Is this ballet for you?
Go if: you like coming of age stories, where the male hero has to overcome various obstacles, preferably dancing plenty of virtuoso steps along the way (in fact, all three main characters have challenging steps to negotiate). Do not be put off by the weird title: The Little Humpbacked Horse is based on a Russian folk tale for children, but the latest adaptation for the stage by Ratmansky is fresh, fun and very creative, with a wide audience appeal. A perfect blend of “classical meets modern”.
Skip if: a delightful musical score (in this case, by Shchedrin) and lovely choreography are not enough for you. You absolutely need your ballets extravagantly decorated à la Sleeping Beauty, with rich tutus, lavish settings, a huge corps de ballet and blow-the-budget production.
For the hero, Ivan “the fool” (or Ivanuschka) – Vladimir Shklyarov, not only because it’s one of his favorite roles.
For Ivan’s love interest, the Tsar Maiden – Viktoria Tereshkina, given her amazing ability to make the biggest technical challenges seem like no trouble. Or the edgy Alina Somova whose modern style is well suited to Ratmansky’s choreography and because, after all, this role has earned her a Golden Mask award, and the even more precious gift of Maya Plisetskaya’s own diamond earrings.
For Ivan’s friend, The Little Humpbacked Horse of the title – a soloist who is great at jumping and at petit allegro.
History & Background
The Little Humpbacked Horse (Конек-горбунок) is the tale of a simple young boy, Ivan, and his friend the Humpbacked Horse. After Ivan’s two fine stallions are stolen, the magical Humpbacked Horse and a firebird feather lead him from an idyllic life at his father’s farm into the service of the Tsar. The latter sends Ivan on various missions: to the top of a Mountain to find a Tsar Maiden, to retrieve an engagement ring from the bottom of the sea, and to bathe in a boiling cauldron. But with the assistance of his magical horse, the heroic Ivan ends up winning the Tsar Maiden’s hand and taking the throne.
This well-known tale is a staple of every Russian childhood and has important connections to older folklore like The Firebird. As with La Fille Mal Gardée, The Little Humpbacked Horse has seen several choreographic incarnations over time. The tale was first staged as a ballet by Arthur Saint-Léon (who would later choreograph Coppélia), with a score by Cesare Pugni. It premiered at the Imperial Ballet on 15 December 1864, with Marfa Muravieva and Timofei Stukolkin in the leading roles.
The ballet was a success, not only because of Pugni’s memorable score, but also due to the grand scale of scenes on the magical underwater world, one of the places Ivan has to travel to at the command of the Tsar. As was typical at the time, the ballet ended with a divertissement celebrating the Russian Empire. Thirty years later (1895) Marius Petipa would use parts of Pugni’s score (combined with incidental music by Riccardo Drigo) to recreate – under the title The Tsar Maiden – his own version for the acclaimed prima Pierina Legnani. Interestingly, this particular version of The Little Humpbacked Horse would be the first work ever to be performed by the newly formed Ballets Russes.
Over the years The Little Humpbacked Horse would undergo numerous revivals, including a restaging by Alexander Gorsky for the Bolshoi (1901) that had a veritable medley of music, with sections by Anton Simon, Boris Asafiev, Tchaikovsy, Antonín Dvořák, Alexander Glazunov, Brahms and Liszt. This version – originally with Lyubov Roslavleva (as the Tsar Maiden) and Alexander Gorsky (as Ivan) – would serve as the basis for many subsequent revivals in Russia, but over time, the ballet became outmoded. Like many other 19th century works, only its most celebrated passages were presented at galas and special performances.
Shchedrin, Maya & Radunsky
By 1960, when the Bolshoi’s Aleksandr Radunsky choreographed Rodion Shchedrin’s new score for The Little Humpbacked Horse, there were a dozen previous versions of the ballet. The young Shchedrin had composed his score in 1956 (in collaboration with librettists Vasily Vaionen and Pavel Malyarevsky), and legend has it that this was the work that brought him together with his future wife Maya Plisetskaya (who created the role of the Tsar Maiden). Thanks to Shchedrin, the story’s characters were brought to life with expressive music that evoked comedy, drama and lyricism, much in the same vein as Prokofiev’s Cinderella.
This version was also released as a film, with original leads Maya Plisetskaya, Vladimir Vasiliev and Radunsky himself (as the Tsar). The ballet’s first St. Petersburg (then Leningrad) production took place in 1963.
Alexei Ratmansky’s new version of the ballet premiered in 2009 at the Mariinsky’s “Stars of the White Nights Festival”, to generally favorable reviews (incidentally it was the only production at the festival to be given four performances). The ballet’s revival helped cement Shchedrin’s score as the definitive one. With minimalist sets and costumes, this new version focuses on the music and narrative; the main characters are given expressive choreography and are treated by Ratmansky with plenty of personality, humour and creativity. Ratmansky’s Little Humpbacked Horse offers an interesting mix of modern concepts (the deconstructed Pas de Deux, the references to pop culture in designs and dances – at one point Ivan and the Tsar Maiden dance steps that belong in a pop concert) and classical ballet (presence of mime, virtuoso steps, use of the corps de ballet).
Ratmansky received this commission from Mariinsky director Valery Gergiev, a keen admirer of Shchedrin, who had on several occasions conducted highlights of The Little Humpbacked Horse. To revive the libretto, Ratmansky had the assistance of Maxim Isayev. Of this new staging, Shchedrin says:
I always dreamed that he [Ratmansky] would turn his visions and ears on The Horse. It seemed and seems to me that it is close to his unique, witty individuality of theme, where lyricism and humour, craftiness and light sadness are natural neighbours. (Programme notes from the Mariinsky Theatre)
Scene 1: A Farmhouse close to a field
We see an old man at home with his sons Gavrilo, Danilo and the youngest, Ivan. The man goes out to cut rye wheat while Ivan’s brothers arrange an outdoor party. Returning from the field, the man is disappointed to find them dancing and making merry with wet nurses. He orders them to stop and expels the maidens. Hoping they will learn to be more responsible, he tells his sons of a terrible villain who comes at night to trample on the wheat and sends Gavrilo and Danilo out to guard the field. Ivan is eager to accompany them but is considered too young and clumsy. His brothers think he is a fool but Ivan, who is afraid of nothing, is determined to help catch the villain. He decides to set out into the field alone.
Scene 2: the Field
Ivan sees a beautiful Young Mare trot into the field. The mare is trampling and ruining the wheat. Ivan reacts quickly: grabbing the mare by the tail he awkwardly mounts the animal back to front. The Young Mare is not amused and keeps trying to buck off Ivan. It finally gives up and decides to barter with Ivan: it will gift him three Horses, two stallions plus a little Humpbacked Horse in exchange for its freedom. Ivan is puzzled by the Humpbacked Horse but accepts the trade. Distracted by firebirds that have just landed on the field, Ivan hasn’t noticed Gavrilo and Danilo wander in. They covet the beautiful horses. As Ivan returns with a firebird feather he realises the stallions have disappeared. Visibly upset, he is consoled by the little Humpbacked Horse, who promises to help Ivan pursue the abductors. Ivan realises this is indeed no ordinary horse. Together they set off on their first adventure.
Scene 3: A Square in the Capital
People are making merry and some dance a quadrille. Gavrilo and Danilo have just arrived with the intention of selling the horses. The Tsar also enters to have a look around. He has noticed the stallions and is interested in them. Ivan and the Humpbacked Horse rush onto the square in time to stop Ivan’s brothers, but the Tsar has become attached to the animals and wants to bargain with Ivan. The Tsar offers Ivan the Chamberlain’s hat (thus indirectly his job). They make a deal, leaving the Chamberlain enraged and jealous of Ivan.
Scene 4 : The Tsar’s Chambers
The wet nurses are feeding the Tsar who soon falls asleep. Ivan is also tired and ready to go to sleep. The demoted Chamberlain is keeping a close eye on Ivan and, as soon as Ivan dozes off , he snatches the firebird’s feather from him. He awakens the Tsar and they wonder how Ivan has acquired such riches. Ivan’s feather leads the Tsar to a vision of the firebirds and, amongst them, a lonely Tsarevna. The vision fades but the Tsar is now in love with the Tsarevna. The Chamberlain wakes Ivan from his sleep and orders him to bring in the maiden. Ivan is in despair. He doesn’t know where to seek out such a creature. Once again, the Little Horse comforts Ivan and tells him not to worry, together they hatch a plan and depart for yet another adventure.
Scene 1: A Mountain at the edge of the world
Ivan and the Horse have come to the edge of the world to find the firebirds and the Tsarevna. Ivan tries to capture the Firebirds but they fly away. He now sees the beautiful Tsar maiden and cannot take his eyes off her. The Tsarevna is also somewhat taken with Ivan and allows him and the Little Horse to capture her and take her to the Capital.
The Tsar and his Boyars are in the royal chambers waiting for the Tsarevna. Ivan returns with the Little Horse and the maiden. The Tsar wakes up and sends everyone away. He declares to the Tsarevna that he plans to marry her and shows her an engagement ring. Ivan – who loves the Tsarevna – is distressed. The Tsar maiden agrees to marry, but she is not happy with the ring; for she wants a stone that lies on the seabed. The Chamberlain knows just how to procure such a stone: he gives the task once again to Ivan, who leaves for the seabed with his magical horse.
Scene 3: The Seabed
Ivan and the Little Horse reach the seabed where the Sea people are going about their marine lives. Ivan looks for the ring, which is nowhere to be found. Ivan has the idea to ask for help and the Sea Princess agrees to bring him the stone ring.
Scene 4: The square in the Capital
The Tsarevna is invited to dance by the Tsar. She accepts but the Tsar is old and tires quickly. Ivan reappears with his Little Horse and the stone to the Tsarevna’s delight. Angy that Ivan has once again been successful, the Chamberlain snatches the ring and tells Ivan his services are no longer required, as the Tsar is ready to marry. But the Tsarevna does not really fancy the Tsar for a husband. She has a plan of her own: she tells him that first he needs to become “as handsome as a portrait” and for that he must jump into a cauldron of boiling water.
As the cauldron is brought in, the Tsar worries about jumping into boiling water. The Chamberlain once again suggests he gets Ivan to try it out. The faithful Little Horse works a spell and Ivan is transformed into a handsome Tsarevich. The people rejoice. It is now the Tsar’s turn. However, without the Little Humpbacked Horse to work his spell it all goes wrong: the Tsar dies as soon as he immerses himself in boiling water. He is briefly mourned by his subjects but Ivan Tsarevich and the Tsarevna are delighted as they can now be with each other. Preparations for the wedding are made and the couple celebrates with the Little Humpbacked Horse and the people.
While completing his postgraduate studies with Yuri Shaporin at the Moscow Conservatory, Rodion Konstantinovich Shchedrin started working on his first ballet score: The Little Humpbacked Horse (1955). Three years later Shchedrin would marry the ballerina Maya Plisetskaya. Of this period, the composer says:
The music for the ballet The Little Humpbacked Horse is an early, a very early, work of mine. But it is the work of an era important in terms of my emergence as a composer and which defined much in my life. A work with which I firmly “grasped” the unearthly Firebird – Maya Plisetskaya. The score is dedicated to her… (Programme notes from the Mariinsky Theatre)
Shchedrin belongs to a generation of modern Russian composers whose works take inspiration from the past – in his case, Sergei Prokofiev, Dmitri Kabalevsky and Dmitri Shostakovich – balancing tradition with modernism to find new ways of artistic expression. Shchedrin’s style connects Russian classics and elements of folklore with modern compositional methods. From Prokofiev specifically, the composer has embraced marked rhythms and constructive rationality. Shchedrin’s compositions play with tone colours, changing lyrical and dramatic sections and extending melodic lines. Even in his later works, which are less academically formal, Shchedrin tends to observe balance and density, with a musical texture that is enlivened by dramatic blasts.
In addition to The Little Humpbacked Horse, Shchedrin wrote the following ballets: Carmen Suite (1967), based on the opera Carmen by Georges Bizet, Anna Karenina (1971), The Seagull (1980) and The Lady with a Little Dog (1985). He has also composed many operas, concertos and orchestral works.
For iPods and Spotify playlists, here is a full track listing for The Little Humpbacked Horse.
- From a special gala performance: Underwater scene (Gorsky, Petipa after Saint-Léon)
- From a special gala performance: Enchanted Isle of the Tsar Maiden (Gorsky, Petipa after Saint-Léon)
- Maya Plisetskaya & Vladimir Vasiliev as Tsar Maiden and Ivan (Radunsky)
- The Tsar Maiden living among the Firebirds (Ratmansky)
- Victoria Tereshkina & Mikhail Lobukhin in The Wedding Pas de Deux (Ratmansky)
- Vladimir Shklyarov, Alina Somova and Vasily Tkachenko discuss their roles (Ratmansky)
- Yuri Smekalov as the Chamberlain (Ratmansky)
- Two Tsar Maidens: Alina Somova & Evgenia Obraztsova (footage from her debut)
- Trailer for Ratmansky’s version from the Mariinsky’s YT channel
Choreography: Arthur Saint-Léon
Music: Cesare Pugni
Original Cast: Marfa Muravieva and Timofei Stukolkin
Premiere: 15 December 1864, Imperial Ballet, St Petersburg
Choreography: Aleksandr Radunsky
Music: Rodion Shchedrin
Original Cast: Maya Plisetskaya and Vladimir Vasiliev
Premiere: 1960, Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow
Choreography: Alexei Ratmansky
Music: Rodion Shchedrin
Designs: Maxim Isaev (Set and Costumes) and Damir Ismagilov (Lighting)
Original Cast: Viktoria Tereshkina and Mikhail Lobukhin
Premiere: 14 March 2009, Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg
Sources & Further Information:
- Programme Notes for Mariinsky’s The Little Humpbacked Horse, Théâtre du Châtelet, November 2010.
- Programme Notes from the Mariinsky Theatre’s Website.
- Wikipedia entries for The Little Humpbacked Horse (Ballet) and Rodion Shchedrin.
- Rodion Shchedrin biography from Scottish Ballet’s Website.
- Ballet.co Magazine, Review of 1960 production on DVD by John Mallinson. September 2007.
- Ballet.co Magazine, Review of The Little Humbpacked Horse revival by Kevin Ng. November 2010.
- Notes from MrLopez2681 on The Little Humpbacked Horse (after Gorsky/Petipa/Saint-Léon).
- Discussion threads at Ballet Alert forum: The Little Humpbacked Horse (Pugni/Gorsky after Petipa/SL) and 9th Mariinsky Festival: Performance Reports.
- The Humpbacked Horse ballet at Answers.com
- Mariinsky straddles the “Little Humpbacked Horse” by Svetlana Naborshikova. RT, March 2010.
- A Truly Festive Humpbacked Horse. Review by Michael Johnson. ConcertoNet.com, June 2009.