elsa Wiesenthal. In Dresden Ernst von Dohnanyi’s “Der Schleier der Pierrette” (“The Veil of Pierrette”) was first performed in 1910 with Arthur Schnitzler’s libretto and Augustin Berger’s choreography. In the same year there followed Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s “Der Schneemann” (“The Snow Man”) in Vienna, choreographed by Carl Godlewski. Between these productions fell Strauss’s world premieres of works in which dance played a central (“Salome”, 1905) or final (“Elektra”, 1909) role. In addition there were his musical explorations of the waltz and extensive mimetic action in “Der Rosenkavalier” in 1911, as well as Grete Wiesenthal’s dances in “Der Bürger als Edelmann”, performed before “Ariadne auf Naxos” in Stuttgart in 1912. The commission to write “Josephs Legende” for the Ballets Russes seems to fit into this series, but Strauss, and even more his librettists Hofmannsthal and Harry Graf Kessler, were not in agreement with the basic character of the Ballets Russes productions. Though conceived as creations unifying all the arts, the focus of their works – even “Le Sacre du printemps” – was on choreography. Representing as it did a Central European understanding of the work, i.e. requiring first and foremost an intellectual interpretability of the libretto, “Josephs Legende”, whose choreography was of minor importance, could only result in a failure for the company. Consequently, the work disappeared from the program of the Ballets Russes. Conversely, the fact that “Josephs Legende” entered the repertoire of European opera houses is due to the reputations of Strauss and the librettists. An “arranging director of movement,” as the choreographer was considered, was always on hand.
The fact that some choreographic personalities working in the classic tradition had already begun to think differently, and were oriented towards a stage dance scene which was constantly changing, was shown by Kröller, writing about the concept behind “Schlagobers”: “The events in the pastry shop could only be realized by the stage director’s concentration on rhythm and pure dance, but not expressive ballet in the modern sense.”
The most significant limitation of the Ratmansky production concerns the treatment of the libretto. For reasons that remain unclear, Ratmansky continued the process of belittling the libretto to which the composer, as his own librettist, had already subjected the storyline. The American dance critic George Jackson, originally from Vienna and born during the era in which “Schlagobers” was still part of the State Opera’s repertoire, writes: “For his version of Richard Strauss’s curious ballet, Alexei Ratmansky has altered the action. He almost turns it into a harmless children’s tale. Mild humor instead of sharp irony cloaks the character types. Nowhere is the possibility of a revolution implied. Only the figure of the Doctor and the corps of Nurses exude a demonic air.” Strauss’s original intention for “Schlagobers” was a caricature view of the times, told in humoristic fashion. While socio-political conditions in Vienna in 1924 were the reason that Strauss refrained from sharp criticism, in 2017 presumably the American public’s views and the box office prevent any critical comment on contemporary conditions.
According to Kröller, Strauss’s plans for a “cheerful Viennese ballet” inspired by Peter Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” were of a completely different nature, plans which Walter Warbeck discusses minutely in his article “‘Schlagobers’: Music between Coffeehouse and Revolution”. The project went back to the war years and had two sources of inspiration. The first stemmed from Hofmannsthal, who remembered the descriptions of a youth who has immersed himself too deeply in romantic books and thereafter has peculiar dreams. This turned into a boy who overindulged in a pastry shop, with all kinds of consequences. The second source is a project that was more developed, which Strauss finally shared with the Berlin author Alfred Kerr. The main idea was a “political-satiric parody in a cutting style à la Jacques Offenbach,” in which contemporary types of different social classes and backgrounds interacted. Some material was retained and was presumably recognizable in the choreographic realization.
At the centre stood the boy about to be confirmed – conceived, of course, as a trouser role – a familiar Viennese type with religious connotations, traditionally associated with a complete catalog of customs. Particularly during those post-war years so full of sacrifice – one of the slogans of “Red Vienna” was that no longer should any child be born on a sheet of newspaper – precisely these traditions appealed to the audience’s fantasy. They include the rich godfather, the first watch, the first suit, a ride to the Prater in a decorated horse carriage, a balloon in a net, the first photograph of the confirmand and a visit to a pastry shop – should it be Gerstner or rather Demel? Once settled there, the boy is first presented with personified delicacies imported from abroad (Princess Tea Flower, the Princes Coffee and Cocoa, Don Sugar). He promptly overindulges in whipped cream and experiences evil visions. He finds himself among a set of personifications, disguised as (alcoholic) spirits which usher the “global players” of 1924 onto the stage. There is France (Mademoiselle Marianne Chartreuse) who seeks union with Germany (Michel Nordhäuser). There is Russia (Boris Wutky) who is only allowed to carry France’s train. As matzos costumed as oriental magicians, Jewish newspaper publishers and revolutionaries with long pointed beards incite and harass the common dessert population of suburban Ottakring, which can only be subdued by beer from Munich. The confirmand also recovers. Monarchic splendor (Princess Praline together with consort and court) can only be admired in the form of confectionary display pieces.
Political events of the time then forced changes, for in 1923 France occupied the Ruhr region, and any thought of a rapprochement between France and Germany on the ballet stage became null and void. In the piano score, the German name “Michel” was taped over and replaced by the Polish “Ladislaw”, and the scheming Jews were replaced by smooth-shaven oriental magicians reminiscent of Santa Claus. Yet where did the confirmand come from? For Julius Korngold he hailed not from suburbia, but rather from the “estate of Herr von Lerchenau”.
As previously indicated, many used the occasion of the world premiere of “Schlagobers” to thoroughly air their opinion of the composer, who was at that time Director of the Vienna State Opera (a position he shared with Franz Schalk). Karl Kraus was the harshest critic who vented his fury upon Strauss with an insufferable attitude, claiming that not even in the depths of the ballet could he hope for success. No one had any intention to describe what was actually presented on the stage. Hardly anyone noticed that the characters on stage had been (slightly) altered.
Only one music journalist dealt both competently and in detail with the premiere: Paul Stefan. His position as chief editor of the legendary “Musikblätter des Anbruchs” as well as founding member of the “Internationale Gesellschaft für Neue Musik” and as a student of Arnold Schoenberg prevent any suspicion that he was an enthusiastic Strauss follower. To this day, his book “Tanz in dieser Zeit” published in 1926, remains an indispensable source. Stefan’s various essays in “Die Stunde”, traditions passed on, “oral history,” but especially Kröller’s short essay “Wie ‘Schlagobers’ entstand”, provide a picture vastly different from that of the continuously repeated negative reviews. Stefan’s reports again confirm that Kröller, considered a moderate reformer, was, at that time and place, the right choice as choreographer. Kröller describes how he dealt with the libretto, which he had received as early as 1922: “to translate the tale entirely into movement, body movement, to dissolve [it] and make every voice in the orchestra equally visible on the stage”. This could only be accomplished “by clear, strictly rhythmic but visually beautiful forms of our choreographic adaptations”. Stefan’s comment: Kröller had “focused his entire staging on the art of dance” and he expressly added: “not in the sense of a revue, stiff and silent”. The entire event was a “living play”, with less room for pantomime. Thus Stefan contradicts any impression that “Schlagobers” was intended merely as entertainment with too scant a plot. Kröller achieved the largely “through-choreographed” impression by the device that the narrating parties (e.g. the Godfather, the Doctor, the Magicians) may have been cast with high-ranking mimes, but their on-stage comportment was largely guided by dance. This was precisely the characteristic of a reform movement.
As supported by notation, the choreography of the great “Schlagobers-Waltz” can be seen as constructed according to tradition. Designed for 48 female dancers, the formations were symmetrical with constantly changing internal patterns. The order of the soli – in accordance with the music – was by no means always in the same “tone”. Personality and the dancers’ fach, ranging from noble to grotesque – showed a finely nuanced series of “colors”. Moreover, some of the classical dancers – Tilly Losch, Toni Birkmeyer – had already cast their eye upon Modern Dance, which had blossomed in Vienna through guest appearances, but also “home-grown” performances. Therefore, individual soli also had other accents.
It is known that the soloists were of high quality as dancers. Thanks to her role as Princess Praline the elegant Gusti Pichler was promoted to prima ballerina; the sophisticated Tilly Losch (Princess Tea Flower) soon enjoyed a world career; the decorative Hedy Pfundmayr (Prince Coffee) later also became successful as a proponent of Modern Dance; Maria Mindszenty (the Vision) became an enchanting film actress; Adele Krausenecker (Mademoiselle Marianne Chartreuse) was considered a top “pointe” technician. Riki Raab, who later assumed the roles of Princess Praline and Tea Flower, became known worldwide as a dance historian. The ever noble Toni Birkmeyer (Don Sugar and Ladislaw Slivowitz) was just as much a mainstay of the State Opera as an internationally known soloist and ensemble leader. In addition he danced the role of Joseph in Vienna. This highly desired role had also been played by Willy Fränzl, who had also been cast as “pas-de-deux dancer” (Husband of Princess Praline). Rudi Fränzl (Boris Wutky) and the brilliant actor Adolf Nemeth (Prince Cocoa) were among the leading character dancers of the ensemble. The student Gretl Theimer was long remembered as the playful confirmand, and went on to become a movie star.
So what did the viewer who attended the premiere of “Schlagobers” in 1924, directed by Strauss, see? Stefan summarized: “‘Schlagobers’ is an event worth seeing. Kröller has enchanted the State Opera Ballet, has driven out all the dance-school sleepiness and created an interesting ensemble well-aware of all the achievements of the Russians, the Swedes, the individual artists.” Concerning Strauss’s music, Stefan exercised noble restraint, praising all the more Ada Nigrin, a proponent of the arts-and-crafts movement trained in Prague and the first woman to design a production for the Opera House on the Ring. Kröller wrote: “That rhythmic consonance between décor, lighting and movement which I had envisioned for the entire piece, could only be achieved at the end, in the scene of the suburb, as the rapid merging of the various dreamlike visions appeared to me as most important”.
Contrary to widely held opinions, in fact “Schlagobers” had a life following its world premiere. As performances planned for the 1924/25 Munich season failed to materialize for financial reasons (Kröller had offered the role of Princess Praline to Friderica Derra de Moroda), a whole series of performances flooded not only Germany. The Max Semmler Touring Ensemble offered an interesting format. It travelled with the soloists Ami Schwaninger and Irail Gadescov, a fixed choreography by Semmler as well as a production designed by Emil Pirchan and rehearsed a modified version of the ballet (a seven-year-old birthday child in place of the confirmand) in various cities with local ballet ensembles. The first location and thus the German premiere took place in Breslau on October 9, 1924 (the local theatre director was Heinz Tietjen), the local Breslau artists included the Swedlund sisters, Helga and Inge. In addition there was a corps de ballet from Vienna. Strauss himself conducted. During the 1924/25 season the Semmler production is said to have appeared 20 times; performances in Rostock, Mainz, Karlsruhe, Düssseldorf, Bremen and Braunschweig, as well as in Basel, were announced.
The enormous expenditures required by the production presumably prevented opera houses from adding “Schlagobers” to the repertoire during the thirties. Only Lina Gerzer presented it in 1939 in Stuttgart. At the Vienna State Opera it appeared 40 times, 9 of which were conducted by Strauss; the last performance took place on June 20, 1933 (no doubt partly caused by the radical reduction of the ballet ensemble from 107 dancers in 1924 to 51 in 1933).
The same reasons may have delayed a reappearance of “Schlagobers” after 1945. Not until 1964 did a production by Austrian television take place with the Ballet of the Vienna Volksoper and guest soloists from the Vienna State Opera Ballet (choreography by Dia Luca). In 1976 it was presented in Innsbruck (choreography by Alexander Meissner), in 1995 it was seen in Baden (choreography by Bohdana Simova). Worth mentioning is the “Schlagobers” version put on by Karl Alfred Schreiner in 2014 at Munich’s Staatstheater am Gärtnerplatz. With an altered libretto, and at times accordingly chaotic, at times brilliant – especially the setting at a foam party – the version dubbed as “terpsichorean candy” paid substantial homage to Strauss in his anniversary year.
Without any special occasion such as a Strauss commemoration, merely attracted by the music to “Schlagobers” and its delicacy, Ratmansky had already turned his attention to the work in the form of a miniature produced in Winnipeg in 1994. Then in 2014, in “Dance Suite” for Dresden, he focused on the very first ballet that Strauss had created for the Vienna State Opera Ballet: the “Couperin-Suite”, premiered at the Redoutensaal with choreography by Kröller in 1923. Now then the American first performance of the evening-length “Schlagobers”.
With the inimical Viennese reviews of 1924 in mind – during the same year Strauss rejected an extension of his position as director, much to the joy of the Schalk followers – one is immediately struck by the almost euphoric tenor of the reviews of the new Ratmansky ballet. For Macaulay, with the recent “Rosenkavalier” production at the Met still in his ear, the ballet’s music seems like a “revelation”. To him, Ratmansky’s dances lend poetry to the harmless script, giving it a “tender appetite for frivolity”. The four main roles are considered challenges to virtuosity without falling into clichés. Mark Ryden’s designs are part of the success. As the Boy, Daniil Simkin, well-known also in Vienna, celebrated a triumph. The character roles of the Chef and the Doctor were created by Alexei Agoudine, a graduate of the Vienna State Opera’s ballet school. According to Marina Harss in “DanceTabs”, “Whipped Cream” was “light, frothy, and yet sophisticated”. And Joan Acocella on choreographic details in “The New Yorker”: “Not since the death of Balanchine has anyone made a ballet routine so inventive.” So, more than mere “visual luxury”!
This raises the question: may not what is just for the USA be right for Vienna as well? (Although concerning a possible Viennese production, a closer approximation of the libretto to Strauss’s original version would be desirable.)
One year ago – on June 24, 2016 – Hilde Längauer, the last living ensemble member in Kröller’s “Schlagobers”, passed away at the age of 102 years. As a 13-year old student in 1927 she was given the role of the Confirmand, in her later artistic career she performed in operettas.
Translation: Alexa Nieschlag