From the first jolly fairground music to the last processional apotheosis, Alexei Ratmansky's The Little Humpbacked Horse was the most terrific romp – enormously fun and outrageously charming. ‘Fun’ and ‘whimsy’ are not perhaps the words which come most readily to mind when thinking of the Mariinsky Ballet, with its historic seriousness of purpose. Tonight showed the other side: the capacity to be completely frivolous and to get the audience chuckling (although the Tuesday night audience were rather slow to warm up – no fault of the dancers or the production).

Ernest Latypov as Ivan the Fool in Alexei Ratmansky's The Little Humpbacked Horse © Natasha Razina
Ernest Latypov as Ivan the Fool in Alexei Ratmansky's The Little Humpbacked Horse
© Natasha Razina

Now the plot of The Little Humpbacked Horse is especially ridiculous and I’m all for it. Premiered in 1864, (with different music and different choreography) it was the first ballet to be based entirely on Russian folk tales and my, aren’t they wacky? The synopsis reads like a crazy world of illogic. Best of all: ‘if the Tsar wishes to marry, then he must become such a fine fellow. But how? He must jump into a cauldron of boiling water, that’s how.’ Such ridicule had a subversive edge which is not lost on anyone with any understanding of Russian imperial history – the shuffling, scurrying obsequious boyars (definitely not speaking truth to power), the power-behind-the throne, slinkly performed by Yuri Smekalov, and the tinpot autocrat himself that is the red-bearded, cardboard-crowned Tsar, hilariously played by Dmitry Pykhachov, with his valetudinarian twinges, his shrill egoism, and his infantilisation (spoon fed by the wet nurses, exquisitely rendered by 6 immaculate petites danseuses. And then there was his flat-footed, bandy-legged, posterior-sticking-out undancing dancing – all Romanov autocrats were slavishly Francophile, and brought ballet from France in the first place; the fact that this one does not know the best traditions was telling. Ultimately, there was his ludicrous death in boiling water, (which he thought would lead to a renewal of youth and pulchritude): blessing himself exaggeratedly before he ducked down, the audience couldn’t help but erupt in laughter.

All this and more was slyly brought out in Ratmansky’s deft choreography, part old-fashioned madcap escapades but always sensitive to modern sensibilities. And as for Ivan the Fool who ends up as the Tsar who gets the girl (a peasant boy made very good indeed) – Vladimir Shklyarov gave the most compelling performance imaginable, enthrallingly charming, from boyish skipping to high leaps, the ridiculous to the sublime, and that unforgettably witty stop-start solo, ‘showing off’, and not showing off, the wise fool.

Scene from the Ballet. At the Bottom of the Sea © Natasha  Razina
Scene from the Ballet. At the Bottom of the Sea
© Natasha Razina
Of absolute brilliance were his pas de deux with the Horse, Yaroslav Baibordin; their mirroring of each other’s steps was one of the most immaculately timed things I’ve ever seen, and at a reckless gallop too, which made it all the more impressive. Anastasia Matrienko as Tsar Maiden, with her asymmetrical braid (frequently pulled) was a high-spirited demoiselle, with a super-supple back and plenty of verve. The light-hearted, affectionate chemistry between Shklyarov and Matrienko was striking. ‘The Tsarevna likes Ivan. Oh well’, says the synoposis, and there are excellent ‘oh well’ moments. In the middle of her show-off solo, Ivan who has been looking at her fondly and admiringly, stops her en plein tournant, clearly concerned that she is pirouetting herself into dizziness. ‘Take it easy’ his mime seems to say ‘don’t over do it, I love you anyway’. And it’s the constant rich soil of telling character and narrative details that strikes one in Ratmansky’s choreography. It’s so real, so very recognizable.

The sets, courtesy of Maxim Isaev, – exaggerated, schematic, dream-like suns and so forth were a perfect accompaniment to this screwball comedy, and the score by Rodion Shchedrin was immensely appealing.

In short, when it is your native language, dance, and it is for the Mariinksy, you can afford to lighten up sometimes, and just have rollicking amounts of fun on stage. They know all the steps, the turns, the leaps – they know it all at speed; they know the plots and they know the parody of plots. They have the luxury of being able to do as they please. Tonight’s charming joke-ballet left one all of a glow, and if that isn’t a recommendation, I don’t know what is.