The Mariinsky Pays a Visit

The Little Humpbacked Horse
July 13, 2011, matinee performance
Mariinsky Ballet
Vladimir Shklyarov, Evgenia Obraztsova, Vasily Tkachenko

The last time the Mariinsky visited NY was 2008, and I went to several of their performances at the City Center before falling so sick I could barely get out of bed, much less go to the ballet. Since then somehow I've always missed their trips to Washington D.C., and so when I heard they were making a brief trip back to NYC this summer, I was determined to go, ridiculously inflated ticket prices notwithstanding. Turns out tickets were relatively easy to get at the usual discount venues (the Atrium, student tickets, coupon codes). This was not a sold-out tour.

The first performance I went to was the Wednesday matinee of Alexei Ratmansky's The Little Humpbacked Horse. The ballet is based on an old Russian folk tale, and has had numerous incarnations on the ballet stage. There was a famous ballet to the music by Pugni and choreographed by Petipa that  believe is still occasionally performed by the Vaganova Academy and other smaller ballet companies in Russia. The story concerns the tale of the simple son Ivan, who wins the hand of the Tsar Maiden over a vain and foolish Tsar with the help of a clever Little Humpbacked Horse.

Ratmansky's revival used Rodin Schedrin's 1955 score. Schedrin's score is tuneful and inflected with Russian folk rhythms. It sounds like second-rate Prokofiev. Is it great music? No, but for the purposes of a ballet it's just fine. There's a film danced by Maya Plisetskaya and Vladimir Vasiliev of a Bolshoi revival in the late 1950s that is fun to watch and available on DVD. (Schedrin is better known to the world as Mr. Maya Plisetskaya). Ratmansky's revival for the Mariinsky kept Schedrin's score but included all-new choreography. Ratmansky's treatment of the fairy tale is full of his by now familiar comical, whimsical touches. For instance, the Tsar Maiden in Ratmansky's choreography is not queenly and aloof, but rather a tomboy trapped in beautiful robes and a tiara and braids. Her imperious appearance fades the minute she starts to dance. Ivan the fool is genuinely goofy, an overgrown boy dressed in soccer shorts. In the final pas de deux, both the Tsar Maiden and Ivan do a parody on the classical virtuoso variation. Ivan in particular has to restart his variation twice after falling, to the delight of the audience. The Little Humpbacked Horse in this ballet is an actual dancing character, whose steps often mirror that of Ivan's. In a play on the age-old fable of the emperor having no clothes, the Tsar is a childish midget who needs to be tickled by a gaggle of "Wet-Nurses." (I wonder how the Imperial family would have liked the original ballet.)

Nevertheless Ratmansky's strength as a choreographer is that unlike most modern ballet choreographer he's not afraid of story-ballets, he's not even afraid of mime, and he's fond of mixing classical ballet vocabulary with Russian folk dance. The Mariinsky's large company is put to good use both in the various character and demi-charactere roles Ratmansky created and in the larger corps de ballet dances. There are dancers that represent firebirds, forest trees, and there's even that stand-by of 19th century ballet -- the water maidens. And gypsies too. Sometimes the dances look like Petipa, other times they look like Russian folk dance, with the strong emphasis on pounding the floor in the downbeat of the music.

Maxim Isayev's sets and costumes were much talked about. Some people liked them, others hated them. The costumes are a mix of modern (Ivan's soccer shorts) and traditional "Russian" folk. The "Gypsies" dance in oversized t-shirts with faces imprinted on the t-shirts, and even the water maidens have these long blue tutus with faces on them. The sets are surprisingly plain and minimalist, and looked even more bare-bones on the large Met stage. There was a video screen in the back that had some school assembly-like projections.

The cast I caught on Wednesday afternoon was Vladimir Shklyarov as Ivan, Evgenia Obraztsova as the Tsar Maiden, and Vasily Tkachenko as the Little Humpbacked Horse, and Andrei Ivanov as the Tsar. I fell in love immediately with Shklyarov, who mixed a beautiful line, wonderful technique, boyish good looks, with an all-important sense of humor. Not just coy simpering "ballet humor," but actual goofy humor. This Ivan was mentally sort of slow, in an endearing kind of way. Shklaryov is so delicately good-looking that it was then a delight and to see him barreling his way across the stage in turns and jumps the typical "Russian" way. Those slender thighs hide a surprising amount of power. Yesterday I wrote about Leonid Sarafanov's sterile Albrecht. Shklyarov has the same boyish looks and flawless technique of Sarafanov, but he also has personality to burn. Definitely a star.

Evgenia Obraztsova is a tiny little ballerina, very cute and doll-like. This was my first time actually seeing her because she rarely tours with the company. She has a heart-shaped face and a winning smile. I was told by people who saw Viktoria Tereshkina opening night that the Tsar Maiden is supposed to be way more of a tomboy. Obraztsova was charming, but at times I thought she was simpering and mugging too much in the "typical" ballerina way, and could have taken more risks and played more against type. I was also told that Tereshkina was stronger in the variations. Obraztsova did have a very playful, unforced chemistry with Shklyarov.

I found this youtube video of Obraztsova's debut as the Tsar Maiden:

The afternoon would have been nothing without the various character and demi-charactere dancers (Vasily Tkachenko as Little Humpbacked Horse, Islom Baimuradov as the Gentleman of the Bedchamber, Anastasia Petushkova as the Young Mare/Princess of the Sea, and Andrei Ivanov as Tsar were standouts) in the smaller roles, and the corps de ballet. The corps in particualr -- the elegance and uniformity with which they dance everything, from a Firebird-like dance to Cossack-flavored folk dance, is as always remarkable.

This ballet showed the Mariinsky is a rare light mood, and it was just fun to watch them overall. Ratmansky is certainly the best modern choreographer and it's not a surprise why he's in such demand all over the world.

Here are some pictures I took of the curtain calls:


  1. It is my ultimate dream to enroll my daughter to a ballet class, but it seems that she's more inclined to music. It's just that it's one of my frustration as a child, but I guess I have to respect what she wants.


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