ABT audiences are getting plenty of lessons in Russian/Soviet culture this season as the company’s Met rep consists of Alexei Ratmansky’s Soviet themed Shostakovich Trilogy, Ballet Russes inspired The Sleeping Beauty, and The Golden Cockerel.
ABT debuted The Golden Cockerel Monday, with its origin from Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera The Little Golden Cockerel, based on the story by Alexander Pushkin. Pushkin wrote the story in 1834, inspired by at a tale written by Washington Irving two years earlier. The opera was competed in 1907, but was banned by Russian authorities because of its political statements. According to the program notes by Caroline Hamilton, while it has been debated whether Pushkin intended the work as a political story, Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera is a parody of Tsar Nicolas II, notable for the disastrous Russo-Japanese war and the slaughter of hundreds of peaceful protestors. According to Rimsky-Korsakov, the opera is a “razor-sharp satire of the autocracy, of Russian imperialism, and of the Russo-Japanese war.” (Wikipedia) Michael Fokine choreographed the original ballet, which debuted in 1914, his last work for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes. Fokine revised the work in 1937 for The Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. In 2012, Ratmansky created a new version of the work for The Royal Danish Ballet with elements from the 1914 and 1937 productions.
The story begins and ends with an Astrologer and the Queen of Shemakhan, his love interest. The Astrologer presents the buffoon Tsar Dodon (likely named after the dodo bird, representing Tsar Nicolas II) with the Golden Cockerel to warn the kingdom of an approaching army. Based on a warning from the Cockerel, the Tsar orders his sons into battle, where the army is defeated. The pre-emptive strike against the neighboring state is foolish and the Tsar’s sons are killed; the Tsar does not dwell on the disaster but instead turns to his personal pleasures. He is captivated by the Queen of Shemakhan and he falls madly in love with her. The Astrologer, who initially gave the king the Cockerel, demands his reward: the Queen of Shemakhan. Incensed, the Tsar kills the Astrologer and the Cockerel pecks the Tsar to death. In the Epilogue, the Astrologer rises and suggests that the story is a fable and that only he and the Queen are real.
The sets and costumes, designed by Tony Award winner (Lion King) Richard Hudson, are the star of the ballet. Hudson’s sets and backdrops are an explosion of blazing colors inspired by the original 1914 and 1937 sets by Natalia Goncharova. The backdrops have bright colors, dominated by red and yellow with massive flowers with various multicolored birds making appearances. The costumes are gorgeous, matching the brightly colored backdrops.
The work is largely pantomime and acting with some character dancing breaking out every now and then. Ratmansky tells the story in a nuanced, multifaceted manner, developing characters as they come and go. Standout performances Thursday and Saturday evening included James Whiteside on Saturday as the Astrologer, played with great energy and mystery; Veronika Part Thursday as the beautiful enticing Queen Shemakhan; Roman Zhurbin and Gary Chryst as the selfish Tsar Dodon. The most interesting choreography belongs to the Cockerel, nicely done by Skylar Brandt Thursday and Sarah Lane Saturday. Both displayed great timing and sharpness of movements in their effort to mimic a chicken.
My main test in determining whether I like a ballet is whether I want to see it again. Although I loved the sets and thought the dynamic interplay between characters was interesting, I don’t have a great desire to see it again. Likely it is the lack of substantial classical dancing that limits my enthusiasm for the work.