Review: Mariinsky Ballet’s ‘The Little Humpbacked Horse’ at The Kennedy Center

Movement and merriment abound in Mariinsky’s The Little Humpbacked Horse

Restraint and sutlety are generally not traits associated with Russian comedy ballet, and that proved true last evening at The Kennedy Center when the Mariinsky Ballet performed an “over the moon” rendition of The Little Humpbacked Horse. For the record there was a cool moonlit backdrop by Maxim Isaev with additional creative lighting by Damir Ismagilov.

Mariinsky Ballet performing Alexei Ratmansky’s The Little Humpbacked Horse. Photo by Natasha Razina.

Dancer after dancer paraded before the Opera House audience in a flourish of youthful talent that no other company, not even its Russian rival, the Bolshoi, could match. What a treat to witness this fairytale come alive in a whirlwind of movement and merriment.

Take, for example, the curtain opener where cymbals crash, French horns resound, the bass booms, and Alexei Repnikov conducts The Kennedy Cener Opera House Orchestra with as much flair and vigor as the dancers onstge.

The little horse character (Yaroslav Baibordin) enters with his signature grand jete, his leg positioned in a pure Vaganova attitude, held in front the whole time he was moving. He was followed by too-many-to-count spinning turns, a swirl of color, and the entrance of who-can-fly-higher ensembles, first the guys, then the maidens and finally the gypsies. And this was only the beginning of the first act.

Ratmansky has been quoted as saying a ballet should tell the story, with little need to read the program notes. Forget it. You will want to brush up on your Russian fairytales for a Ratminsky ballet. In a nutshell, it’s a tale about a young boy’s adventures with a magical horse, the upheaval of the villain – too complicated to explain in writing – and the crowning glory of the hero (or heroine, depending on the interpretation).

Ratmansky obviously enjoys poking fun at the silliness of Tsarist life in Russia at the end of the 19th century, as he has done in previous works like his zany Bright Stream, performed a few years ago in DC. Later this month, Miami City Ballet will premiere his newest work from this vast heritage of Russian folk tales, The Fairy’s Kiss. One expects it will be in the American Ballet Theater repertory real soon.

Pyotr Pavlovich Yershov wrote The Little Humpbacked Horse (Koniok Gorbunok) in 1834. For years it was thought to be “politically incorrect…an affront to the Tsar.” Indeed in the 2009 libretto, written by Maxim Isaev for the ballet, shrugs royal Russian life and places the Tsar (a hilarious role for Dmitry Pykhachov) in a pot of boiling water. Literally.

All ends well, though, as our hero Ivan the Fool (Ernest Latypov) is transformed into a young, strong leader in the village who gets the girl. She, of course, is The Tsar Maiden (Anastasia Matvienko) who might be described as one of the early feminists who ruled supreme. Her dancing wasn’t as flashy as her partners, but Ratmansky tends to give the crowd-pleasing roles to the guys.

Mariinsky Ballet performing Alexei Ratmansky’s The Little Humpbacked Horse. Photo by Natasha Razina.

In fairness to the genius storytelling choreographer who left his homeland in 2008 to make dances in America, Ratminsky has been hailed as one of the most important ballet revisionists of Soviet and classic story ballets. For me, though, it’s his wit and humor that shines the brightest, especially when he plays a trick on the audience. In this ballet’s final pas de deux, our hero falls to the ground over and over as if he forgot the combination. Of course he didn’t and ends in a multiple turns combination that brings cheers from the crowd.

From the start there were lots of chuckles from the audience and, at times, from the characters onstage as the whimsical tale unfolded. Alexei Ratmansky, the hottest choreographer around plus Rodion Shchedrin, who wrote the dance-friendly score, have created a magical melange of music and dance that will leave you smiling.

Running Time: Two hours and 10 minutes, with one 20-minute intermission.

The Mariinsky Ballet performs The Little Humpbacked Horse, through Sunday afternoon, February 5, 2017,  at The Kennedy Center Opera House – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 467-4600 or (800) 444-1324, or purchase them online.


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