Alexei Ratmansky’s The Golden Cockerel, which ABT premiered last night at the Met, was more like a good staging for the opera of the same title than a stand alone ballet. It lacked choreographic invention and relied heavily, too much so, on the brilliant Ballet Russes-worthy costumes and scenery by Richard Hudson. Frequently, the choreography seemed inserted obligatorily as is often seen in operas.
It was easy to admire the ideas behind the production, but truthfully, if this were on Broadway, it would close after a few preview performances. Producers would honestly read the paying audience’s tepid response, admit their failures, cut their losses, and move on to the next idea. Originally created by Ratmansky for the Royal Danish Ballet and not particularly successful there, The Golden Cockerel was reworked and pumped up with more dance for ABT.
Based on Pushkin’s fairytale and Michel Fokine’s original ballet, the story tells of a threatened Tsar who acquires a magic cockerel from a wizard/sorcerer/astrologer. The cockerel has the ability to crow when danger is close by. The Tsar is so grateful to the astrologer that he promises him anything that he wants. The astrologer decides to take time to think about what he wants in return for the cockerel. The Tsar rides off into battle, discovers an enticing queen of questionable motives, and takes her home to be his wife. The astrologer decides that he wants the queen as his payment from the Tsar. The Tsar refuses and bongs the astrologer with his sceptre seemingly killing him - but not really. The magic cockerel then returns to peck the Tsar to death for failing to honor his bargain with the astrologer. It’s a fairy tale with obvious political undertones relating to early 20th century Russia. The original opera was banned for a long time in Russia, in part, because it made the Tsar out to be a bumbling fool.
Ratmansky took some liberties with the story text in order to bring it around full circle. In a prelude, he showed the astrologer observing the flying queen and contemplating how he might go about capturing her. Everything that followed was apparently a “set-up” for the astrologer to acquire the queen, a set-up which ultimately failed him.
While we have learned to temper our expectations for Ratmansky’s new ABT works with the realism of the past, we could not resist hoping for an engaging production along the lines of the Massine/Picasso/Satie Parade which was originally created for the Ballet Russes and lovingly recreated by the City Center Joffrey Ballet during the last century. The star then, as was the star last night, was Gary Chryst who last evening returned to the stage for a remarkable performance in the character role of Tsar Doden.
Like Picasso's costumes and scenery in Parade, Hudson went for the fantastical in The Golden Cockerel. A huge wooden horse rearing on its hind legs was rolled to mid-stage for the Tsar to mount and ride into battle. Huge stick puppets traveled the width of the back of the stage. Panels hanging at the back of the stage and on the side depicted a brightly colored kingdom complete with flowers. Here’s the front curtain which greeted the audience members as they took their seats:
The corps de ballet’s costumes were operatic, traditional Russian folk costumes designed more for spectacle and less for dancing.
Skylar Brandt as the Golden Cockerel dispatched the most unique choreography of the evening with exceptional skill. Her bird’s halting mechanical movements made it clear that she was not a real bird at all, but a creation by the wizard/sorcerer/astrologer. Even though she had been gifted to the Tsar, her allegiance remained with her creator who always controlled her.
Cory Stearns scored a big win by completely disappearing into his astrologer character – hunched over under a black cape with his face made unrecognizable by prosthetics. His eyes glistened under the stage lights like they rarely do in his other roles. Evilness becomes him.
Veronika Part, as the Queen of questionable motives, acquired most of the classical dancing duties and conveyed her character with beautiful theatrical detailing. Unfortunately, her choreography could not rise above its dullness and cliched moments. (Must we see in every ballet a dancer sliding up from the floor while being held under the arms by two other dancers?)
Jeffrey Cirio and Joseph Gorak played the Tsar’s sons who end up killing each other in battle. When dancing their allegro side by side, Gorak’s character was clearly the most remarkable dancer of the two sons - whether Ratmansky intended to show that or not. Unfortunately, it appears this season that he is spending a lot of time on the back burner while McKenzie tries to push the imported dancer from Boston Ballet at us. Cirio isn’t bad, but his classicism pales in comparison to Gorak’s. And Cirio is too small to dance effectively with most of the company’s ballerinas.
Christine Shevchenko as the lead Persian woman made an impact with her brief appearance and vivid dancing.
Roman Zhurbin gave 150% to his character role of General Polkan who tried to advise Tsar Doden, but there wasn’t a lot for him to do.
Martine van Hamel as the Housekeeper to the Tsar tried to find comedy in her character but there wasn’t much available for her to work with – even Carol Burnett would have a problem with the role.
The dancing for the corps looked very familiar in places – Ratmansky defaulted back to ideas used in Bright Stream, Little Humpbacked Horse, etc. Even the opening scene with the Tsar’s chair/throne squarely in the middle of the stage seemed to recall the centered chair in the Little Humpbacked Horse.
It isn’t likely that ABT will have the discipline of a Broadway producer and cut its losses on this ballet, but it should. The Golden Cockerel, HereAfter, Pied Piper, Dorian, Tempest, Firebird, VIII — all were good ideas that couldn’t be realized at the time for one reason or another. Now that we’re reminded that Gary Chryst is still around, it would be a shame not to invite him to stage Massine’s Parade, particularly since he has a direct link to the choreographer. How wonderful it would be to see Chryst return regularly to character roles at ABT. What a wizard in Petrushka he would be to Arron Scott, Patrick Frenette and possibly Simkin in the title role.
The H.H. Pump Bump Award, hand painted by artists of Dolce and Gabbana, is bestowed upon Richard Hudson for his magical scenery and costumes. They don’t look like computer-drawn or photoshopped product. While we may have been fooled, they look like art ––honestly created like during the time of the Ballet Russes.