Metropolitan Opera House
Lincoln Center
New York, New York

June 6 and 8 (afternoon), 2016
The Golden Cockerel

Jerry Hochman

It’s a particularly good American Ballet Theatre season for bird lovers. Next week, there’ll be swans. A couple of weeks after that, bluebirds. Earlier in the season we had a flock of firebirds.  We were even treated to dancing chickens. Now comes a golden cockerel.

Alexei Ratmansky’s The Golden Cockerel had its American premiere Monday night (its world premiere was in 2012, with the Royal Danish Ballet), the first performance of a week-long run. I saw it then, and although I didn’t strongly dislike it, I didn’t like it much. There’s very little dancing in it, I thought, and what there is isn’t particularly exciting. Worse, I concluded that notwithstanding its pervasive silliness, it’s dull. Its primary value, I initially felt, was to be found by looking beyond the stage to the ballet’s historical context with respect both to the story and the production.

And then I saw Wednesday afternoon’s performance.

Skylar Brandt  of American Ballet Theatre  in Alexei Ratmansky's  "The Golden Cockerel" Photo Rosalie O'Connor

Skylar Brandt
of American Ballet Theatre
in Alexei Ratmansky’s
“The Golden Cockerel”
Photo Rosalie O’Connor

Sometimes I change my opinion of a ballet over time, and upon repeated viewings. I don’t recall ever doing so within less than 48 hours, and after seeing it only once more. My second view was with a different cast, and from a central vantage point. Whether as a consequence or not, I now see The Golden Cockerel as a simple, but delightful, comic fable ballet, with relatively minor flaws that only matter to nitpicky critics.

The ballet is only dull, as I’d initially concluded, if you expect it to be a “realistic” fairy tale with dazzling sets and choreography. But if you recognize it as an attempt to relate a story that is less a fairy tale than a fantastical vehicle for its original creators, and re-creators, to make a moral and political point, and to generate tons of fun in the process, The Golden Cockerel starts to look good. Very good. And with that second view I could see that everything Ratmansky and his artistic collaborators created not only makes artistic sense, but has marvelous entertainment value. Overdoing the choreography, including inserting extravagant displays of dancing virtuosity, would have destroyed its simple truths.

The Golden Cockerel has a colorful history. It began its theatrical life as an opera, with music by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, which premiered in Moscow two years after its completion – and its composer’s death – in 1909. It was subsequently presented in 1914 in Paris (with its French name, Le Coq d’Or) as a ‘ballet-opera’ produced by Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, with choreography by Michel Fokine, during which the opera’s lyrics (or selections from them) were sung by a chorus that framed the stage.

The opera, with a libretto by Vladimir Belsky, was based on an 1834 poem by Alexander Pushkin (The Fairy Tale of the Little Golden Cockerel), in which the Russian Fairy Tale is used as a morality tale. The object of obsessive desire, the Empress/Queen of Shemakhan, doesn’t really exist, so chasing after what can never be obtained will leave you with nothing. A Russian La Sylphide, of sorts. Pushkin’s poem itself was based on a story, Legend of the Arabian Astrologer, from Tales of the Alhambra (1832) by Washington Irving. Yes, that Washington Irving. A ballet-opera that premiered in Paris, which was based on a Russian opera, which was based on a Russian Fairy Tale, which was based on Moorish/Spanish stories written by an American.

And it gets yet more multicultural. Rimsky-Korsakov reportedly was inspired to compose The Golden Cockerel as a response to the highly unpopular Russo-Japanese War (1904-5) that Russia decisively and humiliatingly lost, and which exacerbated the public resentment toward Czar Nicholas II – who was widely perceived as having gotten Russia involved in a vanity war because of his preoccupation with extending Russia’s sphere of influence into Central and East Asian areas, and which, combined with other issues, led to the first stirrings of the Russian Revolution. The opera satirizes the czar and the aristocracy, Russian imperialism, and the folly of the war, but tries to camouflage this by couching the stage action as a wizard’s hallucination. The czar banned it anyway.

So…The Golden Cockerel is really a morality tale crossed with a scathing political satire, in the form of a Russian Fairy Tale that has no fairies (unless you count one moment when the Empress is lifted aloft so she hovers over her subjects and slowly waves her arms as if giving some celebratory blessing, like the Lilac Fairy in The Sleeping Beauty).

The ballet’s most significant nitpicky flaw is that it presents as neither satire nor morality tale: it’s ‘simply’ an exotic comic fable (with “Persia” used as a surrogate for the fictional Shemakhan). That’s fine. But without knowing the political satire behind it, or its moral point, both of which are hidden (albeit in plain sight), the piece appears at first to be pointless silliness run amok. Gone is Pushkin’s final warning to “honest youth”; gone are the words in the opera that make the broad moral point; and gone is the biting satire.

But The Golden Cockerel is so enjoyable, and so well done in multiple respects, that this doesn’t matter. Even as a straight comic story, it’s complete on its own.

As a re-creation of sorts, The Golden Cockerel has significant historical value. Ratmansky’s choreography is listed in the program only as having been “inspired” by Fokine, rather than a recreation of it, but it’s clearly on some level an attempt to reconstruct the Ballets Russes original. (Richard Hudson’s set and costumes also are reportedly “inspired” by artwork by Natalia Goncharova, who designed the original ballet’s sets and costumes – although to my eye the sets looked more akin to the work of Henri Matisse.) But whether a reconstruction or inspiration, this ballet feels like an updated Ballets Russes production. Indeed, as I watched it the first time, I saw similarities to Fokine’s Petrushka (1911) – from the relatively ‘flat’ appearance of the sets, to the involvement of the ‘outside’ folk-dancing community, to the puppet characters of the magician/astrologer (most of the characters in The Golden Cockerel are displayed as puppet-like creations in the ballet’s final scene). So in the sense of ballet’s historical evolution, this piece fills a void.

And the action, whether as choreographed dances or staging, never stops. There are no dead spots (the ‘scenes’ in front of the Act curtain while sets change behind it continue to propel the action forward), and no ‘divertissements’ as such that slow the action. It all proceeds inexorably to its somewhat ironic conclusion.

Jeffrey Cirio, Stephanie Williams, Gemma Bond, and Joseph Gorak of American Ballet Theatre in Alexei Ratmansky's "The Golden Cockerel" Photo Rosalie O'Connor

Jeffrey Cirio, Stephanie Williams, Gemma Bond,
and Joseph Gorak of American Ballet Theatre
in Alexei Ratmansky’s “The Golden Cockerel”
Photo Rosalie O’Connor

In the Prologue, an Astrologer mimes his desire for the Queen of Shemakhan – who, behind a translucent scrim, is seen as a soaring vision. [Very nicely done, and one of many image echoes of Marc Chagall. Chagall was a student of Leon Bakst – who designed for Ballets Russes, and Chagall himself lived in Paris from 1910-1914. So using images derived from his artwork as part of the Parisian artistic soup of the time, if that’s what Ratmansky is doing, is certainly valid.] The Astrologer subsequently concocts a plan to capture the Queen/Empress, assisted by a conjured Golden Cockerel.

Act I, comprised of several scenes, seems initially uninteresting. There’s this somewhat daffy Tsar, his dull (as in not particularly sharp) sons, his Housekeeper, his befuddled General, eight “Boyars” (advisors), and assorted Peasants. The Tsar acts strangely and is preoccupied with fears of an invading foreign army. The Astrologer suddenly materializes, and proposes to give his Golden Cockerel to the Tsar to protect him from harm (the cockerel squawks when he sees danger) in return for whatever he (the Astrologer) wants. The Tsar agrees (without knowing, or caring, what it is that the Astrologer wants), and the Astrologer thereupon delivers the Golden Cockerel/watchbird to the Tsar. The Tsar’s armies, the Tsar’s sons, and the Tsar himself eventually march off to war, but the Tsar only has goo-goo eyes for his dream conquest, the Queen of Shemakhan.

In Act II, the Tsar finds his sons dead – they’d run into each other. Literally. But the Tsar’s grief is quickly overcome by his lust for the Queen of Shemakhan, who appears like a desert mirage and successfully seduces him. He declares his love for her, and, while snickering, she accepts his marriage proposal. He returns in triumph to his city, but then is confronted by the Astrologer, who wants what he’s been promised: whatever he wants. He wants the Queen of Shemakhan. Enraged, the Tsar kills the Astrologer, the Astrologer’s loyal cockerel kills the Tsar, and the Queen disappears, never having existed (to the Tsar) in the first place. And in the Epilogue, the Astrologer returns to life, explains that every character except himself and the Queen are figments of his imagination, and then, accompanied by his faithful imaginary bird companion, goes off in search of his obsession.

Ratmansky has created a ballet that uses its dancing wisely, with admirable, and essential, restraint. It’s not flashy, but in this context that’s not a bad thing. The choreographed sequences generally are short and focused (except for the Queen’s dance of seduction, which seems to last forever, but in context is as irresistible as the Queen). The individual dances for the Tsar’s two sons, Prince Guidon and Prince Afron, are succinct summaries of these princes’ characters. The Russian folk dances for the Peasants that at first appear ‘generic’ are, on the contrary, a marvel of seamless sampling, with delightfully understated sequential movement and interesting partnered thrusts and pull-backs. And the dances for the Queen’s seductive female retinue are deliciously sensual (think Persian d’jampe dancers a La Bayadere, except here they’re co-conspirators), including their languid, body-on-the-floor ‘frame’ for some of the action. There is no romantic pas de deux as such, but there’s a Peasant pas de quatre of sorts involving the princes and their “Peasant Women” lovers (that’s the term used in the program, but these “Peasant Women” are as much Ladies in Waiting in the Tsar’s court as Peasants) that is marvelous in its simplicity – including a brief lift sequence that has the two women appear to be flying, in a stereotypical Chagall-like image: the men hold the women by their waists while the two women face each other and hold hands, and then lift them horizontal to the stage floor.

There are several scattered examples of Ratmansky stealing from himself. For example, the scene in which the Tsar’s subjects anxiously wait for him to triumphantly return from the war – the one his armies lost – with his “war bride’ seems lifted almost verbatim (everything except the fence) from his Nutcracker, but it’s a ‘good steal’ – it’s a wonderful image sequence in any context.

Aside from the choreography, the characterizations are brilliantly captured, even if only as cardboard miniatures. And the staging is filled with “throwaway” nuances, gags, and gestures that one may not notice at first, but which enhance the texture of the piece immeasurably. The sight gag involving the Queen of Shemakhan and Tsar Dodon’s orb and scepter is alone worth the price of admission.

And perhaps the most miraculous aspect of this production is the contagious fun captured and reflected by the casts I saw, with Wednesday’s cast making their roles appear just a little different from the cast on Monday.

Gary Chryst and members of American Ballet Theatre in Alexei Ratmansky's "The Golden Cockerel" Photo Rosalie O'Connor

Gary Chryst and members of American Ballet Theatre
in Alexei Ratmansky’s “The Golden Cockerel”
Photo Rosalie O’Connor

At the outset, I must salute the opening night character performances by Gary Chryst as Tsar Dodon, and Martine van Hamel as the Tsar’s “housekeeper” Amelpha. I had not seen Chryst on stage since his performing days with the Joffrey Ballet (when it was based in New York), and it was great fun to see him again – even though, with his costume and grotesque makeup, it was virtually impossible to recognize him. He made his cartoon character as cartoonish as could be without overdoing it. And van Hamel, an extraordinary ballerina in her performing years, is now an extraordinary character actress, able to inject variations of nuance with as little as a raised eyebrow or turn of the head.

Chryst’s preposterous portrayal of Tsar Dodon on Monday night, as I observed at the time, made the production look better than it was. But Roman Zhurbin’s rendering on Wednesday, more lovably eccentric and delusional than ridiculously wacky, made the production look as good as it is. It’s another superb character performance from Zhurbin, who is evolving into an indispensable member of ABT’s roster. As Amelpha, Tatiana Ratmansky converted the role from that of a housekeeper and omniscient chief of staff to the Tsar’s perpetually cheerful and loyal companion/best friend, one he could rely on when he wasn’t dreaming of the Queen of Shemakhan.

The choreography for the Golden Cockerel isn’t particularly exceptional, but it’s interesting because it’s so different and the Cockerel is so much a ballerina/bird. On opening night, Skylar Brandt’s Golden Cockerel was superbly danced, every step delivered clear as a bell. She didn’t have much acting to do, because that wasn’t the concept of the character – it didn’t require more than doing the choreography ‘straight’. But Sarah Lane made her Golden Cockerel a little different. Where Brandt’s characterization was (appropriately) mechanical and robotic, Lane’s was considerably more intense. There was fire not only in her choreographic posture, but in her eyes. Although conjured by a wizard, Lane’s Golden Cockerel was a bird with a brain.

On opening night, Veronika Part’s Queen of Shemakhan made the performance.

Veronika Part of American Ballet Theatre in Alexei Ratmansky's "The Golden Cockerel" Photo Rosalie O'Connor

Veronika Part of American Ballet Theatre
in Alexei Ratmansky’s “The Golden Cockerel”
Photo Rosalie O’Connor

The role of the Queen has considerable dancing in it, but the emphasis is on comedy, and Part plays it to the hilt: she’s part seductive Scheherazade and part Russian Valley Girl. She’s hilarious, in a somewhat understated way, and spot on as she seduces, and then abandons, the Tsar.

However, Hee Seo’s portrayal on Wednesday was different. Instead of Part’s obvious (but not at all inappropriate or unwelcome) over-acting, Seo’s portrayal was more restrained. She was still the comic seductress, but not just because of the way she danced and acted.

The Queen of Shemakhan symbolizes the Tsar’s imperialist ambitions toward exotic Asian lands, and Seo inherently captures this. As seductress, she’s considerably less ‘out-there’ than Part was, which made Seo’s performance somewhat less funny. But although more subtle, it got the point across – with the added ingredient of being Asian. I hate to sound stereotypical, but Seo was a devious Dragon Lady of a seductress – with a softly humorous, but more cutting, edge. And although one certainly doesn’t need to be Asian to carry off the role, Seo made the satirical symbolism crystal clear.

In the roles of the princes and their peasant companions, Jeffrey Cirio and Joseph Gorak, and Gemma Bond and Stephanie Williams, on Monday did fine work (particularly Williams), but Wednesday’s cast, Arron Scott and Alexandre Hammoudi, and Betsy McBride and Catherine Hurlin, danced equally well, but the youthful freshness looked more real. Craig Salstein did his usual fabulous comedic job on Wednesday as the General (Zhurbin handled the role on Monday). And as the leader of the entourage of Persian Women at both performances, Christine Shevchenko, who has blossomed into a relatively unique dancer – strong and commanding, but also with unexpectedly delicate movement quality, executed flawlessly.

The one aspect of the ballet that I still find problematic is the Astrologer’s obsession with the Queen of Shemakhan. James Whiteside did a fine job making the Astrologer look small and sinister (as opposed to Cory Stearns’s portrayal of a somewhat imperious wizard), and communicated the mime very well (which I missed on Monday). His was a stunningly vivid, weasel-like portrayal. But having the Astrologer be the one with the ‘real’ obsession dulls the point that Pushkin was trying to make – that the Tsar is the one with the delusional obsession. If the Tsar’s obsession isn’t real, and the Astrologer’s is, what does that say about any sarcastic intent, or any moral of the story?

But this is a problem with the opera more than with the original story – perhaps it was designed to make the opera appear to be less of a direct attack against Czar Nicholas II. I can’t fault Ratmansky for following the opera’s libretto.

So, as with so many of Ratmansky’s ballets, give The Golden Cockerel a little time to allow any prior expectations you may have had to disappear – like the Queen of Shemakhan. You’ll be rewarded with an interesting, pleasurable, and relatively unique ballet experience. And it’s more fun than a barrel of dancing chickens.