The Little Humpbacked Horse, or The Tsar Maiden

Grand Ballet in four acts and eight scenes with apotheosis
Music by Cesare Pugni
Libretto by Arthur Saint-Léon, after Pyotr Ershov

World Première
15th December [O.S. 3rd December] 1864
Imperial Bolshoi Kammeny Theatre, Saint Petersburg
Choreography by Arthur Saint-Léon

Original 1864 Cast
Nikolai Troitsky

The Tsar Maiden
Marfa Muravieva

The Queen of the Nereids
Maria Sokolova

Moscow Première
26th November 1866
Imperial Bolshoi Theatre

Original 1866 Cast
Timofei Stulkolkin

The Tsar Maiden
Marfa Muravieva

Première of Petipa’s revival
18th December [O.S. 6th December] 1895
Imperial Mariinsky Theatre, Saint Petersburg

Original 1895 Cast
Alexander Shiryaev

The Tsar Maiden
Pierina Legnani

The Khan
Felix Kschessinsky

The Queen of the Nereids
Anna Johansson

Based on the famous Russian fairy tale, The Little Humpbacked Horse tells of the adventures of the young Ivanushka, who is granted a new friend in the form of a magical little humpbacked horse. When Ivanushka is brought before the Khan, he is set seemingly impossible tasks, but with the help of the Little Humpbacked Horse, he completes each task successfully. One of the tasks is the abduction of the beautiful Tsar Maiden, whom the Khan wishes to marry. However, the Tsar Maiden prefers the young Ivanushka to the old Khan and devises a clever scheme to stop the wedding. With the help of the Little Humpbacked Horse, Ivanushka outwits the Khan yet again, wins the hand of the Tsar Maiden and becomes the new Tsar.

Alexander Shiryaev as Ivanuskhka (1895)
Alexander Shiryaev as Ivanushka (1895)

The Little Humpbacked Horse was one of a few ballets in the Imperial Ballet’s repertoire that boasted a truly Russian subject. Originally created by Arthur Saint-Léon and Cesare Pugni, the ballet has been the subject of studies that rightfully link it to the politics and socio-cultural climate of the time. Based on the classic Russian fairy tale, it was indeed meant to reflect a national self-awareness unprecedented in Russia (the serf-abolishing act of 1861 by Tsar Alexander II was fresh). This newly found identity would drive ‘Rousseau-istically’ inclined intelligentsia and noblemen to the peasants, to the countryside, or parts of it they would normally have passed by, idealising their more humble fellow countrymen and way of living. They would return disappointed. Given the zeitgeist, Saint-Léon’s pitching a Russian-themed ballet for the Imperial Theatre cannot have been anything but a strategic move.

The underlying reason the Ballet Master did not risk relying on his rich talent and skills alone was that his rival Petipa, had enjoyed phenomenal success with The Pharaoh’s Daughter and soon proceeded with another huge production The Beauty of Lebanon, or The Mountain Spirit in 1863. Although The Beauty of Lebanon was not a success, concept work on The Little Humpbacked Horse had already begun – a large-scale ballet usually takes some time to prepare. Saint-Léon must have dreaded what would happen to his contract if The Beauty of Lebanon should have turned out to be a triumph and then later again if his creation would, despite all precautions, fail.

The Little Humpbacked Horse premièred on the 15th December [O.S. 3rd December] 1864 at the Imperial Bolshoi Kammeny Theatre, with the Prima Ballerina Marfa Muravieva as the Tsar Maiden. The role of Ivanushka was originally given to the great Principal Character Dancer Timofei Stulkolkin, but he was forced to withdraw from the première performance after breaking his leg and the role was instead danced by Nikolai Troitsky. In accordance with theatre policies of that time, Stulkolkin was unable to make his début as Ivanushka until after Troitsky retired. The ballet was a huge success, receiving rapturous acclaim, which put Saint-Léon back in the race with Petipa. According to his recollections, Stukolkin had been present at the ballet’s inception. He relates how people including Eduard Napravnik (named assistant conductor of the Imperial Theatres that year) came over to his house, and, in a cosy atmosphere, translated the story for Saint-Léon before putting together the ballet’s libretto. It was accepted by the Imperial directorate after some changes.

The decision for the ballet to replace the fairy tale’s Tsar with an oriental Khan was looked at by some critics with a wry face, even though it was a decision made to avoid censor trouble. However, from the 13th century to the mid 16th century, Russia was besieged by hordes of Asiatic tribes, so the decision to have an Asian ruler of a medieval fairy tale Russia was not so far-fetched. If anything, it was a very historically accurate decision.

After Saint-Léon’s contract was not renewed in 1869, Petipa was finally made Premier Maître de Ballet of the Imperial Ballet, but he nevertheless kept his rival’s ballet in the repertoire. Saint-Léon’s version of The Little Humpbacked Horse was performed for the final time in 1885, when it was seen by a young Alexander Benois, with Eugenia Sokolova starring in the role of the Tsar Maiden.

Benois’s lively account is too pleasant and informative to not give in its entirety:

… Ivanushka is the luckiest of mortals: having caught a magic horse, he transforms it into an obedient slave. Because of the difficulty of getting a real horse to perform on stage, the composers of the ballet had to compromise. In the first scene Ivan the Simpleton catches hold of a cardboard horse which is dashing across the fields: in the second scene he flies over the clouds sitting astride it back to the front. Later on the audience sees not the cardboard horse but a little contorted mannikin, dressed in the strangest clothes, who hops about ceaselessly. We children firmly believed it was the same animal we had just seen, and in this way we were convinced that the hump-backed horse was endowed with great magic power. Ivanushka cracks his whip, and there is the little horse, curvetting around his master, inquiring his wishes. Thanks to the horse, Ivan gets into the palace, into the presence of the Khan himself -a repulsively lecherous old man- and makes a journey to a fairy kingdom where a fountain throws up a jet to the sky and lovely creatures dance the famous waltz; thanks to the horse, Ivanushka descends to the bottom of the ocean in search of the Czar-maiden’s wedding ring, and finally manages to get the better of the Khan, becoming transformed into a handsome prince after being dipped into a boiling pot, while the Khan, following his example, finds death in the same pot…

… the ballet ended with a grand finale. At the back of the stage rose the Novgorod Monument of Russia’s 1000th anniversary, and marching past it were all the nations of the Russian Empire, coming to pay homage to Ivanushka, who had become their master. There were Cossacks, Karelians, Malo-Russians, Latvians, Tartars, Persians and Samoyeds…

Although Benois’s text does not pertain to a Petipa staging, the ballet’s libretto did not change much afterwards, so it is relevant here. Benois also makes use of the belittling name ‘Tartars’ rather than ‘Tatars’, which 19th century Russians used to connect the race to the Tartarus of Greek Mythology. Inadvertently, Benois’s writing provides the single surviving insight in quite some aspects of the production.

Lydia Svirskaya and Ivan Ponomarev as the Tartar couple (1895)
Lydia Svirskaya and Ivan Ponomarev as the Tatar couple (1895)

Petipa’s revival
After a decade of absence from the stage, The Little Humpbacked Horse was revived by Petipa in 1895 for Pierina Legnani, under the title The Tsar Maiden. Petipa’s new version boasted new décor and costumes, but the fountain of the original sprayed its multi-coloured jets of water again. Petipa also retained much of his predecessor’s work, not willing to tamper with what he considered to already be a fine ballet. However, changes were still made, one prime example being that Pugni’s original pas de deux for the final act was replaced with a pas de deux that he had composed for Saint-Léon’s version of Santos Pinto’s ballet The Pearl of Seville, staged in 1861. Fragments of this forgotten ballet were last seen at Tsarskoe Selo in the summer seasons of that same year. Riccardo Drigo composed a new waltz and a new variation for Legnani in the Nereid scene. Petipa also knew that he had to rechoreograph all the choreography for the Tsar Maiden since, with her steely toes, Legnani was in need of stronger pointe work than what Muravieva could have delivered in 1864.

Petipa’s revival of The Little Humpbacked Horse, or The Tsar Maiden premièred on the 18th December [O.S. 6th December] 1895 at the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre and was an enormous success. Sharing the stage with Legnani were Felix Kschessinsky as the Khan (he owned the part) and Alexander Shiryaev, who became her Ivanushka. The faithful Shiryaev wrote that Petipa left him pretty much on his own when it came to filling in his part. Many great ballerinas followed in Legnani’s Milanese, Tsar-Maidenly footsteps, especially Matilda Kschessinskaya, Olga Preobrazhenskaya, Vera Trefilova, Julia Sedova and Tamara Karsavina. Anna Pavlova never danced the Tsar Maiden, but she did enjoy enormous acclaim alongside Pavel Gerdt in the Ural Cossack Dance, performing high saut-de-basques to raving reviews the next day.

Pierina Legnani as the Tsar Maiden (1895)
Pierina Legnani as the Tsar Maiden (1895)

The Little Humpbacked Horse in the 20th century
In 1901, Alexander Gorsky staged his own revival of The Little Humpbacked Horse for the Imperial Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow. For his revival, Gorsky introduced the neglected Danse Russe from Swan Lake into the final act as a new dance for the Tsar Maiden and his choreography has been used by various ballerinas as a gala piece to this day. In 1902, the President of France, Emile Loubet visited Russia on a state visit, hosted by the Imperial Family. In honour of the French President’s visit, a performance of the second act of Gorsky’s production of The Little Humpbacked Horse was held at the Chinese Theatre of Tsarskoe Selo, with the Moscow Prima Ballerina Lyubov Roslavleva as the Tsar Maiden and Julia Sedova as the Queen of the Nereids.

The Little Humpbacked Horse would be the second full-length ballet that Gorsky staged for the Saint Petersburg Imperial Ballet, though he had to wait until 1912, a decade after the intrigue-surrounded Don Quixote. Gorsky’s Saint Petersburg revival was to differ from that of his Moscow revival. In his 1912 staging, Gorsky dropped the role of the Queen of the Nereids and replaced her with a new character dubbed “the Queen of the Waters”, or “the Water Queen”. While the Queen of the Nereids had appeared in both the Enchanted Isle scene and the Underwater scene, Gorsky’s Water Queen only appeared in the Underwater scene.

Another famous addition made by Gorsky to The Little Humpbacked Horse was a new pas de trois in the Underwater scene for a Water God and two Pearls, originally created in Moscow in 1901 to some of Drigo’s music, possibly taken from The Pearl. However, it is also suggested that Andrei Arends was the composer. Arends conducted the first Moscow performances of Raymonda, The Magic Mirror, Harlequinade and The Little Humpbacked Horse before composing Gorksy’s ballet Salammbo in 1910. For his 1912 Saint Petersburg revival of The Little Humpbacked Horse, Gorsky recreated this pas de trois as a pas de deux for a Water God and a Pearl to music by Boris Asafiev, who later found fame as the composer of the Soviet ballets The Fountain of Bakhchisarai and The Flames of Paris. It was first performed by Pierre Vladimirov and Elsa Vill. This pas de deux presumably remained in Saint Petersburg and it became the famous pas de trois known as The Ocean and the Pearls. Today, The Ocean and the Pearls is regularly performed as a gala piece and in school performances, especially in Russia.

In the 1920s, after anti-revolutionary bodies had definitely failed to reclaim Russia, The Little Humpbacked Horse failed to align with Soviet ideology. It received a D mark by the Proletkult division dealing with the art of dance (works stamped with an E were banned from the stage immediately), but the ballet survived, even finding a place on stages in other Soviet cities. Nevertheless, the ballet lived on borrowed time, certainly after World War II.

Anna Urakova and Valentin Presniakov as the Russian couple (1895)
Anna Urakova and Valentin Presniakov as the Russian couple (1895)

In 1945, Fyodor Lopukhov made one last case for The Little Humpbacked Horse, staging Gorsky’s version for the Kirov/Mariinsky Ballet, with the celebrated Prima Ballerina Alla Shelest dancing the role of the Tsar Maiden. However, with each new revival, the ballet had become slightly less opulent; the fountain of the Nereïd Scene, mentioned by Benois, was long gone by this point. Lopukhov’s staging was given a final ten performances in 1965 with Natalia Makarova intended to dance in the première, but she withdrew from the performance and was replaced with Ninel Kurgapkina. After that, the traditional version of The Little Humpbacked Horse disappeared for good from ‘All the Russias.’ In the 1980s, the traditional version of the ballet resurfaced in an abridgment produced by Kurgapkina for the Kirov/Mariinsky Ballet and the Vaganova Academy that was made into a film version, but the film was only released in Russia. In 2008, Yuri Burlaka staged a revival of the Underwater scene for the gala The Golden Age of Russian Ballet, staged for the school of the State Ballet of Chelyabinsk. In 2019, a new revival of the Underwater scene, based heavily on Gorsky’s and Lupokhov’s respective versions, was staged by Nikolai Tsiskaridze for the Vaganova Academy’s graduation performance.

In 1960, Russian composer, Rodion Shcherdin composed his own version of The Little Humpbacked Horse with choreography by Alexander Radunsky. In 1961, a film version of the Radunsky/Shcherdin version of The Little Humpbacked Horse was made and released with Maya Plisetskaya as the Tsar Maiden and Vladimir Vasiliev as Ivanushka. In 2009, Alexei Ratmansky choreographed and staged his own production of The Little Humpbacked Horse to Shcherdin’s score for the Mariinsky Ballet.

The version of The Little Humpbacked Horse that is notated and part of the Sergeyev Collection is mostly Gorsky’s 1912 revival. However, there are notations of passages from Petipa’s revival that were notated in 1904, including his version of the Dance of the Animated Frescos.

The cast of Act 3, scene 1 in Petipa's revival: in the centre is Pierina Legnani as the Tsar Maiden (1895)
The cast of Act 3, scene 1 in Petipa’s revival: in the centre is Pierina Legnani as the Tsar Maiden (1895)

Related pages

Photo gallery


  • Benois, Alexandre (1945) Reminiscences of the Russian Ballet. UK: Putnam
  • Wiley, Roland John (2007) A Century of Russian Ballet. Alton, Hampshire, UK: Dance Books Ltd

Photos and images: © Dansmuseet, Stockholm © Большой театр России © Victoria and Albert Museum, London © Государственный академический Мариинский театр © CNCS/Pascal François © Bibliothèque nationale de France © Musée l’Opéra © Colette Masson/Roger-Viollet © АРБ имени А. Я. Вагановой © Михаил Логвинов © Михайловский театр, фотограф Стас Левшин. Партнёры проекта: СПбГБУК «Санкт-Петербургская государственная Театральная библиотека». ФГБОУВО «Академия русского балета имени А. Я. Вагановой» СПбГБУК «Михайловский театр». Михаил Логвинов, фотограф. Martine Kahane.