Strong’s Surrealist Ball
By Morgan Laurens
It’s a cold winter night in France. You’re dressed to the nines in formal wear, a sky-blue invitation dotted with white clouds tucked inside your coat. The invitation reads, “black tie, long dresses, surrealist headpiece.” You’re going to a party and the only thing missing is your antlers.
If you belonged to the crème de la crème of high society in the early ’70s, you probably would have received one of those blue invites in the mail, requesting your presence at Marie Rothschild’s Surrealist Ball. Held in 1972 at Château de Ferrières, a large mansion owned by the uber-wealthy Rothschild family, the sumptuous dinner party hosted a diverse group of guests, carefully selected by its hostess. Rothschild, a well-known Parisian socialite, loved parties and people. She was famous for collecting acquaintances from the worlds of art, literature, haute couture, and Parisian high society, and then getting them to mingle. Supermodel Marisa Berenson attended the Surrealist Ball, along with famed perfumer Hélène Rochas. Poets rubbed elbows with business moguls. Dancers waxed philosophical with Italian princesses. To the delight of everyone, Audrey Hepburn showed up with her head trapped inside a bird cage.
The star of the show, though, was Salvador Dalí, the unquestionable king of Surrealism. Dalí, a celebrated Spanish artist, became famous for his depictions of melting clocks and other strange, hallucinatory characters. His paintings tapped into the surrealist belief in the potential of the unconscious mind, made tangible through both dreams and the imagination. Dalí’s presence at the ball was essential to its allure—he even masterminded a few of the headpieces, creating a multi-faced mask for Baron Alexis de Redé.
Rothschild went to incredible lengths to ensure that the Surrealist Ball lived up to her guest list. She insisted that the façade of Château de Ferrières be lit with amber floodlights, giving the mansion a hellish, otherworldly appearance, almost as if it were being swallowed in flames. Once inside, guests were greeted by servants dressed as cats, who draped themselves over bannisters and across tables in various states of repose. From there, guests wandered through a labyrinthine web of black ribbons, finally emerging on the other side, where they were greeted by Rothschild herself; she who wore an elegant white gown and a stag’s head mask that wept tears made of diamonds.
The night only got stranger from there. Finger food was served on a mannequin corpse lying on a bed of roses. Dismembered doll parts were scattered across tables and fashioned into sculptures or smashed to pieces. The dinner table was an especially strange sight—the place settings laid with dead fish in place of forks and the plates covered with thick, black fur. Acting as a centerpiece, a pair of taxidermized tortoises battled for control of the table.
Even the invitations were inspired by French surrealist painter René Magritte, who often used clouds to blur the line between inside and outside, seamlessly weaving dream logic with reality. The letters on the invitations were printed backward, necessitating the use of a mirror and emphasizing the exclusivity of the event.
The 1972 Surrealist Ball was a fairly secretive affair, but over the years, enough has leaked so we’re now able to see a stunning collection of photographs from the original event. These are images depicting bizarrely dressed men and women in the midst of fantastic scenery, like figures in a decorated set piece from an alternate reality. They have inspired envy and admiration the world over. Perhaps most spectacularly though, the images have spurred the creation of modern surrealist parties.
Picking up right where Marie Rothschild left off, Lisa Patrick-Wright was one of those who became inspired to create her own Surrealist ball. Patrick-Wright is the program director of the Grassroots Enrichment and Wellness Center, a nonprofit organization here in Dayton that provides classes and events for the emotional wellbeing of adults and children. The organization was founded by Patrick-Wright and her mother, psychotherapist Francis Duncan, and formed as an extension of Duncan’s counseling services through the Positive Solutions Counseling Center. Recently, the mother and daughter team has added a new program to their expanding list of projects: STRONG is designed to help children and teens who have experienced physical or emotional trauma, specifically those that have suffered through sexual abuse.
STRONG is a small program, currently providing help to about 30 kids. The classes are broken up into age groups and meet about three times a week. Right now, insurance covers most of the program’s cost, but some kids are still paying out of pocket to attend. When Patrick-Wright realized there was an additional need for funding, she immediately conjured the idea to recreate the 1972 Surrealist Ball—only this time the party would open its doors to more than just the elitist of elites.
“I looked at those pictures for years, and I thought I would love to have been there,” Patrick-Wright says, musing over the Rothschild ball. “That just looks like pure magic to me… and I love Salvador Dalí. When I started looking through the pictures, it just hit me.” Patrick-Wright called out to all her friends for help, and they immediately jumped on board, putting the entire fundraiser together in eight weeks. For inspiration, they studied the photos from the Rothschild ball, enlisting help from a small army of artists, performers, and designers. STRONG’s first Surrealist Ball fundraiser took place last year on Dec. 12—the same date as the Rothschild ball. This year, the ball takes place Dec. 10. In true DIY fashion, the ball will be held at the Enrichment Center’s new location, an older, storied house in the Grafton Hill Historic District, once the home of beloved inspirational poet Helen Steiner Rice.
“Grassroots is in this beautiful home and it’s almost like a mini mansion,” says Dennis Mullins, the set designer for this year’s ball. “Each of these rooms had a different theme last year. We had a visual arts room, we had a storytelling room, we had a room that was completely covered in flowers. My favorite part was creating these different rooms for people to explore and immerse themselves in.”
The Grassroots house is small for a lavish party, totaling about 4,000 square feet. “The event is pretty intimate, and we want to keep it that way,” Patrick-Wright says. “We transform each room into a surrealist landscape, then we have performance artists who do stage pieces. But throughout the evening, there are roaming artists that are doing different things, too.” The creative team stayed as faithful as they could to the original 1972 ball, nabbing details from the photos and cryptic, first-hand descriptions of the event. “The entranceway is the same,” Patrick-Wright says, referring to the maze of black ribbons, “and we have the mannequin on the bed of flowers.” Expect the cat servants to make an appearance, as well. “We have our own cats and they made it so realistic that night,” she recalls. “They would come up and start knocking your drink, or if you walked in the room, they would jump sky-high and run out of the room.”
Local teacher Heidi Carter wrote the evening’s menu, preparing a list of odd dishes inspired by the original French menu, without the aid of a single recipe.
Those who attend can look forward to a delicious bowl of lucid soup. As for the rest of the menu, that will have to remain a surprise.
Last year, much of the ball was conceived and designed by local dark artist Erica Blackstock, who Patrick-Wright met at the Clash Phobia art show. “She has a little bit more of a gore thing going,” Patrick-Wright says, “and I was trying to explain… it can’t be gore and it’s not Halloween—it’s just a piece of your weird, surreal dream. She ran with it and did an amazing job.” Blackstock is responsible for the now famous hair centerpiece displayed at last year’s ball and will head the artistic team for this year’s ball.
Many of the artists who performed last year are returning for STRONG’s 2016 ball. Performance artist Laurana Wong is slated to appear again and her installation/performance art piece is rumored to be a showstopper. “Her piece this year is going to be amazing… It’s going to take up half a room,” Patrick-Wright says. Psychedelic electronic musicians Echo Mecca will also return for another face-melting performance, along with appearances from DJ Yes Body and Columbus-based punk chanteuse Sally Louise, who goes by the moniker Thunder Thighs.
In many ways, holding a surrealist ball is appropriate for STRONG, where imagination and play are taught as coping mechanisms for the kids. “I wanted a place where kids could get filthy dirty,” Patrick-Wright says, explaining STRONG’s philosophy. “We have mud kitchens, and they build teepees in the backyard, and they’re digging in the dirt constantly, looking for buried treasure. Everything about Grassroots is a magical place.” Even the attic is a treasure trove: “It looks like your crazy great aunt’s imagination station,” Patrick-Wright laughs.
Running STRONG with what she calls a “whole-istic” approach to living, Patrick-Wright encourages alternative methods of healing. “We would have superhero classes and [the kids] would become their own superheroes,” she says. “As it’s progressed, we add in all kinds of things for enrichment and all kinds of ways to heal—meditation, yoga, gardening, cooking. Self-defense is part of it, too.” Some of the kids carry lavender, a medicinal plant known for its calmative properties. “It’s a way to cope and take away fear,” Patrick-Wright explains. She stresses the preventative nature of the program, saying, “[STRONG] is for kids who were being bullied at school, kids who have high anxiety, or kids who have social skill problems, where they just can’t get along well with other kids. We’ve seen them grow, for sure.”
The response toward both Grassroots and STRONG has been overwhelmingly positive. Members from the community teach as adjuncts, covering everything from environmental projects to music exploration. “These are things that aren’t taught in schools,” Patrick-Wright says. “We would like to expand,” she adds. “My mother, Francis Duncan, is working on a curriculum for STRONG that can be used in schools.” With plans to grow in the near future, Patrick-Wright is excited to see that interest in the Surrealist Ball is increasing: “I was just like, wait a minute, we can have one fundraiser that raises enough money where the kids can go for free if they need to?”
The imaginative landscape of the Surrealist ball mirrors Patrick-Wright’s philosophy for STRONG and her passion for its mission. “I knew I wanted to work with kids,” she says. “When I was a kid, I got to come up with all these ideas to play, and I still get to do that.”
The STRONG Surrealist Ball fundraiser is open to anyone who would like to attend, so rustle up an old birdcage from your garage, dust off your fancy shoes, and score yourself one of those weird looking invitations—you’re going to a party.
The Surrealist Ball takes place Saturday, Dec. 10 at The Grassroots Enrichment and Wellness Center, 713 W. Grand Ave. in Dayton. The ball starts at 8 p.m. Tickets are $40. For more information, please call 937.723.6747 and visit DaytonSurrealistBall.com or GrassRootsEnrichment.com.