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The Arts and Medicine
February 19, 2019

Whipped Cream—Viennese Ballet and Pop Surrealism Meet Dark Medicine

Author Affiliations
  • 1New York University School of Medicine, New York
  • 2The Ronald O. Perelman Department of Dermatology, New York University School of Medicine, New York
  • 3Department of Music, Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey
JAMA. 2019;321(7):630-631. doi:10.1001/jama.2018.19502

Late in his long and distinguished career, German composer Richard Strauss decided to “go light.” Weary of politically influenced music critics and of economic instability in post–World War I Vienna, Strauss said, “I cannot bear the tragedy of the present time. I want to create joy.” He composed a Nutcracker-like ballet entitled Whipped Cream (Schlagobers), which premiered at the Vienna State Opera in 1924.

It tells of a boy who is hospitalized for abdominal pain after overeating at a Viennese sweet shop and who subsequently hallucinates about being rescued from a sinister attending physician by a dancing Princess Praline. It’s campy, but underlying this seemingly innocent childhood fantasy of dancing confections was (and is) public distrust of medicine.

In its time, the ballet carried veiled political commentary on relationships between France, Poland, and Russia, symbolized in a dance of anthropomorphic liquor bottles, but the American Ballet Theatre (ABT) 2017 production, with choreography by artist-in-residence Alexei Ratmansky and sets and costumes by pop-surrealist artist Mark Ryden, emphasizes medical matters.

An antagonistic physician shown from the perspective of a feverish child in the American Ballet Theatre’s production of Whipped Cream (Schlagobers).

Photo credit: Gene Schiavone. Used with permission.

The performance, presented from the perspective of a feverish child, portrays an antagonistic attending physician with an enormous head. The boy is surrounded by a swarm of 12 nurses executing parallel passé relevés as they run toward him while holding oversized syringes in an exaggerated, weapon-like portrayal that seems topical now when vaccine-preventable diseases have resurfaced due to the antivaccination movement. The boy, who learns that unhealthy choices have medical consequences, experiences iatrogenic hallucinations of anthropomorphic candies. Princess Praline arrives to help him escape from the hospital unnoticed by his attending physician, who has left the ward on a drinking binge with the nurses. The entire medical team falls into a deep alcohol-induced slumber and upon waking, discovers that the patient has either been kidnapped or has left the hospital against medical advice. The attending physician collapses onto the empty hospital bed and falls asleep once more.

Ryden’s pop-surrealist style, while merry on the surface, has a nightmarish quality, which complements Strauss’ usage of overly bright, sometimes painfully consonant harmonies. If the patient’s delirium had a musical equivalent, it would be Strauss’ neoclassicism, a confusing stylistic phase of his late career that belies the trajectory of his earlier, more experimental works. Additionally, the spikiness of Strauss’ accompanying harmonies during the syringe sequence and the tingling he creates in the ear might be likened to the resulting prick of vaccination or injection. Gone in this contemporary version is the banal cheerfulness of the original; gone too are the riots of proletariat cakes against aristocratic cookies in later East German versions. In are Ratmansky and Ryden’s reflections on an alienating and hostile health care system. The sets are over the top, and everyone overindulges. The dancers of the corps de ballet step lightly through it all.

Submissions: The Arts and Medicine editors welcome proposals for features in the section. Submit yours at artsandmedicine@jamanetwork.com.
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Article Information

Corresponding Author: Jason F. Wang, BA, New York University School of Medicine, 550 First Ave, New York, NY 10016 (jason.wang@nyumc.org).

Conflict of Interest Disclosures: None reported.

Additional Information: The American Ballet Theatre premiered Whipped Cream at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, New York, in 2017. It subsequently toured in other US locations, Hong Kong, China, then returned to the Metropolitan Opera House. Mark Ryden’s costumes were displayed in 2017 at The Shops at Columbus Circle in New York, New York.

Upcoming production dates include the following:

April 6, 2019, Hancher Auditorium, Iowa City, Iowa

April 11-14, 2019, Auditorium Theatre, Chicago, Illinois

May 24-29, 2019, Metropolitan Opera House.

Additional Contributions: We thank Melissa Meng, BS, Avant Chamber Ballet, for her assistance with ballet choreography terminology.

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