A Gibson girl with a perfectly coiffed Vidal Sassoon bob wearing a ballgown made of slabs of meat and sausage links; a wide-eyed, silver-haired, childlike waif half submerged in a body of water containing amoebas, protozoa, body parts, and a foetus; Amanda Seyfried as a lady with ermine (in this case, it’s a dead cat) and Katy Perry posing like Titian’s Venus in a “Garden of Earthly Delights” settings — these are just a few examples of the works of pop-surrealist painter Mark Ryden, who, in his 30-year career, brought the lowbrow art movement out of the underground circuit of Southern California and into the mainstream.
So when American Ballet Theatre’s choreographer and artist-in-residence Alexei Ratmansky and artistic director Kevin McKenzie decided to revive Richard Strauss’s surrealist and saccharine ballet Whipped Cream (called Schlagobers when it was originally performed in Vienna in 1924), Ryden was the ideal candidate to create the set and costumes. The libretto features a boy who just received his confirmation venturing into a pastry shop and overdosing on sugar. His excesses cause him to hallucinate, and his delirium takes the shape of a massive whirl of whipped cream emerging from an outsized bowl. He then finds himself at the hospital under the ministration of doctors and begs to be saved by Princess Praline, Princess Tea Flower, and Prince Coffee. Liquors, who are also part of this royal contingent, seduce the medical staff into a drunken stupor, and the ballet ends with an apotheosis of sweets — the original also contains a riot of lowly pastries pacified by vats of beer.
Ryden joins a rich tradition of surrealists dabbling in theater work: Salvador Dalí worked on a production of Le Tristan Fou, Dorothy Tanning did the costumes for Balanchine’s The Night Shadow, and Ernst and Miró worked on Diaghilev’s Romeo et Juliette, just to name a few.
This is a first for Ryden, who had no previous experience with theater design save for the dioramas in his “Gay 90s” series, which came with backdrops, stagings, props, costumes, and even miniature light switches. For Whipped Cream, he worked with costume designer Holly Hynes and set designer Camellia Koo, who translated his artwork into sets, props, and danceable gear. “I could never have begun to do this project without their experience and expertise to back up my complete lack of experience and knowledge,” he told Hyperallergic, with more than a hint of modesty. Hynes, who has designed costumes for five American Ballet Theatre productions, was careful to stay true to Ryden’s art and not getting caught up in the theatricality that is part of designing for the stage. To her, the experience was akin to being a midwife. “Mark did all the work making the baby,” she told Hyperallergic, “I just [helped] him birth it.”
In order to avoid undue influence, he didn’t extensively research Ada Nigrin’s original costumes for the Strauss production, which stand out for their elaborate Art Deco elements. Instead, he went straight to the source: “The first thing I did when this project came up was to get a CD of the music,” he said. “The music is wonderful… It contains such a great variety of feelings and moods, from exciting marches to very dreamy ethereal passages. It was fun to listen in the dark and imagine what might be on stage.”
What he imagined was a candy-colored dreamscape paired with his trademark surrealism. Swirl Girl wears a puffy pale pink number that reproduces the swish of icing. Princess Praline (who will be danced by Sarah Lane, Misty Copeland, and Cassandra Trenary) wears a coral-pink tutu with a candy-striped bodice and a matching skirt dotted with white pom-poms meant to represent sugar sprinkles. The costume for Princess Tea Flower (danced by Stella Abrera, Gillian Murphy, Isabella Boylston, and Hee Seo) is more elaborate, in that it reproduces the shape of the tea flower in a realistic fashion: The skirt has rows of olive-green leaves punctuated with blossoms, while the bodice comes with petals that are hand-painted, bedazzled, and face upward. That was Hynes’s favorite item to work on, and the fact that the petals were designed to be positioned that particular way created a unique set of challenges: “When the yoke or basque of the tutu connects to the bodice, we had to but the skirt on top of the bodice, which is the complete opposite of a traditional tutu,” she explained. “I love shaking up tradition, so this was a blast.”
If those costumes seem straightforwardly pretty and cute, that does not apply to all of Ryden’s creations for the production. In fact, for the “Whipped Cream Waltz,” the ensemble number at the end of Act I that Strauss envisioned as a riff on the traditional Ballet Blancs such as the swans in Swan Lake, the wilis in Gisele, or the snowflakes in the Nutcracker, Ryden did not create the expected billowy white tutus. Instead, he looked to Japan’s Zentai fashion, which consists of unitards covering the entire body. “My Whipped Cream ballerinas are a take-off on that theme,” he said. “We added a transparent soft cape made of the most beautiful and fascinating fabric. It is so weightless that it gently moves through the air as if it were made of smoke.”
Mark Ryden’s signature elements are widely present in his artwork for the ballet: The ballerinas are drawn in the style of his wide-eyed waifs; the color pink, from candy-coral to cooler hues, has been used generously in both costumes and sets; the sets themselves feature elaborate trompe l’oeil versions of the moldings and engravings that Ryden favors for the frames of his paintings, and the yak — a big, doll-eyed white beast not unlike the luck dragon in The Neverending Story, to whom Ryden devoted his entire “Snow Yak” series in 2008 — plays an important role in the boy’s hallucination. There are many more of his trademarks, but both Ryden and Koo kept mum about the specifics. “You will just have to come see the show and try to find them all!” said Koo.
Koo also has words of awe for the production’s builders and scenic artists who were tasked with recapturing Ryden’s painting style. “I do not just mean that they can copy inch for inch Mark’s very detailed final colored artwork,” she said. “It is through their own genius artistry that they really capture Mark’s style and joy and spirit in all of the details, which truly give life and vibrancy to the painted elements of the beautiful world that Mark has created.”
A lowbrow artist is the ideal complement to Whipped Cream, as today’s audiences are more keen to understand the mix of high and low art that puzzled theatergoers and critics during the ballet’s original run. In fact, the production was unanimously panned when it premiered: It was called derivative, banal, derisory, inartistic, of poor taste, and, above all, kitschy. “This whipped-cream morsel is, however, not so easy to digest,” wrote Viennese critic Heinrich Kralik. Perhaps understandably, the ballet’s outsized budget and escapist theme clashed with wartorn 1920s Vienna. “People always expect ideas from me, big things,” Strauss confessed in a letter to his friend Romain Rolland, who won the 1915 Nobel Prize in Literature. “Haven’t I the right, after all, to write what music I please? I cannot bear the tragedy of the present time. I want to create joy, I need it.”
While working on his designs, Ryden, a defender of the use of kitsch in art, found himself sharing that mindset. “The use of beauty and joy in art is often judged to be kitsch,” he explained. “I don’t fear the use of kitsch in my art. I believe kitsch is a domain that holds the powerful universal archetypes of the collective consciousness.”
With few productions to date (40 performances in Vienna in the 1920s, a premiere in Breslau, a Vienna Symphony and Volksopera production in 1964, a Milanese reenactment at Teatro Nuovo sponsored by a gelateria in 1989, and a revival at the Gärtnerplatztheater in Munich in late 2014) and such high-profile artistic collaboration, Whipped Cream has the potential, McKenzie reckons, to become a new classic. “Very few people have heard the score, very few people have heard of the tale,” he explains. “So it’s an all new experience. For the people who believe that ballet isn’t necessarily for them, the draw of the artwork, the fact that it is a fantasy tale and it leans ostensibly toward theater [more] than ballet, may produce an entirely new audience.” He sees Whipped Cream as ABT’s own Wizard of Oz. Does this mean Ryden came up with elements as iconic as the yellow brick road, the bedazzled slippers, or the gleaming towers of Emerald City? He is perhaps overly cautious about such enthusiasm. “I guess only time will tell if something in particular stands out and resonates,” he said. “The everlasting endurance of the ruby red slippers is not the kind of thing I feel you can predict or consciously create.”
American Ballet Theatre’s Whipped Cream will be performed at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts (600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, California) from March 15 to March 19. A New York run at the Metropolitan Opera House (30 Lincoln Center Plaza, New York) will follow from May 22 to July 1.
The Art of Whipped Cream will be shown at Paul Kasmin Gallery (515 W 27th St), opening May 20.