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Russia’s Bolshoi Theatre hit by scandal

The theatre has cancelled the world premiere of a ballet about star dancer Rudolf Nureyev just three days before opening night

  • The Bolshoi Theatre.Image Credit: AFP
  • People stand outside the Bolshoi Theatre next to a plaque announcing the "Nureyev" ballet premiere in Moscow oImage Credit: AFP

Russia’s Bolshoi Theatre was battling to calm a storm of speculation on July 10 (Monday) after cancelling the world premiere of a ballet about star dancer Rudolf Nureyev just three days before opening night.

The ballet was to open on July 11 at the legendary Moscow theatre, with a bevy of international critics in the audience.

But on Saturday the Bolshoi said the premiere had been postponed with no future date set — a move critics said was unprecedented in the theatre’s modern history and has opened the door that got many in Moscow’s art scene to speak of a return to censorship.

The Russian Culture Ministry on Monday confirmed reports that the decision was announced after the minister had a chat with the theatre’s director but denied exerting any pressure on Russia’s legendary institution.

On Monday, the theatre’s general director Vladimir Urin announced that the premiere would now be held on May 4, telling a packed news conference that he and artistic director Makhar Vaziev had pulled the show because of poor performances in rehearsals.

“In terms of the quality of the ballet, we realised it was bad,” Urin said, adding that the theatre’s management was “completely despondent”.

But a rehearsal on Saturday nonetheless showed a “very serious leap in quality”, he said, and the ballet will now have its premiere on May 4.

The ballet has been hotly anticipated given Nureyev’s legacy, after his defection to the West and his death from an Aids-related illness in 1993. It was created by one of Russia’s most innovative theatre and film directors, Kirill Serebrennikov, whose home and Moscow theatre were recently searched in a probe into alleged embezzlement of state funds.

Serebrennikov was detained and questioned in May but his supporters dismissed the investigation in which he denied any wrongdoing as a payback from the Kremlin’s conservative circles for his pithy satire of Russian officialdom. Serebrennikov refrained from commenting on Bolshoi’s decision.

Neither him, nor the choreographer Yury Posokhov was present at the news conference, and Vaziev said nothing.

Rumours have swirled that Urin was furious at the show’s artistic content — reportedly featuring nudity — or that he received a call from government officials to pull the show.

Bolshoi ballerina Maria Alexandrova wrote on Instagram: “The last time this happened in the theatre was in the 1930s,” during Stalin’s Great Terror.

Urin denied the rumours, saying “there are no other circumstances here,” while adding that Serebrennikov’s run-in with the authorities did not play any role.

But he acknowledged receiving a call from Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky, known for his conservative views, though he said he was simply asking how to comment to journalists.

Medinsky had a “long conversation with Urin but a ban is not the ministry’s style of working,” his spokeswoman told the TASS state news agency on Monday.

Urin said “there definitely will be arguments” over the ballet, since Nureyev is an “ambiguous figure with a complex fate, and telling this story will be quite difficult.”

Referring to the dancer’s personal indiscretions, he said the ballet addressed a “theme that could prompt a certain unacceptance among people,” but he insisted that “the artistic content will remain completely unchanged.”

The cancelled premiere means “reputational losses undoubtedly, but for us the quality of the ballet is more important,” he said.

The Bolshoi has been mired in scandal in recent years. Its ballet director Sergei Filin lost much of his sight as the result of an acid attack organised by a disgruntled dancer in January 2012, an incident that exposed infighting within the theatre. Urin was hired as director shortly after that.