Bolshoi pulls ‘Nureyev’ premiere amid concerns of Kremlin interference

Insiders fear censor objected to ballet’s portrayal of hero’s homosexuality

Rudolf Nureyev: the dancer working with Erik Bruhn, with whom he had a long affair, in 1965. Photograph: Jack Mitchell/Getty

Rudolf Nureyev: the dancer working with Erik Bruhn, with whom he had a long affair, in 1965. Photograph: Jack Mitchell/Getty

 

A last-minute decision by Russia’s Bolshoi Theatre to cancel the premier of a ballet about the late dancer and choreographer Rudolf Nureyev has shocked art critics and raised concern about growing Kremlin interference in the arts.

The management of the Bolshoi said Nureyev was not yet ready to show, but Russian theatre folk suspect that the production’s portrayal of the hero’s homosexuality may have been deemed unacceptable by state censors.

Two years in the making, Nureyev was to have opened on the hallowed stage of the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow on Tuesday to an audience of theatre directors and critics from all over the world.

In an unexpected move the Bolshoi announced on its website on Saturday that the premier had been cancelled, without giving an explanation. Ticket holders were offered their money back or a seat at a performance of the classic ballet Don Quixote instead.

The Nureyev production needed more work and would not be shown until May 2018, Vladimir Urin, the director of the Bolshoi Theatre, said on Monday. Cancellation of the eagerly awaited premier had dealt a blow to the Bolshoi’s reputation, “but it’s important that we do quality shows”, he told reporters gathered in the glittering main hall of the theatre.

Nureyev cancellation: the Bolshoi Ballet’s director, Makhar Vaziev, and Bolshoi Theatre’s general director, Vladimir Urin, talk to reporters about the postponement of the ballet. Photograph: Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty
Nureyev cancellation: the Bolshoi Ballet’s director, Makhar Vaziev, and Bolshoi Theatre’s general director, Vladimir Urin, talk to reporters about the postponement of the ballet. Photograph: Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty

Rudolf Nureyev began his career at the Kirov Ballet in Leningrad – now St Petersburg – and rapidly became one of the Soviet Union’s most acclaimed and original dancers. In a daring move, in 1961 he gave his KGB minders the slip while on tour in Paris and defected to the West, where he became a star as a dancer at the Royal Ballet in London and as a director at Paris Opera Ballet. He died from Aids-related causes in 1993.

Nureyev led a colourful love life, and Kirill Serebrennikov, the director of the new ballet, had not shied away from homosexual themes in the work, Moscow theatre experts said. Scenes such as a dance of transvestites and others exploring the hero’s long love affair with Erik Bruhn, the Danish ballet dancer, may have crossed a line with anti-gay state censors.

Russia’s vaguely worded law prohibiting the propaganda of homosexuality among minors can be interpreted to ban public displays of affection between LGBT people.

Mr Urin said that he had been aware that Nureyev would cover homosexual themes when he originally gave permission for the ballet, and that these could provoke a “certain unpleasantness”. But that did not explain why the theatre waited to cancel the ballet until just three days before the curtain rose for the first time.

Many Moscow theatregoers suspect that powerful figures in the Russian arts establishment are out to discredit Mr Serebrennikov, who as director of Moscow’s popular Gogol Centre theatre has championed LGBT causes and criticised the Kremlin for allowing creeping censorship in the arts.

Mr Serebrennikov’s troubles began in April when he was questioned by Russian investigators in connection with an alleged 200-million-rouble (€2.9 million) fraud at a theatre group he founded. Two former employees at the Sedmaya Studiya group have admitted stealing state funds and are being held by police.

Mr Serebrennikov is a well-known figure at the Bolshoi, where he directed acclaimed productions of Rimsky-Korsakov’s ballet The Golden Cockerel and The Hero of Our Time, an adaptation of the Russian writer Mikhail Lermontov’s novel, but so far has not commented on the scandal engulfing Nureyev.

Many at the Bolshoi fear that Russia is sliding back towards the repressions of the Stalin era, when free speech was crushed by the authorities.

“The last time this happened in the theatre was in the 30s in the 20th century,” tweeted Maria Alexandrova, a principal dancer at the Bolshoi ballet. “A new era is beginning but history moves in circles.”