The Golden Cockerel
June 6 – June 11, 2016
There’s a quiet revolution underway at ABT—in its spring season, an impressive half of the repertory is by Alexei Ratmansky. The latest addition is The Golden Cockerel, a full-length spectacle originally created in 2012 for the Royal Danish Ballet, which loaned the lavish costumes and scenery by Richard Hudson (based on early 20th-century designs by Natalia Goncharova). And while it may lack the fuller, fleshed-out structure of many of ballet’s traditional warhorses, it fills a niche in ABT’s expanding canon. And it adds to the diversity of work by Ratmansky, fast becoming the most creative and prolific ballet-maker of our time.
The ballet is an interpretation of an Alexander Pushkin folk tale conveyed primarily through movement, gesture, and visuals. In essence, a bored tsar (the supreme character dancer Roman Zhurbin) makes a deal with a mysterious astrologer (a delightfully wicked James Whiteside) for a golden cockerel (Sarah Lane, taut as a bow) who crows at any sign of territorial hostility—of which there is plenty. While on a reluctant visit to the the battlefield where his squabbling sons killed each other, the tsar becomes enchanted by a foreign queen (a languid Hee Seo) to whom he pledges his crown. The astrologer, having orchestrated the whole confabulation, unexpectedly demands the hand of the queen as payment for the cockerel, but the king refuses and slays the mystic. But the cockerel, a loyal instrument of the astrologer, attacks and kills the tsar. In the end, the astrologer rises once more, suggesting that everything but he and the queen are illusions.
Ultimately, the ballet is less about the labyrinthine story and more about the pageantry involved in its telling. The folkloric set design explodes off the stage in hot shades of red, orange, and pink, with accents of royal blue and yellow. Costumes befit the courts of Russian tsars and neighboring (Turkish) royalty, with fur-trimmed robes of glinting brocade, an elegant violet tunic for the queen that flares into a circle when spun, and modish, geometric-cut white outfits for her attendants. Peasants sport bright, floral motif dirndls and smocks, and one brigade’s shields depicts frowny faces. As this is a Ratmansky ballet, headpieces are worn by most of the dancers, and while they diminish the individuality of the performers, they add to the nationalistic flavors of the different clans.
The score, by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, supports the story rather than taking the lead. An individual clarinet line signifies the exotic; bold, full orchestration provides background for gathering troops to go to war; and a proper fanfare greets royalty arriving by flat horse cutouts. Brad Fields designed the mostly bright lighting.
Earlier in the ABT season, in the premiere of Serenade after Plato’s Symposium, Ratmansky revealed a fresh take on what a contemporary ballet can be by unleashing seven men to dance a fuller spectrum of movement than tradition allows. Rather than simply providing background and support for women, they were given complete, fluent dance phrases that express nuanced ideas about the nature of love, presented in turn as if they were speakers at said symposium. A brief cameo by a lone woman punctuated the proceedings.
The Golden Cockerel represents another facet of the communicative possibilities of a ballet. Indeed, it needn’t focus on another swan/princess/peasant surrounded by her loyal gal pals, searching for her prince—who is often a bit of a cad. Instead, it can be a reason to celebrate beauty, different cultures, and folk tales handed down over time. It also marks the departure of a full-length ballet from ABT’s stubborn adherence to
Ratmansky’s movement for Cockerel hews toward descriptive and mimetic. The gilt title bird has a distinctive, if limited, vocabulary. Mostly seen in profile, she flickers her gold fringe tail and comb feathers, arching her back acutely. She moves stiltedly and robotically, and only under command by the astrologer. When she attacks, a cloaked man frames each wing, bunraku-style. The astrologer brandishes his black metallic cape expertly, spinning it out into a great arc, or tiptoeing behind it so that it resembles a moving granite boulder. The tsar, who wishes only to sleep or woo the enticing queen, is reduced to broad comical strokes. The queen is given liquid, sinuous phrases, and as a conspirator with the astrologer, watches the chaotic proceedings with a wry smile.
The various Slavic and Mediterranean settings, with their rich cultural traditions, give Ratmansky a natural reason to indulge his penchant for group folk dances, which infuse many of his ballets—even abstract ones such as Concerto DSCH. In The Golden Cockerel, a bawdy quartet of musicians with cutout balalaikas serenade townsfolk who await the new royal couple, creating a clever pyramidal tableau.
Tatiana Ratmansky (married to the choreographer) played the role of the tsar’s housekeeper, showing a gift for comedic expression in what is a fairly limited role. But she carries a secondary plot line: she apparently harnesses a secret fondness for the tsar, yet needs to manage the household’s business (even paying the balalaika band) and support his whimsical wishes. Her unacknowledged importance is signified when she brings out, and partakes in, celebratory drinks with the tsar and his
In spite of all its visual delights, the lack of lengthy, challenging ballet sections or significant pas de deux would seem to consign this dance to a second tier of titles in the canon. It most likely will not be excerpted for inclusion in gala programs consisting of technically difficult sections, as is the norm. But mixed in among Swan Lake, Romeo and Juliet, and Corsaire, The Golden Cockerel offers some levity and thematic relief. In ABT’s Met Opera season, the piece joins the repertory and Shostakovich bills by Ratmansky plus his relatively new The Sleeping Beauty, which itself broke tradition by returning to a more ancient version of ballet—modestly high leg extensions in contrast to much of today’s full-out, higher-is-better athleticism. He continues to demonstrate a great artistic curiosity, and is thankfully being given the means to express it.
SUSAN YUNG is a New York-based culture writer.