Alexei Ratmansky's The Little Humpbacked Horse (At the Bottom of the Sea), Mariinsky Ballet (photo by Nastasha Razina)
Over the years the Mariinsky Ballet has brought many beautiful ballet productions for its annual visits to the Kennedy Center. Miss Ionarts has grown up watching these often marvelous performances: Diana Vishneva's Kitri and Aurora and Giselle, the Soviet transformations of Swan Lake and Romeo and Juliet, reconstructions of Rite of Spring and The Firebird. In recent years, the repertory has turned a little more obscure, beginning with last year's Raymonda and, opening on Tuesday night, this year's performances of The Little Humpbacked Horse. As with other examples in Russian opera and ballet, this is one of those works few people outside of Russia have ever heard of, but that all Russians know.
The tale by Pyotr Yershov became a ballet in the 19th century, produced with a libretto by Arthur Saint-Léon and music by Cesare Pugni at the Bolshoi in 1864. Parts of the story are quite familiar, as the foolish youngest brother, Ivan, seizes the feather of a mysterious Fire Bird to help him win a bride. For a new version of the ballet in the mid-20th century, with a revised libretto by Maxim Isaev, Rodion Shchedrin composed a new score, during the performance of which he met his wife, ballerina Maya Plisetskaya. This is the version that the Mariinsky commissioned a new choreography for in 2009, directed by Alexei Ratmansky. With colorful, geometric, minimal sets and bright, abstract costumes (both designed by Maxim Isaev), Ratmansky has given the piece a modern twist, while keeping in touch with the folk dance elements, of which the original ballet was the first example in Russia.
Shchedrin opens the first scene in a flurry of activity, fanfare-like brass followed by tittering woodwinds, and much of the score remains busy, sometimes to a fault. In a note written for the 2009 premiere of the Ratmansky production, Shchedrin wrote of the music as "a very early work of mine," in which he sees "much naivety and imperfection." The comic aspects of the music seem to have put Ratmansky in a slapstick mood, and some extended sections of the score inspired too many repetitions of the same ideas in the choreography. How many times do the three brothers have to throw each other around and get knocked to the floor? A few judicious cuts, especially in the crowd scenes, could strengthen the dramatic effect, especially since the best musical moments are elsewhere: with the wild dancing of the horses, the magical swoosh accompanying the little humpbacked horse (a delightfully agile and antic Yaroslav Baibordin), the evocative trills of the flock of Fire Birds, and the pretty music for the Wet-Nurses.
Top marks go to Vladimir Shklyarov, who brought the same delicate whimsy to the role of Ivan the Fool as he did in Le Spectre de la Rose and Romeo and Juliet. It is not a grand Romantic role, as he wins the heart of the Tsarevna (a lovely Anastasia Matvienko) through a combination of clutzy charm and pulling her hair. (He accomplishes this with a charming flute solo in the original choreography by Alexander Radunsky.) Zlata Yalinich was a spirited Young Mare, paired with the high-leaping Horses of Alexander Romanchikov and Alexander Beloborodov, and an enigmatic presence as the princess at the bottom of the sea. Fine comic turns came from Dmitry Pykhachov's daft, childish Tsar and the sebaceous villainy of Yuri Smekalov's Gentlemen of the Bed Chamber. Alexei Repnikov conducted a good performance by the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, with an especially busy night for the percussionists, whose sounds were perhaps overused by Shchedrin.
The Little Humpbacked Horse by the Mariinsky Ballet runs through February 5, at the Kennedy Center Opera House.