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American Ballet Theatre: The Golden Cockerel

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American Ballet Theatre

The Golden Cockerel
Company Premiere

At the
Metropolitan Opera House

Kevin McKenzie, Artistic Director
Kara Medoff Barnett, Executive Director
Alexei Ratmansky, Artist in Residence
Victor Barbee, Associate Artistic Director
Ballet Masters: Susan Jones, Irina Kolpakova,
Clinton Luckett, Nancy Raffa, Keith Roberts
Ormsby Wilkins, Music Director
Kelly Ryan, Director of Press and Public Relations
James Timm, Director of Marketing and Brand Management
Susie Morgan Taylor, Manager of Press and Online Media

Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower
June 7, 2016

(Read More ABT Reviews.)

(See a Conversation with Conductor, David LaMarche, on the Spring 2016 Season Ballet Music.)

The Golden Cockerel (Company Premiere): Choreography by Alexei Ratmansky (inspired by Michel Fokine’s original production), Staged by Anne Holm-Jensen Peyk, Music by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Arranged by Yannis Samprovalakis, Scenery and costumes by Richard Hudson (inspired by Natalia Goncharova, 1913, 1937), Lighting by Brad Fields, Associate Designer: Kasper Hansen.

Cast on June 6, 2016:

Conductor: Charles Barker, Performed by Veronika Part as the Queen of Shemakhan, Gary Chryst as Tsar Dodon, Skylar Brandt as the Golden Cockerel, Cory Stearns as the Astrologer, Jeffrey Cirio as Prince Guidon, the Tsar’s son, Joseph Gorak as Prince Afron, the Tsar’s son, Roman Zhurbin as General Polkan, Martine Van Hamel as Amelpha, the Tsar’s Housekeeper, Joo Won Ahn and Calvin Royal III as Persian Men, and the Company as Boyars, the Tsar’s Advisors, Peasant Women, Peasant Men, Skomorokhs, Warriors, and Persian Women, led by Christine Shevchenko.

Cast on June 7, 2016:

Conductor: Ormsby Wilkins, Performed by Stella Abrera as the Queen of Shemakhan, Victor Barbee as Tsar Dodon, Cassandra Trenary as the Golden Cockerel, James Whiteside as the Astrologer, Arron Scott as Prince Guidon, the Tsar’s son, Alexandre Hammoudi as Prince Afron, the Tsar’s son, Craig Salstein as General Polkan, Tatiana Ratmansky as Amelpha, the Tsar’s Housekeeper, Joo Won Ahn and Patrick Frenette as Persian Men, and the Company as Boyars, the Tsar’s Advisors, Peasant Women, Peasant Men, Skomorokhs, Warriors, and Persian Women, led by Christine Shevchenko.

On two sequential evenings, June 6th and June 7th, I attended the highly anticipated and publicized new story ballet, The Golden Cockerel, inspired by Michel Fokine’s original production. That 1937 one-act ballet was based on his 1914 opera-ballet for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, with opera singers sitting on the right and left of the stage, which was based on Rimsky-Korsakov’s 1909 opera, “Le Coq d’Or”, which was based on Pushkin’s 1834 poem, “The Fairy Tale of the Little Golden Cockerel”, which was based on two chapters of Washington Irving’s “Tales of the Alhambra”, or so that’s how it appears in a program pamphlet. In other words, this ballet was originally part of a fanciful, poetic opera. Ballet Theatre’s Artist in Residence, Alexei Ratmansky, created this ballet in 2012 for the Royal Danish Ballet, whose scenery and costumes were transported to New York for this one-week run. Ratmansky is quoted in the program pamphlet as calling his ballet “reflective of Russian music-theater”.

The essential plot concerns Tsar Dodon and the Queen of Shemakhan, in whose kingdoms and regional battlefield the two-act ballet is set. The first scene is a brilliantly colored court, in gold, red, blue, and yellow, in which a cunning Astrologer gives a magical Golden Cockerel to the Tsar, to vocally warn him if enemies are approaching. The second scene is the tent and kingdom of the Queen of Shemakhan, who seduces the Tsar, amidst exotic warriors and dancers. In the third scene, back in the Tsar’s court, giants and a tall camel appear, and, in one fell swoop, literally, the conflict of who gets the Queen, Dodon or the Astrologer, is resolved. The Tsar, who owed the Astrologer a favor for his Cockerel, had demanded the favor be that he got the Queen, whom the Astrologer adored, invading the Astrologer’s turf, with much dramatic mime. (Partially based on ABT Pamphlet Notes.)

On the 6th, Skylar Brandt was an outstanding Cockerel, the model for future ballet artists. She not only exuded speed and style, but she shone from within, youthfully aerobic, dynamic, and elegant. She leaped and hopped as if on a spring, filled with enthusiasm and charisma. She engages the audience in ways few ballet Soloists, and, for that matter, few Principals, manage to do these days. Cory Stearns, however, as the Astrologer, seemed passive, moving in the role, but not psychically engaging in the theatrical dimensions. Gary Chryst (formerly with The Joffrey Ballet) as Tsar Dodon, exuded stage presence, but not the Russian heft that a Tsar would project. But, happily, Veronica Part, in a quintessentially evocative performance as the Queen of Shemakhan, riveted the eye and obviously relished her showcased moments. Her sensuous dance to lure the Tsar into her tent was one for ballet history memory. Jeffrey Cirio and Joseph Gorak, dancing the roles of Prince Guidon and Prince Afron, who become literally locked in battle in an awkward scene of “crossed swords”, were suitably ingénue-militaristic. Two scene stealers, in addition to Ms. Brandt and Ms. Part, were Roman Zhurbin, as General Polkan, and Martine Van Hamel, as Amelpha, the Tsar’s housekeeper. The General just wanted to win a war, and Amelpha just wanted to win the Tsar.

On the 7th, the most engaging acting (this ballet is more acting than dancing) occurred in somewhat different characterizations. Cassandra Trenary was a studied, lightning-quick Cockerel, but with subdued persona. She had the skill but did not steal the spotlight. Au contraire, James Whiteside, as the Astrologer, was a high point of this night’s cast, along with Victor Barbee as Tsar Dodon and Craig Salstein, as General Polkan. They all made the most of each moment’s dramatic gesture and nuance. Mr. Barbee soon takes leave from his role as Associate Artistic Director and retired Principal, but, through June, he continues to appear in story ballets. Mr. Salstein, like Mr. Zhurbin, who was Polkan on the 6th, is an operatically mesmerizing dance-actor. And, Mr. Whiteside made much of the Astrologer’s neediness and yearning for the Queen. That Queen, on the 7th, was Stella Abrera, a sophisticated, exotic performer, who deserves to star in more full-dance ballets. The one-scene, Act II spotlight did not favor her strengths, within such a busy array of distractions. Arron Scott and Alexandre Hammoudi, as Dodon’s two warrior sons, simultaneously slain by the crossed swords, had little to work with here. The remaining lead, Tatiana Ratmansky, the choreographer’s wife, brought a Russian demeanor to Amelpha, less campy and more emotionally severe, than Martine Van Hamel on the 6th, a different take on the role.

Ratmansky’s new ballet should be seen as part of an opera, as it was originally conceived by both Rimsky-Korsakov and Fokine. In fact, the 1914 opera ballet concept, with singers sitting side stage and dancers performing the story is intriguing. There is so little dancing and so much miming and gesturing, with so many heavily costumed characters and ornamentations, that ballet is not the focus. With a collaboration of opera (the newly reorganized New York City Opera comes to mind) this would be quite a show. In fact, Richard Hudson’s scenery and costumes, so visually stunning and magnetic, with the Cockerel in gold feathers and frills, would be purely operatic. The arrangement of the Rimsky-Korsakov score, by Yannis Samprovalakis, gives the listener the sense of an esoteric, rather than entertaining, musical experience. But, with so little actual dancing, and the stage stuffed with furry, brocade-costumed characters, the lack of balletic rhythm seems inconsequential. Brad Fields’ lighting is excellent in making the primal colors glow. They really pop off the backdrop and cloaks. Charles Barker and Ormsby Wilkins conducted, respectively, with mastery of the genre. Kudos to Diaghilev for commissioning Fokine’s original Le Coq d’Or in 1914, over a century ago. Mr. Ratmansky has created what could be a stunning, ballet-opera pièce de résistance.

Skylar Brandt in "The Golden Cockerel"
Courtesy of Rosalie O'Connor

A Scene from "The Golden Cockerel"
Courtesy of Rosalie O'Connor

For more information, contact Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower at