The ballet Le Coq d'or (The Golden Cockerel) was originally staged in 1914 in London and Paris, by Michel Fokine for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. This work was an opera-ballet, a danced interpretation of the Rimsky-Korsakov's epic opera of the same name, with the dancers accompanied by a chorus and solo singers.
In 1937, Fokine revised the work for the Ballets Russes company of Colonel W de Basil, creating a single-act ballet in three scenes which premiered at Covent Garden on September 23, 1937. For this straight-dance version, the Rimsky-Korsakov score was adapted and arranged by Nicolas Tcherepnin, and Fokine condensed the original opera libretto, which Vladimir Bielsky had adapted from a Pushkin poem. Artist Natalia Gontcharova based her neo-primitive set and costume designs on those she had made for the 1914 version, recreating the original curtain and modifying other elements to produce a brilliantly colourful tableau. Her costume for the Cockerel, using real gold thread, was introduced in the 1937 production, the 1914 version having used a prop to represent this character.
The United States premiere took place in the Metropolitan Opera on March 6, 1918 with Marie Sundelius in the title role, Adamo Didur and Maria Barrientos in the actual leads, and Pierre Monteux conducting.
The story of Le Coq d'or concerns the fate of the lazy King Dodon when he renegs on his promise to reward an astrologer with anything he desires in exchange for the gift of a magical golden cockerel. Dodon is seduced by the beautiful Queen of Shemakhan, against whom he has been waging war, and brings her home as his bride. When the astrologer claims the Queen as his reward, the King kills him in a fit of rage and is, in turn, killed by the cockerel. Despite the surface naivety and humour, the story has strong undercurrents of both sensuality and satire.
There is an emphasis in the 1937 version on the contrast between fantasy and reality, with the Astrologer reminding the audience at the end that, apart from himself and the Queen, all was illusion. The Golden Cockerel and the Queen are the only roles danced on pointe. Both are technically demanding, and provide strong balletic highlights amid the mime and burlesque elements.