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

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." —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

Latest Posts


Maria Kochetkova. Darian Volkova, Courtesy Kochetkova

Maria Kochetkova on How COVID-19 Affected Her Freelance Career, and Her New Home at Finnish National Ballet

When international star Maria Kochetkova embarked on a freelance career three years ago, she never envisioned how a global pandemic would affect it. In 2018, the Russian-born ballerina left the security of San Francisco Ballet, a company she called home for more than a decade, for the globe-trotting life of a guest star. Before the pandemic, Kochetkova managed her own performing schedule and was busier than ever, enjoying artistic freedom and expanding her creative horizons. This all changed in March 2020, when she saw her booming career—and her jet-setting lifestyle—change almost overnight.

After months of uncertainty, Kochetkova landed at Finnish National Ballet, where she is a principal dancer for the 2020–21 season. Pointe spoke with her about her time during the quarantine and what helped her to get through it, her new life in Helsinki, and what keeps her busy and motivated these days.

Keep reading SHOW LESS
DTH's Alexandra Hutchinson and Derek Brockington work out with trainer Lily Overmyer at Studio IX. Photo by Joel Prouty, Courtesy Hutchinson.

Working Out With DTH’s Alexandra Hutchinson

Despite major pandemic shutdowns in New York City, Alexandra Hutchinson has been HIIT-ing her stride. Between company class with Dance Theater of Harlem and projects like the viral video "Dancing Through Harlem"—which she co-directed with roommate and fellow DTH dancer Derek Brockington—Hutchinson has still found time to cross-train. She shares her motivation behind her killer high-intensity interval training at Studio IX on Manhattan's Upper West Side.

Keep reading SHOW LESS
Getty Images

As Ballet Looks Toward Its Future, Let's Talk About Its Troubling Emotional Demands

As a ballet student, I distinctively remember being told that to survive ballet as a profession, one must be exceptionally thick-skinned and resilient. I always assumed it was because of the physically demanding nature of ballet: long rehearsal hours, challenging and stressful performances, and physical pain.

It wasn't until I joined a ballet company that I learned the true meaning behind those words: that the reason one needs thick skin is not because of the physical demands, but because of the unfair and unnecessary emotional demands.

Undoubtedly, emotional and physical strength go hand in hand to some extent. But the kind of emotional demand I am talking about here is different; it is not the strength one finds in oneself in moments of fatigue or unwillingness. It is the strength one must have when being bullied, humiliated, screamed at, manipulated or harassed.

Keep reading SHOW LESS

Editors' Picks