Alexei Ratmansky’s ballets should come with a health warning: they may prove addictive. Having followed his career closely for the past 3 years, we confess to having become quite obsessed with Ratmansky works, with this choreographer’s unique way of honouring the past, while adding on postmodern layers to narrative ballet, his keen eye on the collision of cultures, and the idiosyncratic touches he brings to each character he creates.
This has led us to chase after his ballets around the world: to Paris and New York to catch The Little Humpbacked Horse, to Toronto for his Romeo and Juliet and, more recently, to Edinburgh, where we had the chance to see his drop-dead gorgeous production of Cinderella for the Mariinsky. So when we heard Ratmansky was reviving a Ballets Russes gem for one of our favorite ballet troupes, The Royal Danish Ballet, it was time to set off on yet another voyage to explore his creative and whimsical universe.
We are invited into the court of the world-weary Tsar Dodon (created on the wonderful Thomas Lund, who has since retired from a long and celebrated career at RDB) & his carefree sons, princes Guidon & Afron. The Tsar’s advisors know that the three royals are not the best war strategists around, and thus their lack of battle skills and flawed personalities are conveyed to audiences in a hilarious dance-off full of mighty leaps and batterie (Ratmansky proving he knows the Danes well). These princes are like the balletic versions of Jaime Lannister (Gregory Dean as the dashing but goofy Afron) and Robb Stark (Ulrik Birkkjær as the floppy-haired, slightly more ambitious Guidon), preparing for a war they have no chance of winning.
Dodon, knowing that impending war is on the horizon, is visited by a mysterious Astrologer and accepts the gift of a Golden Cockerel, a magical bird that can forewarn the court of any enemy’s approach. The gift is, as dramatic tradition demands, conditional upon the Astrologer having back from Dodon anything his heart desires when the time comes. The fact that both end up desiring the same woman (and that the Tsar is unable to keep his promise to the Astrologer) is what leads to the tragic ending, subtly conveyed by Ratmansky as a fable. The Golden Cockerel has a complex plot and the choreographer rightly chooses to focus our attention on the two key female figures, incidentally the sole two characters en pointe. While the Cockerel (Lena-Maria Gruber), say a distant cousin of the Firebird, gets the more dynamic steps, the exotic Queen of Shemakhan – perfectly characterised by Gudrun Bojesen – lures the Astrologer and the Tsar with her enticing adagio.
The most impactful moment comes when the Queen invites the Tsar into her oriental tent “of delights” – the jaw drops, not only at the explosion of Goncharova colours, masterfully recreated by Richard Hudson, but at the lush choreography. This is the moment for the corps de ballet to shine (another highlight is the amazonian and elegant Christina Michanek as the “oriental dancer”). The Swirling patterns, the Russian soul of Rimsky-Korsakov and the detailed characterisations are almost too much to take in at a single viewing.
While, story-wise, The Golden Cockerel is not quite on the same league as The Little Humpbacked Horse, it is definitely worth the trip to Copenhagen. Ratmansky is a master at juxtaposing comedy, drama and crafty choreography. You feel like you almost need an additional pair of eyes. And the gorgeous neo-Ballets Russes sets prove how traditional stage craft, with no gimmicks or gadgets, is more than enough to realise an idea which keeps audiences – old and new – entertained and engaged.