If the current state of U.S. relations with Russia seems dark and murky, it’s opposite that in the Mariinsky Ballet’s current offering at the Kennedy Center. “The Little Humpbacked Horse” is sunny and simple, light-hearted and soaring.
Presented by Russia’s oldest company, formed decades before the United States, there’s nothing heavy about the production at all, which involves mullet-wearing horses, prancing wet nurses, a doddering old fool in a Tsar, a hero first introduced as a fool, flocks of firebirds, schools of sea people and a cabinet of beard stroking advisers.
Like the two best known ballets associated with Russian music, “Swan Lake” and “The Nutcracker,” “The Little Humpbacked Horse” is based on a story so fanciful it’s hard to follow. One wouldn’t know, without the 2 1/2 pages of synopsis in the program, that the key engagement ring can only be found deep in the sea, or that the test of a man is a leap in a boiling caldron. (“The Nutcracker” never made much literal sense either).
For all the history of the story by 19th century poet Pyotr Yershov, apparently well known in Russia, there is a sleek modernity in the production choreographed by Alexi Ratmansky, working from music by Rodion Shchedrin that first premiered for the Bolshoi Ballet in 1960. With a spare set by Maxim Isaev of primary colors and big shapes like out of a Malevich Suprematist painting, the large corps of dancers have a lot of room to move.
That fully blooms in act two, when the delightful, long-limbed grace of Tsar Maiden Anastasia Matvienko was fully on display on opening night after an innocuous, flirtatious meting with Ivan the Fool, played with exuberance and youth by Vladimir Shklyarov (Boyish to a fault, he got her attention by pulling her ponytail). Ivan is aided in his quest, of course, by the equine hero in the title, the spirited and high-bounding Yaroslav Baibordin (Others step into the roles during the run; this cast repeats on Feb. 3).
Each brings a high set of skills to their roles, but also a certain casual comedic sense, such that Ivan can knockabout with his brothers (Roman Belyakov and Yevgeny Konovalov) in early scenes and hold his own with the Tsar (Dmitry Pykhachov), who reaches to Chaplin for some of his broader moves. He plays the old fool of a leader who needs the wet nurses to feed him soup, and who wishes to woo the beauteous Tsar Maiden. His aide, officially known as The Gentleman in the Bed Chamber, is danced with a slinky sinister finesse by Yuri Smekalov.
The Tsar Maiden politely plays along with these creepy advances, but already Ivan has her heart, won with the kind of offhand charm the production presents as a whole.
If Isaev cuts back on the spare set, the costumes are effectively fanciful, from the costumes of the Gypsys to the schools of underwater creatures – each have faces impressed on their chest as well. And the townspeople are so clad in green, you may think it’s also St. Patrick’s Day. The red-clad firebirds with their red gloves call to mind Stravinsky’s famous ballet focused on them.
In program notes, the composer Shchedrin seems a little embarrassed about his early work, but it is played with verve by by the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra under the direction of Philippe Austin.
If only relations with the Russian government could be as breezy.
The Mariinsky Ballet’s “The Little Humpbacked Horse” continues through Feb. 5 at the Kennedy Center.