The Little Humpbacked Horse, or The Tsar Maiden

Grand Ballet in four acts
Music by Cesare Pugni

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

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

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, with the ballet Mlada being another. It was Arthur Saint-Léon’s answer to Petipa’s enormous success of The Pharaoh’s Daughter; the rivalry between the Premier Maître de Ballet and Petipa, now second ballet master, could now take off. The Little Humpbacked Horse premièred on the 15th December [O.S. 3rd December] 1864, 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. 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. The ballerina, Eugenia Sokolova starred 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 thier 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.

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

In 1895, Petipa revived The Little Humpbacked Horse for Pierina Legnani, staging the ballet under the title The Tsar Maiden, though he 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. Another change was a new waltz and a new variation added to the Nereid scene for Legnani that was composed by Riccardo Drigo. In turn, when Alexander Gorsky mounted his 1912 revival in Saint Petersburg, he retained Petipa’s work for Legnani, who, with her steely toes, had been in need of stronger pointe work than what Muravieva could have delivered in 1864.

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

In 1945, Fyodor Lopukhov made one last case for The Little Humpbacked Horse, staging Gorsky’s version for the Kirov/Mariinsky Ballet. The ballerina, Alla Shelest danced 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 from the fourth act for the gala The Golden Age of Russian Ballet, staged for the school of the State Ballet of Chelyabinsk.

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.

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

Did you know?

  • The decision for the ballet to replace the fairy tale’s Tsar with an oriental Khan was looked at by some ballet 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.
  • Alexander Gorsky introduced the neglected Danse Russe from Swan Lake into The Little Humpbacked Horse as a new dance for the Tsar Maiden and his choreography has even been used by various ballerinas as a gala piece.
Tamara Karsavina as the Tsar Maiden (1906)
Tamara Karsavina as the Tsar Maiden (ca. 1912)

Variation for Pierina Legnani as the Tsar Maiden

The new variation composed by Riccardo Drigo for Pierina Legnani in Petipa’s 1895 revival has a very interesting history. At that time, custom pas and variations were literally the legal property of the ballerina for whom they were created and, unless she gave someone else permission to dance them, they were rarely performed by other ballerinas. Following Legnani’s departure from Russia in 1901, her custom variation for her performances as the Tsar Maiden was one of her many custom variations that was usurped by Matilda Kschessinskaya. In 1903, Kschessinskaya danced the title role in Nikolai and Sergei Legat’s production of The Fairy Doll and towards the end, she introduced a new variation, which was none other than Legnani’s custom variation from The Little Humpbacked Horse, causing shock among the audience.

Today, a Soviet edition of Legnani’s variation choreographed by Agrippina Vaganova for Natalia Dudinskaya is sometimes used as an alternative variation for Dulcinea in the “Dream scene” of the Mariinsky Ballet’s production of Don Quixote. The variation was interpolated into Don Quixote by Dudinskaya, who would occasionally reintroduce variations of the great ballerinas of the Imperial Ballet to the stage and dance them in place of the more traditional variations. This variation for Legnani is one such variation, with Dudinskaya performing it in the “Dream scene” whenever she danced Kitri throughout her career. After her retirement, Dudinskaya passed the variation on to her favourite students, such as Gabriela Komleva, Margarita Kullik and Elvira Tarasova. The variation has also been recently used by the Vaganova Academy in the Paquita Grand Pas Classique.

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)



  • 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