"The Golden Cockerel"
American Ballet Theatre
Metropolitan Opera House
June 7, 2016
By Carol Pardo
Copyright 2016 by Carol Pardo
Alexei Ratmansky's "The Golden Cockerel" takes its inspiration from Michel Fokine's ballet of the same name. That much is certain. What is less clear is what kind of ballet the 21st century version is intended to be. A comedy? A satire? A morality tale? At this performance, it was hard to tell. The plot is set in motion by that oft seen device, the romantic triangle. The Queen of Shemakhan is the object of desire of both the Astrologer and the not overly bright Tsar Dodon. The Golden Cockerel of the title is the Astrologer's aves ex machine which, in the end, doesn't quite deliver.
Each of the dancers had their moment. We first see the Queen on solid ground in the Tsar's bedroom, flitting from place to place, playing a game of now-you-see-me, now-you-don't with the besotted ruler. Stella Abrera's smile, wide and toothy, was that of the Cheshire Cat, elusive and tantalizing, crossed with the grin of a hungry shark. Abrera is a beautiful woman and a dancer of rare delicacy. But this queen needs more force and more authority: a slashing gesture meant to stop the Tsar in his tracks became limp, its intent ambiguous. Was this a dismissive end to the dialogue, "You're not worth my time" or a lack of follow through? It read as the latter.
Cassandra Trenary's dancing has a plush edge. Her pliant neck made the bird's head seem like the hinge of Faberge bibelot, which, when opened reveals a treasure. But that softness otherwise seemed antithetical to a cockerel. So the force and violence with which she attacked and killed the Tsar was truly unexpected and consequently shocking. Similarly, James Whiteside, as the Astrologer who conjures up the Cockerel, had his best moment late -- a little too late, perhaps -- in the ballet. Realizing that the Tsar is not going to give him what he wants (the Queen of Shemakhan) in return for the services of the Cockerel, Whiteside's Astrologer seemed to grow by several feet in a second, stretching and straightening his back like an enraged cobra. Only Victor Barbee's Tsar had a through line, from the bumbling cowardly ruler to the man who realizesd, perhaps only subconsciously, that he's been had by the woman of his dreams. Raising his arm in a commanding gesture, only to have it wilt, we saw and empathized with a formerly powerful man who finally understood that command had shifted elsewhere, the price of his delusion was painfully revealed. At this performance, the story was the Tsar's, and Barbee, without any obvious charisma, made it his own.
"The Golden Cockerel" also has structural problems that are not the dancers' responsibility. Although the evening clocks in at less than two hours, the ballet is too long, a one act ballet stretched -- almost to the breaking point -- to two. The Tsar's sons, given the only dancing of the evening that comes close to male bravura, are artfully arranged corpses, leaning against each other as act two opens, later sawing each other apart, in a tableau before a scene change. Alexandre Hammoudi, looking relaxed and at ease, and Arron Scott as the shorter, brattier, brother, execute their steps well, but fade from memory. So too, surprisingly, does the title character, who sits out most of the second act while the machinations of the Queen blot out the bird.
Perhaps Ratmansky and his designer, Richard Hudson, intend this "Golden Cockerel" to be nothing more than a homage to Natalia Goncharova, who designed Fokine's. The blast of red orange which framed the first scene set had all the sensualitiy and power that the dancing aspired to but didn't attain. Even if fully realized, characters and empathy are not the order of the day, both she --and we-- deserve more consistency and a clearer expression of the ballet's intent than were visible here.
Photographs: Scene from "The Golden Cockerel". Photo: Rosalie O'Connor' Stella Abrera in "The Golden Cockerel". Photo: Rosalie O'Connor. Cassandra Trenary in "The Golden Cockerel". Photo: Rosalie O'Connor.