Raise your right hand if you’ve ever been watching a ballet and the thought swirling in your head is “what in the heck going on here!?”
Were it not for the program, the synopsis, and the clear English language description of the plot of American Ballet Theatre’s presentation of ‘The Golden Cockerel’ on Saturday, June 3, I would have been saying just that.
Originally based on a poem by Alexander Pushkin, the 2 act plus short prologue and epilogue ballet is utterly ridiculous and unbelievable in conception, even as fairy tales go. For instance,
‘The Queen’s captivating dancing makes the Tsar forget his murdered sons, and he falls madly in love with her.”
If your approach to understanding art is ‘I’ll just follow intuition and emotional response to figure out what is being said/communicated” you’re going to be up a Russian-folk tale creek without a paddle. Or vodka.
- Remember that time when I studied in Russia/ lived in Pushkin’s old house? Yeah, those dreamy curtains
- Russian Chocolates: Don’t judge a box by its cover, even if this one is sure pretty
- 3 Ways to Russianify Yourself: you may start calling me Jessica Irina Ruhlinsky now please
The ABT production doesn’t scrimp on visual stimulation. Scenery and costumes courtesy of The Royal Danish Ballet framed the action with saturated colors, oversized floral motifs, and sets featuring castes, villages, and mystical tents. Costumes were character appropriate, even if they didn’t serve traditional dance purposes of showcasing the body. The skimpiest costumes were the tiny red chest plate and thigh-baring matching pleated bottoms worn by the eight male warriors. They looked like a version of ‘ 300 the ballet’ and I have zero complaints.
The majority were in floor-length mumu robes, heavy peasant skirts, or bulky harem-style pants. Even Misty Copeland, as the Queen of Shemakhan, wore baggy white pants with a longer peplum-style periwinkle blue sleeveless top. I guess the seduction of the poor Tsar Dodon, danced by Gary Chryst, was all in the only parts of her body n display; the feet (always works on me), the arms, and most importantly, the face.
This was an interesting production because of the amount of pantomimic gesture as necessary for the storytelling and as it served Ratmansky’s usually ‘stuffed-to-the-brim-with-steps’ choreography. Perhaps because the costume allowed for less flash, or to simply serve the humorous nature of dancers such as the eight Boyars (the Tsar’s Advisors), the pared down choreography was enjoyable for the use of stage patterning and clear characterization. I am still chuckling over an exit where each walked single file, off to battle, quivering with cowardly fear. An especially charming performance came from Craig Salstein as General Polkan, who mixed bravado and buffoonery to great effect. Particularly in Act 1, the dancers and choreography served a humorous tone that didn’t take itself too seriously and didn’t try to infuse too much choreography on top of already descriptive set and cinematic score by Rimsky-Korsavkov. Ratmansky’s work, the humor and the staging, shines under this masculine, pared-down lens in a way I have not yet experienced in one of his ballets.
A few exceptions in this more-pantomime-than-dancing ballet came in the incredible performance by Cassandra Trenary, replacing Skylar Brandt, as the Golden Cockerel. In her golden unitard and helmut-like golden headpiece, her performance was full of the sharpness and attack in everything from developpe battement devant to lightening fast piquee menege. Her movement was direct, her focus unwavering, able to freeze on pointe without any obvious preparation, the swifting circling arm motif slicing the air like weapons. For someone so tiny, she manages to cover immense ground in allegro movement. In technical ability (the insanely fast double pique turn en face to batteent a la second in Act 1) and performance, Trenary brought flight and sparkling magic amidst the heavy, gestural counterpoint of most other characters.
Some nice solo work came from Arron Scott and Alexandre Hammoudi as the Tsar’s sons in Act 1, you know, before they get murdered. Here Ratmansky is up to his usual trickery, with those insane changing direction jete and masculine partnering. These two, both stunning in their own right (the double saute basque!) were an odd match as one (the guy in yellow) was much taller and longer-limbed than the one in red. This resulted in some timing differences in duet moments. It seems that Ratmansky choreogrhs best for men or people with short twitch muslces.
- Other Ratmansky reviews: Serenade After Plato’s Symposium
Act 2 highlighted more feminine movement with Misty Copeland as the sensual, diva-esque Queen, rising star Devon Teuscher as the Persian Woman and her corps. Most of this choreography was repetitive and boring. While Copeland was flirty and fierce in every moment, she was given very little in terms of ballet technique. Too many floaty developpe devant, those little easy passe steps on pointe, the fankick to a high extension a la second. There were no extensions that required the strength of holding the leg rather than a fast battement, no toe-hops, very few pirouettes (and she hopped out of a mere double). I was so excited to see something when she started the Pas de Deux with the Tsar and the tambourine, and held that glorious fouette to attitude derriere, and it quickly evolved to more of the same, a lot of partnered slides and other movement done on flat.
More boring female choreography came from the Persian women corps who mostly did those little turned in attitude temps de fleche over and over. And they weren’t really very together. The sensual nature of this choreography was not executed evenly by the corps as some seemed more comfortable with relaxing the neck in the serpentine moments. Those who were stiff and didn’t fully contract the spine stuck out especially with those big white upright headpieces. I can’t even comment on the beautiful Teusher because of the overly-long draped sleeves of her white costume, the flying sleeves sadly distracting from anything else.
The finale of Act 2 spiraled into a chaotic messy madness in the parade of each group. Not only was it not clear what was happening due to a few missing details in the synopsis (what was that goat, and the big green egg thing?) but the steps weren’t clear as the stage became muddled with dancers not dancing together. In the epilogue, Cory Stearns as the wizardish Astrologer, awakens, reincarnates, from the long nap/death he takes in the downstage corner and chases the vision of the floating Queen offstage with the Cockerel. Turns out the whole thing was a vision. Why do ballets suffer so much from lack of resolution?
The ballet was overall extremely enjoyable, humours, with a beautiful rich score, colorful costumes, and excellent performances from the artists of American Ballet Theater. Interesting to see how much can be shown in body language with much of the body hidden in these costumes, and how effective traditional ballet pantomime can be in storytelling, even when the story is absolutely nuts.
Maybe the raised right hand should become the international ballet pantomime gesture for “I’m confused as fu…” No, I don’t think there are swear words in the ballet pantomime canon. But there should be.