BWW Review: American Ballet Theatre's THE GOLDEN COCKEREL
1914 is not a year that should conjure much nostalgia for those who survived it. Among smaller aggravations, the year marked the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and resulted in a half decade war, the likes of which the world had not seen. The year also marked the premiere of Fokine's "The Golden Cockerel" by The Ballets Russes. Fokine, their first choreographer, was no stranger to "(Description) (Bird)" pieces whether it be "The Dying Swan," "The Firebird," or "The Gold Cockerel." "The Golden Cockerel" was in his established career and it, unlike the previous year's infamous "Rite of Spring," was a jewel box escape from the hostile international climate. The warmth of this piece served a Parisian audience in search of the early 1910's glow, which was probably a distant memory by then. Today, scrupulously mounted by ABT under the direction of Ratmansky and with designs by Richard Hudson (off of the Natalia Goncharova originals,) "The Golden Cockerel" is a charming aesthetic study even as it has waned as a satisfying evening of dance.
Narratively "The Golden Cockerel" is a folk hodgepodge. Its closest relatives are the rustic characters of Baba Yaga and folk tales like Beowulf and in terms of cause and effect it is perfectly preposterous. In the piece an astrologer falls in love with the Queen of Shemakhan and decides to capture her. Sure. Then, to Tsar Dodon and his two sons. These boys differ in their thoughts on how to engage with the incoming war. The Astrologer enters and offers the king a Golden Cockerel. Sure. The Tsar is so overcome with gratitude that he offers the Astrologer anything he desires in return. While sleeping that night The Tsar dreams of The Queen and is entranced by his fantasy of her. The Cockerel then wakes him up and he, naturally, presumes this means the war is at hand. The sons are sent out to fight. He goes back to sleep. He wakes up to a messenger who informs him that the army was defeated. No surprise as The Tsar's diplomatic prowess makes King Lear appear like Napoleon.
The Tsar finds his sons dead on the battle field but is then beguiled by the inexplicable entrance of The Queen of Shemekhan and her tent that rises from the ground like the Christmas tree in "The Nutcracker" and that arrives well stocked with beautiful women. She seduces him with sumptuous ballet and he, so enticed, offers her his scepter. Freud chuckles. She goes with him to his-her-their kingdom. They arrive in a marvelous procession. All is well until The Astrologer arrives to collect the reward owed him, The Queen. Bechdel sighs. The Tsar then beats The Astrologer to death with his scepter. The Tsar is then pecked to death by the Golden Cockerel, and The Queen laughs. The story is grotesque, ridiculous, irresponsible and, above all else, delightful. It's a haphazard story that a child might conjure during bedtime, but is crafted with an artistic high gloss. It's as endearing as it is unconvincing.
The star of the piece is not plot, nor dance, but design aesthetic. Each aspect of the staging is of a "Proto" culture. The forms are Mycenaean not Hellenistic, they are Tsarist not Imperialist, and its strokes of early avant-garde experimentation are all sunny whether it be Rose Period Picasso or the most delightful Matisse. Hudson's designs are a stunning mix of both the whimsical folk and the dignified byzantine.
For those in search of an evening of musical or athletic movement, perhaps shelve "The Golden Cockerel." The majority of the piece, with music by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, is filled with charming clown gestures and pantomime. It calls to mind early silent film. The Golden Cockerel gets her time to shine with staccato frenzy, and is wonderfully committed by Skylar Brandt. Though, the character with the most to offer is The Queen of Shemakhan, here performed with dignified glamour by Misty Copeland. Otherwise, the piece is stuffed with colorful overacting, and vibrant processionals. In terms of an evening in the theatre, it delights in the present moment. It never attempts to extend the plot beyond its dramaturgical capabilities or forces a morality. It's unapologetic frivolity. I must admit that I left the theatre unsatisfied in my craving for ballet, but spent my evening amused and grateful for the escape.