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Mariinsky Ballet

'The Little Humpbacked Horse'

by Colleen Boresta

July 13 (m), 2011 -- Metropolitan Opera House, New York, NY

The Little Humpbacked Horse is based on a Russian fairytale written by Pyotr Pavlovich Yershov in 1834. Ballet versions of this story were choreographed by Arthur Saint-Leon and Marius Petipa in the nineteenth century, and Alexander Gorsky in the early twentieth century.
In 1960 the composer, Rodion Shchedrin, (soon to marry Bolshoi prima ballerina, Maya Plisetskaya) composed new music for The Little Humpbacked Horse. This adaptation of the story was choreographed by Alexander Radunsky. It was famously danced by Maya Plisetskaya and her partner, Vladimir Vasiliev. It is to Shchedrin’s very danceable music that Alexei Ratmanksy cheographed his version of the fairytale for the Mariinsky Ballet in 2009.

The Little Humpbacked Horse is the story of Ivan, who lives with his two brothers and elderly father in a small house on the edge of a field. Ivan’s brothers make fun of his wide-eyed innocence and refer to him as Ivan the Fool. At the beginning of the ballet, Ivan discovers that a young mare has been trampling his father’s crops. Ivan gives the mare her freedom and she rewards him with two stallions and a magical little humpbacked horse. Then a flock of firebirds arrive and Ivan plucks a lucky feather from the tail of one of the birds.

While Ivan and the Little Humpbacked Horse are encountering the firebirds, Ivan’s brothers steal his stallions and try to sell them to the Tsar. Ivan arrives in time to convince the Tsar that the stallions are his. The Tsar gives Ivan a position at the palace in return for the horses. This infuriates the Tsar’s chief servant, the power hungry Gentleman of the Bedchamber.

While Ivan is sleeping, the Gentleman of the Bedchamber steals his firebird feather. He gives it to the Tsar, who sees a vision of a beautiful Tsar Maiden living at the faraway home of the firebirds. The Tsar decides he must have the Tsar Maiden as his wife, and Ivan and the Little Humpbacked Horse are sent to bring her back to the Tsar.

Ivan finds the Tsar Maiden, and they fall in love. Ivan, however, fulfills his duty and brings her to the Tsar’s palace. There the Tsar Maiden tells the Tsar that she will only marry him if he gives her a ring that lies at the bottom of the sea. Ivan and the Little Humpbacked Horse travel to the undersea kingdom and retrieve the ring. The Tsar Maiden, still not wanting to marry the old and ugly Tsar, tells him that if he jumps into a cauldron of boiling water, he will become young and handsome. The Gentleman of the Bedchamber says that Ivan should try out the cauldron first, and pushes Ivan into the boiling water. Due to the magic of the Little Humpbacked Horse, Ivan is transformed into a prince. Seeing this, the Tsar jumps into the boiling water and dies. Ivan becomes the new Tsar and celebrates by marrying the Tsar Maiden.

Alexei Ratmansky’s The Little Humpbacked Horse is a delightfully joyous ballet, perfect for both children and those who are children at heart. Ratmansky is this generation’s Frederick Ashton. His choreography for The Little Humpbacked Horse is innovative, whimsical and endlessly witty. Ratmansky has created many vibrant characters for this ballet, including horses and seahorses. His use of mime to tell the story is brilliant, and fortunately all the dancers mime very clearly. The score, composed by Rodion Shchechin, is wonderfully danceable. The crazy costumes and sets add a sort of comic book/cartoon flavor which suits this ballet very well.

Vladimir Shklyarov is engagingly boyish as Ivan the Fool, with enough charisma to light up a thousand stages. His naivety and ability to see life as one big adventure is very endearing. Shklyarov comic timing is absolutely perfect. And what a phenomenal virtuoso dancer he is! He has outstanding elevation and his air turns and split leaps are beyond superlative. During his final solo, Shklyarov keeps stopping and mimes “Wait. I can do something even better.” And of course he does. The audience is completely with him, every step of the way.

Yevgenia Obraztsova is a sweet but spunky Tsar Maiden. She knows what she wants (Ivan, not the silly old Tsar) and how to get him. As a dancer, Obraztsova stands out for her quicksilver footwork and lyrical musical phrasing. She is also a gifted comedienne and her chemistry with Shklyarov is palpable.

Vasily Tkachenko is an enchantingly impish title character. He keeps up with the bravura dancing of Shklyarov, matching him step for step. The rapport between Tkachenko and Shklyarov is very real and natural.

Andrei Ivanov’s portrayl of the foolish Tsar is spot on. His Tsar is a sulky child who has temper tantrums if he doesn’t get his way. If possible, Islom Baimuradov is even funnier than Ivanov as the scene stealing Gentleman of the Bedchamber. His oily evilness is delightfully over the top. Baimuradov’s every gesture and movement adds to the humor of the ballet.

As enjoyable as The Little Humpbacked Horse is, it could use a few cuts. The group dances performed by the townspeople and gypsies in Act I don’t seem to have anything to do with the plot. This is probably why these dances seem to go on forever. That, however, is a very small criticism. Alexei Ratmansky’s The Little Humpbacked Horse is a joyously ebullient ballet which should be in the repertoire of ballet companies all over the world.

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