Perhaps the best place to begin with this production of Le coq d'or (The Golden Cockerel) is with Richard Hudson’s design. It’s a gorgeous throwback to an age when all the arts were more closely integrated. Painters, composers and choreographers collaborated on works in a way that is very difficult to reproduce now. The original production was a hit in the 1913 season of the Ballets Russes and it was designed by Natalia Goncharova, a noted artist of her day. About two minutes of film from a 1937 production are all that remain to give some idea of how it looked. It reflected the predilection for Oriental exoticism that was popular at the time as a subject for painters and composers as well as choreographers. But this is exoticism on steroids. Matisse’s Fauvist painting, The Red Room would be a perfect example of the color scheme of this ballet. The set is super saturated with primary colors that feature bold and busy patterns everywhere you look. The costumes are no less wondrous and they conjure up a Russia that existed only in the imagination based largely on Moscow’s iconic St. Basil’s Cathedral. Hudson borrowed from Goncharova’s original ideas and he did it in grand style. The cumulative effect is intoxicating.

Gary Chryst in <i>The Golden Cockerel</i> © Rosalie O’Connor
Gary Chryst in The Golden Cockerel
© Rosalie O’Connor

Alexei Ratmansky is at the top of his game as a story teller and he gave each of the characters plenty of work to do. The dancing here is beside the point, really, because this is a grand tale of delusion and deception. Briefly, there is a wizardly Astrologer (Cory Stearns), scheming Queen Shemakhan (Veronika Part), a glittering Golden Cockerel (Skylar Brandt), the doddering Tsar Dodon (Gary Chryst), two hapless princes (Jeffrey Cirio and Joseph Gorak), the bombastic General Polkan (Roman Zhurbin), and the Tsar’s housekeeper (Martine van Hamel). The Astrologer captures the Golden Cockerel and offers it to the Tsar who foolishly promises in writing anything the Astrologer desires in return for the creature that will alert him to approaching enemies. The Astrologer is scheming to get his hands on the wily Queen Shemakhan. The Golden Cockerel crows about coming enemies soon enough and the war is on. In Act II the bumbling sons have run each other through with their swords and it looks like more war until Shemakhan seduces the tsar who promptly forgets about his dead sons and offers her his kingdom. There is a triumphant procession back to the kingdom which is the climax of the show and this is where Ratmansky shows off his ability to manage crowd control. The entire cast comes on and they dance solos, duets, group dances… a truly grand finale. Most of it is stylized character dancing but it’s done on an epic scale and they fill up the stage with swirling colors. Once they’ve all arrived, the Astrologer tries to claim Queen Shemakhan as his prize, the Tsar apparently kills him, Shemakhan absconds laughing madly, the Cockerel pecks the Tsar to death and the Tsar’s bereft housekeeper gets drunk. In an epilogue the Astrologer reveals that only he, Queen Shemakhan and the Golden Cockerel were real. The rest of the characters in this were imaginary and only made up for our entertainment.

Jeffrey Cirio, Skylar Brandt and Joseph Gorak in <i>The Golden Cockerel</i> © Rosalie O’Connor
Jeffrey Cirio, Skylar Brandt and Joseph Gorak in The Golden Cockerel
© Rosalie O’Connor

There were many excellent performances from this cast, most especially from Skylar Brandt who played the cockerel. Her choreography was the most demanding but she made it look effortless. She had to move incredibly fast to convey the impression of a speedy bird none of whose movements were in the least bit reminiscent of a swan. She was more like a wind-up automaton with jerky changes of direction and abrupt flutters of her wings as she darted back and forth. She was a feisty bantam rooster. Gary Chryst was over the top as the Tsar with his drinking and lecherous bumbling. Cirio and Gorak were equals as naked cowards but Gorak’s superior classicism really stood out during their solos. He can’t help looking elegant. Veronika Part’s Queen Shemakhan didn’t have much challenging dancing to do. It was more about being flirtatiously sinuous and mockingly condescending which she did quite well. The two best performances belonged to Roman Zhurbin who disappeared into the role of the bloviating General Polkan and Cory Stearns who was delightfully sly and slinky as the Astrologer.

With that much story going on there wasn’t room for a lot of the usual classical ballet pas de deux with solo variations that most people expect from a story ballet and that will ultimately make it a tough sell. I hope that audiences will give it a chance because it’s superb entertainment and probably a real delight for youngsters. Ratmansky’s recreation of this lost Ballets Russes classic is a great tribute to a bygone era and I hope it finds a permanent place in the repertoire. Ballets like this are an important part of dance history because they open a window into the past. The Ballets Russes in the early twentieth century was part of an incredibly fertile period in the history of ballet that coincided with great art and composition. This was a rapturous evening of theater.