Credit: Ruven Afanador

In the surreal world of American Ballet Theatre’s Whipped Cream, a boy is hospitalized after gorging on sweets, sending him into a vibrant fantasyland of dancing desserts while a drunk doctor and a gang of syringe-wielding nurses attempt to treat his illness. This massive spectacle cost nearly $3 million to create, blending two ambitious, unique creative perspectives to revitalize a largely forgotten 1924 score by composer Richard Strauss.

Choreographed by Alexei Ratmansky with set and costume designs by pop surrealist painter Mark Ryden in his theatrical debut, Whipped Cream is the first production in Auditorium Theatre’s new four-year partnership with ABT. The contrast of creepy and adorable visuals in Ryden’s artwork makes him the ideal designer to shape the show’s aesthetic, which engages with childhood fears even as it delivers a steady stream of whimsy.

“One of the things I like best about Whipped Cream is the contrast between sweetness and darkness,” says Ryden. “The ballet travels from a happy sweet world to a dark mysterious world and then back again. Life contains dark and light. To see and experience anything, there must be contrast. Without darkness there would be no light.”

Of all his fantastical designs for the show, the snow yak that carries Princess Praline stands out for Ryden. “When I first came up with the idea of incorporating this character of mine into the ballet, I didn’t think everybody would go for it,” he says. “But they loved it. It was a very complicated piece to engineer. There are two dancers inside, one operating the head and front legs, the other the hind legs and a baby that rides upon the back of the yak.”

A team of set and costume technicians had the challenge of translating Ryden’s designs to the stage, finding solutions that would vent heat, allow for movement, and provide visibility for dancers moving large pieces through a cast of 65 people.

“[Whipped Cream] is an entry point to understand what the theater part of our title is about,” says ABT artistic director Kevin McKenzie. “The artwork and the design had as much input as the choreography, but choreographically, it’s probably some of the most challenging for every level of dancer in it.”

Following the 2017 announcement that the Joffrey Ballet would be moving from the Auditorium Theatre to the Civic Opera House starting in 2020, the Auditorium found a mighty replacement to fill its ballet void in ABT. “We are the nation’s ballet company and Chicago is one of the major cities in the world,” says McKenzie. “We’re supposed to bring the best of American dance to the world, and with a city of such culture in a theater with such historic significance, it would be a sin of omission to not be coming to Chicago and the Auditorium Theatre.”   v