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A tryle festive Humpbacked Horse

Mariinsky Theatre
05/21/2009 -  & 1, 20*, 25 June
Rodion Shchedrin: The Little Humpbacked Horse
Mikhail Lobukhin*/Leonid Sarafanov/Vladimir Shklyarov (Ivan the Fool), Alina Samova*/Viktoria Tereshikina (The Tsar Maiden), Ilya Petrov (The Humpbacked Horse), Roman Skripkin (Tsar), Islom Baimuradov (Gentleman of the Bedchamber), Yekaterina Kondaurova (Young Mare/Princess of the Sea), Sergei Popov/Andrei Ermakov (Young Horses/Sea Horses), Ivan Sitnikov (Danilo), Konstantin Zverev (Gavrilo), Andrei Yakovlev (Old Man), Mariinsky Ballet Company
Mariinsky Orchestra, Alexei Repnikov (Conductor)
Alexei Ratmansky (Choreographer), Maxim Isayev (Set and Costume Designer), Damir Ismagilov (Lighting Designer)

(© N. Razina)

The verse tale The Little Humpbacked Horse (subtitle: The Tsar Maiden) was published in 1834 by a 19-year-old St. Petersburg university student, Piotr Pavlovich Yershov, and it achieved instant popularity. It recounts the fantastical adventures of a young man, Ivanushka, the youngest of three sons in a family who consider him a simpleton. He is befriended by the magical horse of the title, and after many vicissitudes which include his challenging the Tsar for the hand of a beautiful maiden and a trip to the bottom of the sea, he gets the girl - and ends up becoming the Tsar himself.

The tale contains references to several older Russian folk tales, for example the firebird (actually there is a whole flock of firebirds) and it is a staple of every Russian childhood.

Yershov’s story was choreographed by the transplanted French choreographer Arthur Saint-Léon for the Imperial Ballet in 1864 to the music of the prolific Cesare Pugni (another transplant - from Genoa). It gained a permanent place in the Russian repertoire and was reworked by several choreographers over the decades. In 1955 the young Rodion Shchedrin composed his version, which was staged in Moscow in 1960 with his wife, the great Maya Plisetskaya, as the Tsar Maiden. It has more or less supplanted the Pugni version. Its first Leningrad production occurred in 1963. The Mariinsky’s current version, choreographed by former Bolshoi director Alexei Ratmansky, opened the 2009 Stars of the White Nights Festival, and is the only production at the festival to be given four performances.

For sheer enjoyment, the Ratmansky Humpbacked Horse ranks right up there with the Ashton treatment of La Fille Mal Gardée. Adding to the fun are the set and costume designs of Maxim Isayev which, in their colour and brilliance, hark back to the glory days of Diaghilev.

Ratmansky’s choreography (described as “cunning” and “witty” by composer Shchedrin) has fleeting touches of Russian classicism, Balanchinean neo-classicism, Gene Kelly-esque moves, interspersed with bits of old-fashioned mime - but sent up if not camped up. Mikhail Lobukhin as Ivan the Fool and Alina Somova as the Tsar Maiden strike me as a match made in heaven. He gets to develop from goofy boy to romantic prince and the audience is with him all the way. Somova is the very image of a magic princess; she reminds me of Evelyn Hart. One highlight occurs when she must dance a pas-de-deux with the doddering Tsar (Roman Skripkin); somehow it can’t help but evolve into a pas-de-deux with the charming Ivan - and who could blame her!

Ilya Petrov is the endearing little horse of the title and Islom Baimuradov, the Gentleman of the Bedchamber, plays the dastardly villain to the hilt. His miming (carried over into the curtain calls) almost steals the show.

In contrast to the previous night’s audience for Yevgeny Onegin, the ballet audience mostly refrained from paparazzi behaviour with their flash cameras at least until the curtain calls.

A Russian upbringing is not a requirement for enjoying this work. Shchedrin’s colourful score bounces from exuberant playfulness to a warm romanticism and Ratmansky’s headlong choreography is wedded to it all the way. The piece fully deserves a place in any festival where dance is featured.

Michael Johnson



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