We’re plunged into a busy world in “The Little Humpbacked Horse,” a two-act romp based on Russian folklore, which the Mariinsky Ballet will perform in the coming week. Populating this story of quests and obstacles and (spoiler alert) a happily-ever-after wedding are sea creatures and stallions, a bumbling czar and a maiden, a sweet boy named Ivan and his good-for-nothing brothers, a flock of firebirds and the darling, shaggy pony of the title.
Also: royal wet nurses (for the czar, who has czarist appetites).
But the true star of the production is likely to be the great Russian storytelling tradition itself. That deep well of imagination that fed such literary giants as Pushkin, Tolstoy and Nabokov also gave rise to the thousands and thousands of folk tales that have been deeply rooted in Russian life for centuries. “The Little Humpbacked Horse,” written in verse by Pushkin’s contemporary Pyotr Yershov in 1834, is one of these. And although the ballet that Alexei Ratmansky created in 2009 is told in music and movement, he has drawn on the same rich heritage of making sense of life through stories that brought forth “War and Peace.”
In fact, Ratmansky’s “Humpbacked Horse” is a more thoroughly Russian product than “Swan Lake” (whose story draws on European as well as Russian tales) or “The Nutcracker” (a Frenchman’s adaptation of a German story) or many of the other classic ballets we may think of as quintessentially Russian.
“In Russia, everyone knows the story” of the “Humpbacked Horse,” Ratmansky said in a recent phone interview from his home in New York. “They don’t have to look at the libretto.”
It contains all of the elements of typical Russian tales: A kindhearted man of the people (Ivan) wins the favor of a magical creature (the pony), who helps him defeat the czar and marry the maiden.
“There’s nothing profound about it,” Ratmansky said. Except: “Maybe the fact that the czar dies at the end. Yes, he’s foolish. But his death is horrible, so you might feel for him.”
His death truly is horrible — and bubbly — which was a bold way to treat a czar in the 19th century. The first ballet version, in 1864 by Arthur Saint-Leon (creator of “Coppelia”) delicately changed the czar to a Khan, moving the action farther east. It was the first successful ballet on a Russian theme.
In 1960, the Bolshoi Ballet premiered a new version, with bright, sparkling music by Rodion Shchedrin, who was in his mid-20s when he began composing it. Shchedrin is a delightful storyteller in music, and his score ripples with wonder and innocence. And a little heat, too. While working on it, he fell in love with the magnificent ballerina Maya Plisetskaya, who starred as the maiden. She invited him to watch her in ballet class, and seduced him with a French leotard (so Western, and so daring, as other ballerinas had only baggy tunics).
“First there were seductive steps, then an hour’s exercises in that garb that clung to my torso!” she writes in her autobiography. “Shchedrin was engulfed by a hurricane of Freudian thoughts.” They married shortly after.
Both Shchedrin and Plisetskaya came to Ratmansky’s rehearsals as he was working on his version of “Humpbacked Horse” for the Mariinsky. He had just stepped down from a five-year run as director of its Moscow rival, the Bolshoi Ballet. Valery Gergiev, the famed conductor and artistic and general director of the Mariinsky Theatre, was staging Shchedrin’s operas and wanted his ballets, too.
The famous couple “were very encouraging, very satisfied and happy,” Ratmansky said. “Shchedrin himself said, ‘If you want to cut something, do that; we trust you.’ ” Ratmansky has a history with Plisetskaya; he was her last partner, dancing with her when she was in her 70s in “The Afternoon of a Faune.” His fondness for her runs through “Humpbacked Horse.”
“In a sense, it is an homage to Maya,” he said. “She was my idol when I was a student. She was always helpful and kind, and I wanted them to like what I choreographed.
“Of course, it’s wonderful score. It’s melodic, it’s funny, it’s very good for ballet. It has great rhythms.”
Russian story, Russian music, Russian choreography, and it has been blessed by royalty of the Russian ballet. Yet Ratmansky harbors a few fears about the upcoming performances. Why?
The Russian dancers.
His ballet “is put very carefully on the music,” Ratmansky said. “Everything needs to be timed well, with an exact accent on the music. And Russian dancers like to add things. They are not so careful.”
He hasn’t been able to oversee rehearsals, as he’s working on a new ballet, called “Whipped Cream,” for American Ballet Theatre, where he is choreographer in residence. It will premiere in March. And he has another new ballet, “The Fairy’s Kiss,” premiering by Miami City Ballet in February. So “Humpbacked Horse” has proceeded without him, with dancers he does not know — a situation few artists would relish.
Ratmansky is philosophical about the bad timing.
“It could be exciting,” he said. “Or, on other hand, it could mess things up.”
It’s not the dancers’ technique that concerns him — it’s making sure the audience follows the story.
“I would be absolutely thrilled if they get the story without reading the synopsis. That’s the best compliment for me.”
The Mariinsky Ballet will perform “The Little Humpbacked Horse” Jan. 31-Feb. 5 at the Kennedy Center Opera House. kennedy-center.org.