The Little Humpbacked Horse Roundup

I arrived in New York last week just in time to catch the Mariinsky Ballet‘s last performance of The Little Humpbacked Horse, as well as an evening programme of Symphony in C paired with Alonso’s Carmen (but more on that later). The Little Humpbacked Horse combines a delightful (even hummable) score by Rodion Shchedrin with a captivating story, inventive steps and memorable characters. It was the first time Alexei Ratmansky‘s retake on this Russian folk classic was performed for US audiences and, after having caught it in Paris last year, I was curious to see how the work would be received here.

Alina Somova as The Tsar Maiden and Vladimir Shklyarov as Ivan in Ratmansky's The Little Humpbacked Horse. Photo: Natasha Razina / Mariinsky Theatre ©

On the matinée performance I attended, Alina Somova (whom I had previously seen in this work) was enchanting as the Tsar Maiden. Her bendy body serves the choreography well, her long legs drawing elegant lines and soaring high for Ratmansky’s very challenging diagonal of hops en pointe. She also gets the balance between screwball and romance just right, reminding me of an all-time favorite kooky heroine: Barbra Streisand’s Judy Maxwell from “What’s Up Doc?”. It’s love at first sight for The Tsar Maiden, who is amused by the goofy Ivan, yet immediately sees in him husband – and Tsar – material.

As Ivan, first soloist Alexander Sergeyev was spot on casting: slender and bendy in physique, geeky and hugely likeable in temperament. For Ivan’s bravura solo in Act 3 he did not attempt to replicate Vladimir Shklyarov‘s signature sky-high Russian splits, but his technique was secure and his stylish grand pirouette with alternating arms went down very well with the crowds. It was interesting to see the enthusiasm of US audiences as they hardly ever waited for any variation to end before showing their appreciation.

I was also happy to see a slightly different cast than last year with Islom Baimuradov – instead of Yuri Smekalov – as the quirky villain (the Tsar’s Chamberlain), and corps de ballet member Anastasia Petushkova – charming but not quite as secure as Yekaterina “Big Red” Koundaurova – in the double role of the Mare/Sea Princess. Grigory Popov was, once again, the high-leaping, day-saving Humpbacked Horse. This is one of the most exciting and successful recent attempts at the so-difficult-to-get-right genre of narrative ballet. Seeing it again made me a bit sad that we are not getting it in London as part of the Mariinsky’s 50th anniversary tour.

Here’s what US dance writers said of The Little Humpbacked Horse:

What makes this episodic tale worth watching is the framework on which Ratmansky hangs one delightful dance after another. I liked his ensemble work for the Firebirds, which was very much in the spirit of Nineteenth-century ballets blancs, but with unconventional twists. By dividing them equally between men and women, he weaves floating lifts for the women into the fabric of his compositions, and also plays massed male and female flocks against each other, and the decidedly diagonal twist of some of his formations gave us, literally, a new angle on what might have been too familiar. Similarly, in the Princess of the Sea’s underwater realm, he has great fun with finding new ways of coalescing waveforms out of the corps. Eric Taub for

It is a rare and wonderful thing for a production to be so idiosyncratic in its every aspect – choreography, costumes, music, set – and yet so thoroughly of a piece. In his 2009 remake for the Mariinsky of the popular 19th-century, then Soviet, ballet, the Russian choreographer Alexei Ratmansky merges fairy tale and Bildungsroman. Ivan the innocent grows up to be Ivan the Tsar. On the way, he sees the world as a child might: not dulled by experience but in its acute variety and strangeness. Apollinaire Scherr for The Financial Times
A very lovable aspect of this “Horse” was the exuberance and apparent unself-consciousness of its performers. The Mariinsky is famous not for its acting, but for the opposite: line, elegance, repose. But oh, those dancers must have been waiting to do something like this, because every little sea maiden waved her arms like crazy, and every firebird lady shimmered her red-gloved fingers like flames. Most of the major characters were wonderful: the Tsar (Andrei Ivanov), his slithery Gentleman of the Chamber (Islom Baimuradov), the very cute Humpbacked Horse (Vasily Tkachenko). But wonderful is not the word for the Ivanushka I saw—Vladimir Shklyarov, who was both an innocent, tousle-haired boy and a thrilling classical dancer. Ratmansky gave him the goods he needed: great, aching renversés, plus fabulous, intricate jumps, but not too many of them, so he wouldn’t seem a show-off. You wanted to take him home. Joan Acocella for The New Yorker
The solos for Ivan, the Humpbacked Horse, and the princess were also wonderfully textured. The magic horse, played by Vasily Tkachenko at the performance I saw (on July 13), was playful, goofy, and touchingly ungainly. Yevgenia Obraztsova, as the princess, danced a wonderful solo in which she exuded sheer boredom: she dangled her arms, caressed her braid, and went around the stage doing little jumps in which she tucked both feet under her as if trying desperately to find something, anything, to amuse herself. Ivan’s dances were tossed off with insouciant ease by Vladimir Shklyarov, a charmer if there ever was one. The role is intensely virtuosic—a series of eight tours en l’air comes to mind—but is delivered as if it were nothing, just the high jinks of an excitable boy. Marina Harss for The Faster Times
What this tale releases in Mr. Ratmansky is a wide spectrum of character dancing and a love of childlike innocence. At least five of the leading characters here have more individuality and telling detail than anybody in “Anna [Karenina],” and they have the most vivid use of formal mime gestures that anyone has choreographed in 30 years. (The Gentleman of the Bedchamber mimes: “What do you mean you won’t marry the Tsar? He dived into the deep to get that ring for you, holding his nose in the water, all to get that ring for you!” The Tsar Maiden replies, “I don’t care — I don’t love him!”). Alastair Macaulay for The New York Times

There are few dancers better-trained than these — only the Paris Opera Ballet’s can match them. Vladimir Shklyarov is a convincingly silly, boyish Ivan. Skinny, with gangly limbs and chestnut hair, he has a powerful jump but pretends he’s a dancing idiot savant. He restarts a variation several times after intentionally screwing it up. Viktoria Tereshkina is anything but a porcelain princess. She’s a tomboy who’s as goofy as Ivan, and their first awkward love scene — after he catches her by her ponytail — is the most charming in the ballet. Leigh Witchel for The New York Post

Alina Somova as The Tsar Maiden. Photo: Natasha Razina / Mariinsky Theatre ©

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Likes ballets that taste like 85% cocoa: pure, extra bitter, dark or intense. Her favorites are La Sylphide, Manon, Mayerling, Ondine, Symphonic Variations and McGregor's Chroma. Her favorite Ratmansky ballets are: The Little Humpbacked Horse, Russian Seasons, Cinderella and The Shostakovich Trilogy. She is always ready to chase new Ratmanskys around the globe. Non ballet: literature, theatre, opera, rock, art, food, travel, fashion, translating and interpreting.


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