Photography by MARK SHELBY PERRY
Imagine if you will: You arrive from New York City, blindfolded, at a country manse on a wooded lake somewhere in upstate New York. Your hostess is artist Cynthia von Buhler, as well known for her imaginative theatrical stagings as her lauded graphic novels, children’s books, and illustrations.
The bindings over your eyes are removed and there before you stands Pig King, a man wearing an elaborate three-sided mask, the center of which is porcine in nature. There is a strange, fantastical dance with other masked creatures—a mouse, a cow, a monkey, and more—and then you and the twenty or so people who arrived with you are led inside to the dining room. As an opera singer tucked between the tables starts serenading you, aerialists wrapped in crimson-colored silks descend like exquisite spiders, slowly and soundlessly, from the ceiling.
You’ve been here at this provocative, deeply alluring affair for less than ten minutes, but already you recognize that this could turn out to be one of the most memorable nights of your life.
So began the original incarnation of The Illuminati Ball, an immersive theatrical experience conceived of and made reality by von Buhler, one of the country’s busiest and most inventive Renaissance women. In addition to producing graphic novels, children’s books, illustrations, and paintings, von Buhler has staged a half-dozen successful productions of her own works, including The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini and Speakeasy Dollhouse: The Bloody Beginning. But The Illuminati Ball, which ran for more than three years in von Buhler’s own home and later in secret locations in New York City, may be considered her greatest achievement thus far.
Von Buhler drew her inspiration for The Illuminati Ball from a somewhat peculiar source, the surrealist ball Baron and Baroness Rothschild held at their French chateau in 1972. “My choreographer sent me pictures of it,” von Buhler says. “And they were so intense—people were wearing these animal masks, and even Salvador Dalí attended, and Audrey Hepburn, who wore a birdcage on her head. They dubbed it an Illuminati party because everyone always said the Rothschilds were the Illuminati, but that was really tongue-in-cheek. I saw a picture of Marie-Hélène de Rothchild wearing a stag head with diamond tears and it made me think about the plight of animals who are adversely affected by the human race on this planet. I had been wanting to do a project about animal rights so I merged the two themes.”
Potential guests applied online to attend The Illuminati Ball, where, the story went, they would be inducted into the centuries-old secret society formed to oppose religious influence over everyday life. Depending on their deepest desires, guests at the original event at von Buhler’s home were grouped into cabals led by half-animal half-humans who had escaped from a laboratory and pretended to be the Illuminati in order to obtain power over humans.
They were given masks corresponding to their animal kinship and then, as von Buhler describes, “all of the kinships broke into groups and did different things on the property and experienced different parts of the storyline. There were morality tests that were written into the night, and the people who made the correct choices were given a key. They received special privileges and were able to experience certain things that others might not get to experience.”
Throughout the evening the alcohol flowed freely and sublime vegan food, created to mimic meat-
based courses like duck, were served. There were esoteric rituals completed and visits from fire performers and burlesque dancers, as well as an appearance from von Buhler’s pig, Persephone, who arrived in a baby carriage and performed mind-reading tricks. Some guests bathed with von Buhler or shucked their clothes and swam naked in the lake with actors portraying mermaids.
“It was very intense, and we became very close with each other because of the storylines,” von Buhler, who is vegan, says. “Part of the point of it was to make people have an emotional reaction to the plight of these animals. Some people said it was the best night of their lives, that’s the kind of night it was, but there was also a message involved about animals and human nature written into the storyline. So it wasn’t just having fun. There were so many different levels to it, and I’ve even had people tell me that they became vegan after going to the show and that was really amazing.”
While The Illuminati Ball took its last bow around the time Covid-19 struck the United States, there are ways for those who missed it to experience at least a version of it. A gorgeously illustrated graphic novel by von Buhler based on the show is currently available on Amazon and in bookstores.
And she continues to pitch a The Illuminati Ball reality series, which would put contestants through a series of morality tests much as the show’s guests were. But no matter whether the television program materializes or not, The Illuminati Ball remains a singular theatrical event that pushed boundaries as much as buttons and was, von Buhler concludes happily, “really special for everyone who was involved.”