Backstage in the Fantastical World of Alexei Ratmansky's "Whipped Cream" for ABT

Dancers dressed as whipped cream. cakes and candies watch from the wings. Rachel Papo.

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." —Alexei RatmanskyRachel 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

Soloist 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

Instagram

Are you a total bunhead who loves to write? You might be the perfect fit for Pointe. We're seeking an editorial intern who's equally passionate about ballet and journalism.

Keep reading...
Sponsored by Ellison Ballet
Rachel Neville, Courtesy Ellison Ballet

If you've got your heart set on dancing for, say, San Francisco Ballet, you should attend a school that specializes in Balanchine, right? Not necessarily: It's actually a misconception that you have to train in a particular style or technique in order to pursue a career in that style. Ellison Ballet in New York City—which specializes in Vaganova technique—is living proof: Graduates of Ellison's year-round program and summer intensives go on to ballet companies that perform in a wide range of styles, and use what they've learned from Vaganova to land jobs.

Here are five reasons why studying Vaganova technique can actually make you a sought-after dancer for any number of ballet companies:

Keep reading...
Ballet Stars
Karina González in Ben Stevenson's Coppélia. Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy Houston Ballet.

Are you more of a Giselle or a Juliet?

I've always said that my favorite role is Juliet, because of her vulnerability and maturity throughout the ballet. But now that I've performed Giselle, I find her so incredibly enjoyable, from being a village girl who falls in love for the first time to the most tender, almost weightless dancing in Act II.

Are you more at home in the studio or onstage?

I love the time in the studio. The process of starting from zero to getting better each day is so rewarding. My favorite phrase in rehearsals is "Let's do it again, so I can sleep in peace tonight." I need to feel so comfortable in the studio so that when I am onstage there are no bad surprises.

Keep reading...
News
Getty Images

Dancers certainly don't need anyone to tell them how physical their profession is. But now, we have the data to prove it.

Researchers at InsuranceProviders.com analyzed data from the Occupational Information Network (O*NET), a national organization developed through support from the U.S. Department of Labor/Employment and Training Administration, to determine the 20 most physically demanding jobs in the country. They analyzed the level of strength, stamina, flexibility and coordination required for a host of jobs, and each category was assigned

Keep reading...