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Gary Chryst in The Golden Cockerel | © Rosalie O’Connor
Gary Chryst in The Golden Cockerel | © Rosalie O’Connor
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American Ballet Theatre’s 'The Golden Cockerel' At The Metropolitan Opera House

Picture of Patricia Contino
Updated: 2 December 2016
Ballet is rich in magic kingdoms. Their prosperity extends to the commoners, who possess fashionable clothes and, of course, shoes. Except for the occasional sibling, alleged best friend, or local witch, everyone gets along. The kingdom’s biggest problem is a bird population, whose superpowers include law enforcement and shape shifting. Alexi Ratmansky and the American Ballet Theatre re-introduced one of the least forgiving ballets, The Golden Cockerel, to Metropolitan Opera audiences.

Enjoying art doesn’t necessarily require research for enjoyment. But to better appreciate Ratmansky’s accomplishment in incorporating the past in establishing ABT’s exciting emergence as aesthetically relevant, The Golden Cockerel’s history is worth mentioning. The fairy tale of the intuitively aggressive Cockerel (Skylar Brandt), used by the Astrologer (Cory Stearns) to capture the elusive Princess Shemakhan (Veronika Part) at the expense of doddering Tsar Dodon (Gary Chryst), was originally written by Alexander Pushkin. The poet’s source was not only his imagination, but inspiration taken from Tales of the Alhambra by Washington Irving – one of his favorite writers.

Skylar Brandt in The Golden Cockerel | © Rosalie O’Connor.
Skylar Brandt in The Golden Cockerel | © Rosalie O’Connor.

The Golden Cockerel’s secret-yet-pseudo Russian kingdom exists in both opera and ballet. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov wrote the opera one year before his death in 1907. Seldom seen in New York (though New York City Opera’s 1971 production starred Beverly Sills and the great American bass-baritone Norman Treigle), The Golden Cockerel is regularly performed in Russia (and on the Mariinsky Opera’s 2016-2017 schedule).

Rimsky-Korsakov’s specialized in lush, detailed ‘Technicolor’ music. The Golden Cockerel’s marches and processions are a prime example of what shaped the recognizable sound of Russian classical music. The Ballets Russes first chief choreographer and Ballet Master Michel Fokine, who much to the consternation of the composer’s widow made a trashy ballet out of Scheherazade, adapted The Golden Cockerel in 1914, and again in 1937.

The production designer for both of Fokine’s productions was avant-garde artist Natalia Goncharova. Like Rimsky-Korsakov, Fokine, and now Ratmansky, she borrowed from the past to create something new and permanent. Richard Hudson’s sets and costumes designs are inspired by Goncharova, and even more beautiful than those he made for last season’s Sleeping Beauty.

Scene from The Golden Cockerel | © Rosalie O’Connor
Scene from The Golden Cockerel | © Rosalie O’Connor

ABT is performing the version Ratmansky created for the Royal Danish Ballet in 2012. Ratmansky uses Fokine’s style, which can look dated and silly, to the best advantage. The Princess and her attendants like sliding to the floor ending with one leg suggestively folded over the other; there are photographs of Ballets Russes’ legendary star Vaslav Nijinsky posed in the same position. The servants in Tsar Dodon’s court perform group dances that define their status. The leading male characters are older than the traditional princes.

Ratmansky takes everything further; there is nothing delicate about the Cockerel. She hates humans, and not only does she bite, but she thrusts her chin and butt forward – the most common corrections made in ballet classes at every level. During one agitated moment she does a series of fouettés (a pirouette accompanied by whipping movement of one leg as opposed to it staying perfectly in place), separated by lateral jumps with one leg extended to the side. That is only one of the incredible things Skylar Brandt did. She isn’t onstage during the entire ballet, but made every entrance, exit, and everything in between memorable.

Princess Shemakhan is introduced by delicately gliding across the stage on a wire. She shows off by executing tour jetes (a jumping turn), completed slowly enough for her to frame her face with her arms. Her role could be thankless – bad girl vamps are Ballets Russes stock characters – but Veronika Part had fun dancing and causing trouble.

The finale incorporates great dancing and storytelling. It begins with the Tsar’s court nervously awaiting and then joyously celebrating his return. Those same steps are slowly repeated when the Cockerel takes her revenge on the Tsar, symbolizing that life goes on…but not for long. In the ballet’s last moments, several lose their lives.

Despite heavy costuming, the Tsar and the Astrologer intricately partner with the Cockerel and the Princess. Ratmansky regularly uses ABT’s Principal male dancers in character roles. Like Part, Cory Stearns enjoyed being a scene stealer. Gary Chryst’s career began with the Joffrey Ballet. Among the Ballets Russes works the company reconstructed was Parade with sets and costumes by Picasso. Choreographer Leonid Massine coached Chryst in his own role of the Chinese Conjurer. During curtain calls for The Golden Cockerel, ballet fans with long memories cheered him enthusiastically. The Golden Cockerel is as close as today’s audience may get to experiencing Ballets Russes. A new legacy is underway.