Saturday, June 11, 2016

Le Coq d'Or

Le Coq d’Or
American Ballet Theatre
Saturday, June 11, 2016 @ 2 pm

It's Ratmansky, but without the emotionally piercing sincerity of Seven Sonatas or Symphony #9. The story of Coq d'Or demands ironic distancing, which may not bode well for its longevity (a little repeat here of what Jennifer Homans called Ratmansky's "familiar postmodern ruses."). Still, as a political satire (albeit without the biting tone), there's a lot to admire here. 

The theme is entirely appropriate to our age, and to every age for that matter: we have a bunch of foolish men, doing foolish things, for foolish dreams.

There’s a foolish tsar who neglects his duties in favor of naps, good food, and erotic dreams. (He kind of reminded me of the response to Bill Clinton – everyone still seems to love him, even though he’s not a morally principled person.) There’s a seemingly foolish Astrologer, who uses magic (he creates a Golden Cockerel) and political machinations (he gives the Golden Cockerel to the tsar in exchange for his deepest desire) as part of a plan to entrap the glamorous Queen of Shemakhan. We also have two foolish sons of the tsar, one a daydreamer and another a mincing toy-sabre rattler – both get killed off in the second act; and a bellicose, doddering “General Polkan” who agitates for war like an aged bulldog.

Events proceed in cartoon-like fashion, aided by the almost tongue-in-cheek florid folklorism of the designs (Richard Hudson after Natalia Goncharova). Ratmansky’s Coq d’Or (which he first revived for Royal Danish Ballet in 2012) is based on 1913 and 1937 stagings by Fokine, and with the Goncharova décor – and an avian heroine - is clearly a cousin to another Fokine-Goncharova production from the early days of the Ballets Russes – Stravinsky’s Firebird (1910).

With the exception of the Queen of Shemakhan, all of the other characters seem completely out of touch with reality. Misty Copeland as the Queen played a realpolitik narcissist, one obsessed with power and completely clear headed about how to take it. She seemed to be the only person in the ballet who realized that she was playing a part in a cartoon.

At the end of the ballet, we learn that all the characters – except for the witchy femme fatale, the Queen of Shemakhan – have been projections of the Astrologer’s mind. This ending invites us to consider an alternate reality – like maybe this has been a power struggle between the Astrologer and the Queen all along? If this whole story of the Golden Cockerel and Tsar Dodon has been a divertissement, what was the real story?

Again I was reminded how much Ratmansky’s time at Royal Danish Ballet must have influenced him – a lot of this ballet relies on pantomime, a more old-fashioned mode of ballet communication which the Danes maintained over time, but the Russians cut. Choreography as such didn’t really stand out here; but the masterful comedic scenes such as the one between the tsar and his court conveyed another facet of Ratmansky’s great gift for creating sophisticated yet legible satires of human political and group dynamics (also on display in his Lost Illusions, which one might even consider a funny sort of sister ballet to Le Coq d’Or – they coincide in their themes of desire and illusion, fantasy and reality.)  This ballet may not have the staying power of his Nutcracker or even for that matter his Bright Stream, but it is a quirky testament to his incredible range as a choreographer. And, I have to say, for this viewer a welcome relief from a frequently monotonous ballet landscape of new works featuring fundamentally empty demonstrations of balletic edginess, alienation, and hyper-flexibility, which, let’s face it, only Bill Forsythe or maybe Karole Armitage in Watteau Duets really got right.

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