Anytime you have both Sea Horses and Wet Nurses listed on a ballet program, you can pretty safely assume it's going to be more interesting than your basic "Swan Lake" or "Sleeping Beauty."
But even that tantalizing hint of weirdness didn't prepare for the goofy, inspired fun of "The Little Humpbacked Horse," a romp through Russian folklore that was the clear highlight of the Mariinsky Ballet's weeklong appearance at the Lincoln Center Festival.
Goofy? That's not an adjective one would generally use to describe the Mariinsky, better known to most of us by its former name, the Kirov Ballet. Grand, illustrious, legendary, sometimes mannered and stuffy — any of those would seem more like it.
But bring a stable of some of the world's best trained dancers together with an inspired choreographer who likes to have fun along the way, and it can do wonders. And there's no question that the prodigiously talented Alexei Ratmansky, former artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet, is the man of the moment in the ballet world.
Not everything Ratmansky touches turns to gold — his "Anna Karenina" was also on display during the Mariinsky run at the Metropolitan Opera House that ended Saturday night. It was a pretty dull if well-intentioned affair, plagued by a mostly plodding score.
But his 2009 "Humpbacked Horse" was a perfect vehicle to display some of the many facets of Ratmansky's talent — arresting, inventive choreography, a love for his subject, fondness for his dancers and an infectious embrace of silliness.
He was aided immeasurably in this by the enthusiasm of his cast. A standout at Saturday's matinee was the lovely Alina Somova as the Tsar Maiden, a vision in white and gold with a long, blond braid. Somova's combination of charm, spunk, physical beauty and lush dancing was enough to make you understand why the buffoonish Tsar would jump into a cauldron of boiling water for her (don't ask, it's too complicated).
Mocking the tsar isn't a problem these days, as it was during part of Russia's history — the only problem for non-Russian audiences, at least, may be understanding the convoluted plot (the program notes help — a bit). But all one really needs to know is that it concerns a young boy, Ivan the Fool, who manages to overcome various obstacles to win the Maiden's hand, aided by his trusted friend, the Humpbacked Horse.
The score is by the Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin, whose music was being highlighted by the Mariinsky all week — the composer also penned the "Anna Karenina" score and arranged Bizet's music for "Carmen Suite," also performed here.
But in "Humpbacked Horse," unlike in "Anna Karenina," the music, played by the Mariinsky orchestra and in some performances conducted by Mariinsky Theater director Valery Gergiev himself, is beautifully suited to the dancing, and full of verve and joy.
Another huge plus: the bold, cheerfully odd costumes by Maxim Isayev. His funniest image may be those wacky Sea People (not to be confused with the Sea Horses) — both women and men in filmy green skirts, green makeup, fitted green caps, and with their own faces painted upside down on their chests, as if reflected in the water.
As Ivan the Fool, who frankly didn't seem too foolish, Alexander Sergeyev was fresh-faced and charming in Saturday's cast (Vladimir Shklyarov won raves in the opening cast), and Grigory Popov was a buoyant Horse.
But the charmer was Somova, just one of the Mariinsky's stellar ballerinas on display last week. Alas, the subdued affair that was "Anna Karenina," though it showcased the company's biggest stars — the glamorous Diana Vishneva and the supple Uliana Lopatkina — didn't allow a full appreciation of their appeal.
A better vehicle for that was the only Balanchine work on the program, his wonderful "Symphony in C," with its four sections featuring four different couples.
Here we got to see the precise and spirited Victoria Tereshkina, followed by the elegant Yekaterina Kondaurova, then the sprite and lively Yevgenia Obraztsova. And, finally, Maria Shrinkina, very young and gorgeous, looking like an early Vishneva in the making.
The Mariinsky doesn't get to New York that often — their last appearance was at City Center in 2008, and that was after a six-year absence. Judging from the rapturous reception at the opera house last week, New Yorkers would like them back sooner next time.