Spring Season Diaries: Ratmansky's Golden Cockerel, SAB Workshops

Front drop for Golden Cockerel, taken by moi

Ratmansky's Golden Cockerel opened at ABT last night. Ratmansky's ballet is "inspired" by Mikhail Fokine's ballet for the Ballet Russes which starred Tamara Karsavina and Fokine himself (pictured below). Ratmansky first staged Cockerel in 2012 for the Royal Danish Ballet but supposedly added more dance for the ABT version. Richard Hudson's colorful sets and costumes are loosely based on the original designs by Natalia Goncharova. The auditorium was fairly full but I think audience reaction was mixed at best and muted at worst. There was an angry heckler at the end of the ballet, who kept shouting "EVIL," seemingly impervious to the fact that the whole ballet was, in fact, a satire of Russian rulers.

Skylar Brandt as Golden Cockerel, photo @ Fabrizio Ferri
Whether you enjoyed Cockerel depends I think on expectations. If you are looking for a Petipa or Balanchine-like ballet, Cockerel is not for you. It's more like a dance-inflected folk drama. There are no big dance moments. The actual choreography is I'd say more folk/character dance and mime than classical ballet. Queen of Shemakhan (an unexpectedly witty and goofy Veronika Part) rises on pointe but mostly does some slinky moves and then disappears. The Golden Cockerel (Skylar Brandt) has this repeated step in which she kicks her legs in a sort of upwards bicycle motion. Those looking for majestic Odette-like wing flapping or Firebird-style jumps will be disappointed. Then again the Golden Cockerel unlike Odette or Firebird is a mechanical creature, and portrayed as such. These ladies actually don't have much dancing to do and their top billing I think is due to the pressure of advertising two ballerinas in a new ballet.

Mikhail Fokine as the Astrologer
The heart of the story is with the men who are almost completely mime characters -- the Tsar (Gary Chryst), his two sons (Jeffrey Cirio and Joseph Gorak) and the Astrologer (Cory Stearns). The story is a classic part of Russian folklore -- the foolish, almost simpleton Tsar and his wastrel sons. I think those really familiar with Russian culture will enjoy this more than people simply looking for a nice evening at the ballet -- the dark, cruel humor and the grisly ending to the piece probably surprised the audiences since everything about the colorful, storybook sets and costumes suggested a fun fairy tale.

The good is that Ratmansky inspires some ABT dancers to "think different," as Steve Jobs would say. Or rather he demands that they go outside their comfort zone. Former Joffrey Ballet dancer Gary Chryst was hysterical at the Tsar -- simple, foolish, vain. Veronika Part in other ballets can really put on a masterclass in Russian Diva Mannerisms 101 but here she did a delightful self-parody of that persona -- the Queen is a siren and seductress, but one who can't help but giggle at her own behavior. Cory Stearns as the wily  Astrologer was a revelation -- almost unrecognizable in a huge beard, robe, and wizard hat, but absolutely eating up the stage. Jeffrey Cirio and Joseph Gorak probably have the most actual dancing to do but again they trade in their prince-like personas for a vividly drawn portrayals of two lazy, spoiled sons. Also fantastic was Martine van Hamel as the Tsar's Housekeeper, who still has to tuck the Tsar into bed at night. The ABT corps were also inspired by Ratmansky to do their best -- the Warriors in particular were great, flashing their cardboard swords. Oddly the usually sparkling Skylar Brandt failed to make much of an impression -- I guess her role is too constricted and one-dimensional, as is her choreography.

Veronika Part, photo @ Andrea Mohin
The problem with Cockerel is that this really is more of a lengthy one-act ballet that was stretched into an evening-length piece. Fokine's original was, in fact, a one-act ballet. The music is beautiful (although Rimsky Korsakov's original opera is even more so -- it has that famous coloratura aria Hymn to the Sun), the sets and costumes by Richard Hudson are eye candy, but large chunks of the ballet seem like filler. Each act is 40 minutes but about 20 minutes from the ballet could be trimmed and no one would care. The corps numbers for the Peasant Women and Persian Women in particular wear thin -- sometimes Ratmansky's penchant for parody is so relentless it ends up becoming tedious. As of now this piece doesn't hold one's interest for an entire evening. I actually thought about how great this piece would be if edited to an hour and then on a double bill with Firebird (either Ratmansky's own version or Fokine's). That evening really would be steeped in the mysterious, exotic world on the steppes of Central Asia.

As a side note I found this Youtube video of the original Ballet Russes production. It seems like the choreography for the Golden Cockerel was originally much more feral:

A photo from the 4T's SAB workshop, photo @ Paul Kolnik
I can't believe this is my first year attending an SAB workshop, but I attended both performances on Saturday June 4. Dammit. Now I'll never be able to live without seeing these again. SAB is the country's largest professional dancing school and its list of legendary alumni are so numerous that it'd be tedious to list even a fraction of them. The Vaganova of the Hudson is a good way to think of it. So naturally the workshops are a great way for talent scouts from ballet companies to recruit for new dancers. Indeed, besides Peter Martins of NYCB you also saw Margaret Tracey (Boston Ballet) and Peter Boal (PNB) during intermission. And there's always chatter about which dancers got accepted into the NYCB and other major companies around the country.

But that's not the real reason why the workshops are such a joy to attend. The performances were filled with love. Love from the beaming parents, who could be heard either loudly cheering their children or nervously counting the steps of a sequence ("1, 2, 3, oh yes she got it! 1, 2, 3, uh oh .. well not too bad ..." ). Love from NYCB company dancers, some of whom were clearly there to support their friends in SAB. Love from ballet lovers everywhere. You saw Allegra Kent, hair still tied neatly in a bun chatting happily about the performance. A very pregnant Chelsea Clinton took the day off from the campaign trail -- on this day, she was just another balletomane. Most of all, the love the kids show for dance is evident and that love made the performances sparkle with joy. SAB is a premiere dancing school, but not everyone will advance to a major professional career. But that's okay. They love dancing, and we loved watching them dance.

Danses Concertantes, photo @ Paul Kolnik
The program was well-chosen -- Balanchine's Danses Concertantes is rarely performed and it's easy to see why -- it's a weird combination of Commedia dell'Arte with Petipa-style variations with a modern Stravinsky score. Not really a masterpiece. But it has a four color coded trios that get to show off their stuff in distinct variations. The main couple was Emma von Enck and Thomas Davidoff -- von Enck is the sister of NYCB corps member Claire von Enck and her spitting image as well. There were a few bobbles and wobbly legs but the overall impression was a lightness and youthfulness that NYCB itself isn't always able to conjure with this baffling ballet. Next up was Peter Martins' Les Gentilhommes, for 10 boys. The whole ballet is a series of Cecchetti-like adagio exercises. In the afternoon, Ethan Fuller (who already has had experience as he was one of the Billy Elliot kids) impressed with his power and strength. In the evening, Andres Zuninga was delicate and almost ethereal. It's great to see how even at an early age dancers are developing their own personalities.

The highlight of the workshop was The Four Temperaments, staged by revered SAB teacher Suki Schorer. Would the kids be able to "get" the taut, muscular tension of Balanchine's seminal ballet? Would the men be able to twist and contort themselves into those famously odd poses in the Melancholic and Phlegmatic variations? Could the ensemble do justice to the famous ending, as the dancers march towards some mysterious power and four women are lifted high in traveling lifts, as if they've already achieved that higher plane? The answer was yes, yes, and yes. The SAB students truly did justice to this masterpiece, which, by the way looks so modern even today. It's hard to believe that in 1946, Balanchine created a ballet where one of the leading motifs was women being lifted in a frontward facing, split crotch lift. Could you have imagined Margot Fonteyn or even Martha Graham doing that?

What's great is how the soloists in both the afternoon and evening performances distinguished themselves by personality and by placing different accents on the same steps. They're already acting like unique dancers, and not just uber-correct students. Only the Sanguinic soloists remained the same. Ethan Fuller's Melancholic showed off his core strength and ballon. Nathan Compiano in the evening put more emphasis on the arm and hand movements of this complicated solo. The Phlegmatic solo in both performances were astonishing and so very different -- Kennard Henson was powerful and even a bit menacing, while Christopher d'Ariano, his handsome face a mysterious mask, used the suppleness of his torso and arms to great effect. Both of them were able to capture that off-center, contorted posture like professionals. It was also impressive to see how the girls of the Melancholic variation were able to power through those famously aggressive kicks in diagonal. Courtney Nitting of Sanguinic reminded me a little of Tiler Peck with her solid sense of balance and nonchalant security, and Gilbert Bolden III was able to lift Nitting in a complete circle around the stage, something I've seen NYCB dancers struggle with. The Choleric girls were very different as well -- Justine Flores more compact and with a bolder attack, Christina Clark leggy and sinewy. It's wonderful that Schorer allows such individuality while so carefully coaching all the dancers about the essence of the piece.

These kids really "got" 4T's, they "got" Balanchine, and now as they embark on their professional careers we wish them the best of luck. They deserve it.


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