It is a rare and wonderful thing for a production to be so idiosyncratic in its every aspect – choreography, costumes, music, set – and yet so thoroughly of a piece. In his 2009 remake for the Mariinsky of the popular 19th-century, then Soviet, ballet, the Russian choreographer Alexei Ratmansky merges fairy tale and Bildungsroman. Ivan the innocent grows up to be Ivan the Tsar. On the way, he sees the world as a child might: not dulled by experience but in its acute variety and strangeness.
So the gypsies in the town square danced not with stereotypical harshness but like ribbons in the wind. The nurses who serve the tottering old tsar in his second childhood were not the usual bustling peasants of story ballet but displaced sylphs, their hands delicately framing their faces, their steps rocking and swaying in mournful lullabies. When the wily Gentleman of the Bedchamber (on Tuesday, gloriously slinky Yuri Smekalov) sends Ivan and his trusty steed on an errand to the bottom of the sea, the princess there (bony, majestic Yekaterina Kondaurova) moved not only with the gluey largesse that water allows but with a blurry remoteness. To lead is to be alone, the ballet suggests.
What most alerts you to the wonder that drives this holy fool, though, is the choreography’s fast, loose line – more casual and flyaway than the Ratmansky norm. Ivan (buoyant, elegant Vladimir Shklyarov) dances as naturally as his horse (fleet-footed Vasily Tkachenko) – his shadow, his helpmate, his animal soul and the character that makes you ache because the Tsar Maiden (an insufficiently whimsical Viktoria Tereshkina) will supplant him in Ivan’s affections.
Maxim Isaev’s costumes and sets combine bold strokes in primary colours with loopy flights of fancy to bring out the ballet’s shades of meaning, while the water world is cast in a chalky blue. A white X is plastered across the conniving chamberlain’s shirt and a red satin O marks the seat of his pants: he is both villain and target.
And with Mariinsky chief Valery Gergiev conducting his orchestra on Tuesday, the whole vision seemed to emanate from Rodion Shchedrin’s chiming, whirring, rushing, lilting score.