Guests are blindfolded during the first dinner course at the Illuminati Ball. CreditNina Westervelt for The New York Times
The revelers gathered Saturday evening outside a store on the Upper East Side with taxidermied parrots in the window: women in floor-kissing gowns and little black dresses, men in suits.
A party bus arrived and the revelers crowded on. The blinds were drawn, so they could not see out. The traffic bucked and lurched and eventually thinned, and then the revelers were hurtling up a highway somewhere, eating cucumber sandwiches and drinking sparkling wine. They were headed to the Illuminati Ball.
They were financiers and lawyers and creative professionals and a psychiatrist, Patricia Frey, 33, whose $450 ticket was a mystery wedding gift from her three sisters. “I was just told to wear a gown like you’re going to the opera,” Dr. Frey said.
The evening promised a decadent “immersive excursion” at a lakeside estate north of New York, featuring a nine-course dinner and exotic cocktails, masks, “anthropomorphic escapades” and initiation rites.
A tub was filled with the milk of a cow-woman. From left, Melissa Frey and her sisters, Emily and Amy, dangled their feet. CreditNina Westervelt for The New York Times
The revelers did not know that the ball was also a morality play about animal welfare, genetic manipulation and veganism. It is the creation of Cynthia von Buhler, an illustrator, performance artist, wildlife rehabilitator and provocateur who has been holding it at her home in Connecticut on select Saturdays since April. (This performance was the summer’s last, though a bigger ball, without dinner, will be Oct. 20 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.)
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The attendees had to fill out an application that included questions concerning their attitudes about animals and meat, and Ms. von Buhler said she saw a “great disconnect” in that people said they loved their pets but also loved eating meat. She hoped to open a few eyes.
The bus discharged the guests onto a hillside speckled with naked dancers and fire twirlers and people in livestock masks. Throbbing music ushered the partygoers into a sprawling hunting lodge with a pitched roof out of a fairy tale. In the dining hall, animal heads lined the walls and a taxidermied raccoon stared down from a chandelier. Jeweled teardrops hung from its eyes.
A masked man called the Pig King welcomed the revelers and introduced his pregnant wife, an antlered baroness. “Let the candidates seeking the true light make the first journey,” he proclaimed.
The Pig King offered a toast to his pregnant wife. Guests seated include Petr Shchepilov, left, and David Mark, center. CreditNina Westervelt for The New York Times
The evening fast-forwarded toward sensory overload. A soprano in a chicken costume sang a Lehár aria as aerialists twirled on silks. The 30 guests were briefly blindfolded and fed an improbably rich morsel that turned out be a salted date simmered in olive oil. Everyone was assigned to wear a monkey mask, a pig mask, a chicken mask, a cow mask or a mouse mask.
The baroness’s water broke. We watched her give birth in a bedroom. A drug-addled monkey led his followers into a basement and swore treason against the Pig King. A cow-woman with breast pumps affixed to her like bondage gear filled a bathtub with her milk. In the Contemplation Room, a naked dancer gyrated while wearing large black wings.
Clues about the animal-rights agenda were there for the harvesting: The monkey, a veteran of lab experiments, was addicted to painkillers. The androgynous mouse had multiple human ears embedded in his back. The cow-woman was kept continually lactating like a commercial dairy cow. But in the swirl of spectacles and craft cocktails, it grew difficult to keep track.
During the fourth course, charred broccolini with forbidden rice and sweet sriracha lime sauce, the Pig King and the monkey got into a shouting match. After the fifth course, watermelon gazpacho, the Pig King announced: “The candidate willing to dance and swim naked in the moonlight is the sign of a candidate with nothing to hide.”
Circe, one of the nearly naked performers at the event. CreditNina Westervelt for The New York Times
Ms. von Buhler took some of us outside to meet her actual pet pig, Persephone. We fed her baby carrots. Then everyone went down to the dock. Many disrobed and jumped in the lake.
A man in a captain’s hat took us out on a boat. Someone called for a song, and one of the psychiatrist’s sisters, Melissa Frey, 29, offered an aria by Rimsky-Korsakov.
Back in the lodge, several guests reclined on a faux-fur-spread bed while others cavorted in the milk bath.
“Let us all eat the duck together,” the Pig King said. Something flaky and delicious that tasted like Peking duck was served. A guest named Travis Brendle who works in the travel entertainment industry interpreted the food. “Each course was right for the action,” said Mr. Brendle, 30. “The gazpacho was a little bit heavier, so it went with the more dramatic part. We’re getting to the climax now, so we need protein.”
After the passion fruit-mango cashew-cream parfait, hell broke loose. The cow-woman grabbed a gun from the formerly naked dancer and shot a chicken man. The Pig King revealed that his babies’ organs had been stolen to be transplanted into humans. He pleaded for compassion. “We all want to be freed from our cages,” he said. Persephone the actual pig walked through the dining room. There was a final fire ritual.
On the bus ride back, opinion was divided. “It was like a living surrealist party,” Dr. Frey said approvingly.
Jessica Caldwell, a 28-year-old writer, said, “I was expecting more ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ and less amateur theater.”
Dr. Frey’s sister Amy Frey, 30, an occupational therapist, said she and her sisters were drawn into the ethical questions. “In what way should genetic testing be called out?” she said.
Phones lit up with an email from the hosts: All the food we had eaten, including the duck, was vegan. “The duck wasn’t real duck!” someone shouted.
The bus let the passengers out in front of the store on East 70th Street. Confusion lingered. Petr Shchepilov, a video editor, was asked what he thought of the show. “I was expecting more meat,” he said as the bus pulled away.