Backstage in the Fantastical World of Alexei Ratmansky's "Whipped Cream" for ABT
Photographed by Rachel Papo.
Choreographer Alexei Ratmansky has said that had he not come across the work of Mark Ryden, he might never have made his new ballet, Whipped Cream. Ratmansky, artist in residence at American Ballet Theatre, had been mulling the project for decades. He loved the music and the whimsical storyline imagined by composer Richard Strauss, about a boy who overindulges on whipped cream and falls ill and, in his delirium, dreams about dancing cakes and candies. Without a convincingly decadent set, though, he couldn’t imagine how it would work. “I think the music demands richness onstage,” says Ratmansky. He found what he was looking for in the visual world of painter Mark Ryden.
Ryden is known for detailed, dreamlike, flawlessly rendered and yet slightly unsettling canvases. Giant eyes peek out of tree stumps, and doll-like children mingle with skeletons or ride carriages pulled by centipedes. Though Ryden had never before worked in theater, his art is inherently theatrical.
“With the giant head, I have to make my body match the single expression,” says soloist Roman Zhurbin. “I try to make a face inside of the mask and hope my body reflects that.” (Rachel Papo)
Like Ratmansky, he found Strauss’ music to be a great source of inspiration: “It contains a great variety of feelings and moods,” he says. “It was fun to listen to it in the dark and imagine what might be onstage.”
In response, Ryden, assisted by ABT’s scenic-design team, created a wonderland of painterly backdrops, rococo set pieces and architectural streetscapes. “I looked at everything from historical military uniforms to ballet costumes from the Bauhaus,” Ryden explains. “I tend to build from a classical foundation and layer surrealistic elements upon that.” In addition to the dancers, there’s a menagerie of fanciful beasts onstage: a candy-cane snake, a giant snow yak, a furry long-necked pig, even a bee. Dancers wear giant hats and pointy crowns, and outfits that look like cupcakes and bottles and gumballs, or carry enormous hypodermic needles.
A child cast member waits to have his hair and makeup done. (Rachel Papo)
Constructing the sets and costumes took over a year with help from 11 shops all over the country. Getting it done in time was challenging, as is performing while wearing some of the costumes, especially the giant heads. “It’s a little wobbly, so I have to wear a neck brace so my head doesn’t move too much,” says ABT soloist Roman Zhurbin, who, as the pastry chef in Act I and the doctor in Act II, has to wear two different heads, each about four feet tall.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the set is its intricacy. “Mark put all these details in every piece, even in the wings,” says soloist Cassandra Trenary, who dances as Princess Praline. “Near one wing, he painted a poster that looks like an advertisement for a big show; the show is Whipped Cream, and the date on there is actually the date of our opening night.” A little inside joke, just for the dancers.
Princess Tea Flower’s Attendants wear tutus of tea leaves. (Rachel Papo)
“There is a beautiful stillness in the fantastical world Mark Ryden portrays,” Ratmansky said at a recent preview of the ballet. (Rachel Papo)
“Whipped Cream can’t be done on a bare stage. It really needs a world to be created onstage, and Mark has the vision to create that,” says Ratmansky. (Rachel Papo)
“In the second act I get to come onstage on a snow yak,” says soloist Cassandra Trenary, who plays Princess Praline. The yak, shown here in the background, is carried by two people concealed inside. (Rachel Papo)
Devon Teuscher prepares to rehearse as Princess Tea Flower. (Rachel Papo)
Corps dancers Connor Holloway and Nathan Vendt have their gingerbread-men hats secured. (Rachel Papo)
From left: Blaine Hoven, Jose Sebastian and Joseph Gorak stretch backstage before dress rehearsal. (Rachel Papo)