You wait years for the new Rudolf Nureyev – then three come along at once

A trio of leading men from Russian companies are set to restore British passion for the ballet after a year of backstage drama at the Bolshoi

Before he was fired as director of the Bolshoi Ballet on Tuesday, Anatoly Iksanov tried to explain all the dramas behind the scenes at his famous theatre on Moscow's Teatralnaya Square.

"Passions are expressed more intensely here," he said, "and we have a saying that the Bolshoi is up high on the rock, and everyone looks up to see what is going on up there: we are in view of everyone."

It is just this impassioned, monumental view of Russian ballet that is behind the west's enduring appreciation of its great stars. British dance fans have taken the Bolshoi's renowned "big" style to their hearts ever since 1956, when the company first came to London and became the centre of a cultural feeding frenzy.

The dancers were followed everywhere; their physical exoticism was heightened by their mysterious Soviet identities. By 1961, when the rival Kirov Ballet's young star Rudolf Nureyev defected, the love affair was in full flow.

This summer, against the background of the acid attack on the Bolshoi's talented artistic director, Sergei Filin, and the continuing power struggle at that theatre, the British public will have the chance to sample the skills of three young men, all trained in the traditional Russian techniques. Each is approaching the peak of his powers and each has already been compared with Nureyev.

At the age of 23, the three rivals are appearing in different Russian companies at the Coliseum or at Covent Garden on a few sought-after dates. One of them, Sergei Polunin, is Ukrainian rather than Russian and already has a reputation as the bad boy. Last year he hit the headlines when he abruptly left the Royal Ballet, during a crisis of confidence. In April he pulled out of a new production – Peter Shaufuss's Midnight Express – at the last minute, citing a health problem. Now he is back in London performing Coppelia at the Coliseum with the Stanislavsky Ballet.

The second rising star is Vadim Muntagirov from Chelyabinsk, who performed in the Coronation Festival this weekend and who is rehearsing two starring roles in the Coliseum's tribute to Nureyev this month. He came to the notice of British audiences as the dance partner to the English National Ballet's principal ballerina, Daria Klimentova. His work with Klimentova, who is Czech and at 42 the more mature dancer, soon invited comparisons with the luminous pairing of Margot Fonteyn and Nureyev.

"I had heard of Nureyev early in my life in Russia but didn't know the full story," Muntagirov told the Observer this weekend. "All I knew was that he was an incredible dancer who left Russia." Once Muntagirov came to England to study at the Royal Ballet School he began to notice the cult of Rudolf. "There were pictures of him in the canteen, and so I found out more."

As the child of two dancers and the brother of a ballerina, Muntagirov was steeped in the tradition since his early days at a dance school in Perm, Russia.

"When I came to the Royal Ballet School it was just to get experience of a different technique for a year," he said. "I would say the British style of dance suits it here. It has a lot of footwork and a lot of lower body work; a cleaner fifth position, for example."

He suspects the British admire the Russian tradition simply because it offers something different.

"I can't say it is better. Really, it is up to the taste of the audience. It is interesting for the British to see something magnificent and special but it is the same for Russian audiences when they see dancers from London."

Muntagirov is a great admirer of Mikhail Baryshnikov, as well as of Nureyev, and believes the two dancers prove how technique is transformed by personality. "I love them both. They are very individual. It is very lucky we still have videos of Nureyev for people like me who didn't get to see him dance. He was not afraid to explore new things in ballet."

Dance style, the dancer said, comes down not only to body shape but to the roles you are cast in. "The parts you play change you. It doesn't matter if you are tall or small, or skinny or big. I tend to be sort of elegant and like a prince but I also want to dance dashing, pirate roles in Le Corsaire and La Bayadère."

During his preparation for his tribute performances in Song of a Wayfarer and Raymonda, Muntagirov has watched Nureyev recordings but says he will focus on enjoying the dance rather than copying him.

The third Russian star returning to London this summer is Ivan Vasiliev, from Vladivostok, a dancer who has also earned comparisons with Nureyev for his work in a stunning partnership. Vasiliev began to dance with Natalia Osipova at the Bolshoi, where they became leading attractions. Then in November 2011 they left the companyto join the Mikhailovsky company in St Petersburg. It was a personal betrayal, said Iksanov earlier this year. He had brought Vasiliev from Belarus as a teenager, he complained.

Covent Garden announced in April that Osipova will be joining the Royal Ballet as a guest principal, while Vasiliev remains in Moscow. But on 16 August the two will dance together again in London, performing The Flames of Paris as part of the Bolshoi's visit to the capital.

Muntagirov claims there is no competition between him and Polunin and Vasiliev. "I know them both," he said. "Sergei was in the Royal Ballet School and he always helped me. And I have met Vasiliev a couple of times at galas. He is funny and full of energy, even at the end of the performance. He is an inspiration because he never gets tired. Audiences will see a very different performance from each of us."


Vanessa Thorpe

The GuardianTramp

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