Shock as Bolshoi cancels world premiere of Nureyev ballet

Outspoken director has been questioned in a criminal investigation that his supporters claim is politically motivated

Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre has shocked the ballet world by cancelling the premiere of a biographical show about the dancer Rudolf Nureyev at the last minute.

No official reason was given for the sudden cancellation but it is rumoured that the production’s frank portrayal of Nureyev’s homosexuality could have been deemed inappropriate for the Bolshoi’s main stage.

The Bolshoi is famous as much for extraordinary behind-the-scenes intrigue as it is for the world-class ballet and opera on stage. The last-minute cancellation of the most eagerly awaited premiere of the season is a fresh scandal for the theatre.

Critics and theatre directors from across the world had been invited to Tuesday’s premiere but on Saturday the Bolshoi announced that all performances of Nureyev would be replaced with an old favourite, the ballet Don Quixote. No official reason was given and the Bolshoi’s spokeswoman, Katerina Novikova, declined to comment. The theatre said it would hold a briefing on Monday to explain the decision.

A video was posted online of the theatre’s general director, Vladimir Urin, telling the troupe that the ballet was pulled as it was “not ready”. However a number of artists disputed this and footage posted on Facebook showed sustained applause from those present at Friday’s dress rehearsal, mainly theatre insiders.

“The strangest thing here is how close Nureyev came to a premiere. Why wasn’t it postponed earlier?” asked Simon Morrison, a music historian at Princeton University who has recently written a history of the Bolshoi. He said “the frisson of intrigue, political or otherwise” has become part of the Bolshoi brand over the years, adding that he expected the production to make it to the stage eventually.

Rudolf Nureyev during rehearsals for Romeo and Juliet at the London Coliseum in 1980
Rudolf Nureyev during rehearsals for Romeo and Juliet at the London Coliseum in 1980. Photograph: Michael Ward/Getty Images

“The dancers are understandably apoplectic. But this is an expensive show with a new score and I personally can’t see it all going to waste,” said Morrison. However, any future performances are not likely to happen soon. A spokesman for the theatre said the production would appear “no earlier” than the 2018-19 season, as next season is already fully timetabled.

Nureyev, regarded as one of the greatest ballet dancers in history, began his career at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg but defected to the west in 1961. He died from an Aids-related illness in 1993 at age 53. The ballet, a new work composed by Ilya Demutsky and choreographed by Yuri Possokhov, tells the story of the dancer’s life.

Much about the content of the ballet had been kept secret and the final dress rehearsal on Friday was shrouded in secrecy. Sources inside the theatre said the production did deal explicitly with Nureyev’s sexuality.

Homophobia is widespread in Russia and the country has a law banning “homosexual propaganda among minors,” essentially making public displays of gay affection illegal. Earlier this season a touring production of Written on Skin, a contemporary opera by the British composer George Benjamin, featured a brief gay kiss – but that was on the Bolshoi’s new stage, not the hallowed main stage which is usually reserved for traditional productions.

The director of Nureyev was Kirill Serebrennikov, a theatre and film director who has earned a reputation for edgy stagings that run against the conservative line promoted by the Kremlin and culture ministry. He has become increasingly critical of government censorship in the arts and was recently detained and questioned by Russian security services, allegedly over the embezzlement of government funding. Most in the arts world believe the case to be politically motivated.

Serebrennikov had already staged a ballet adaptation of Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time at the Bolshoi, as well as Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera The Golden Cockerel, which he transformed into a biting satire on Kremlin politics. Serebrennikov has not made any public comment on the decision to postpone the ballet.

The Bolshoi has been mired in scandal over the years and the ballet troupe has earned a reputation as a hotbed of intrigue and rivalries. This came to the fore most dramatically when one of the dancers was convicted of ordering an acid attack on the ballet’s artistic director, Sergei Filin. Pavel Dmitrichenko was jailed for six years in 2013 for organising the attack – which left Filin’s sight damaged – but was released on parole last year.

  • This article was amended on 13 July 2017. An earlier version featured a photograph of Artem Ovcharenko with the caption: “Rudolf Nureyev.” This photograph has been changed.


Shaun Walker in Moscow

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Russian minister may have intervened over postponed Bolshoi ballet
Source says culture minister Vladimir Medinsky had concerns show about Rudolf Nureyev’s life may have violated law on ‘homosexual propaganda’

Shaun Walker in Moscow

10, Jul, 2017 @5:14 PM

Article image
Brutal Bolshoi: inside the troubled world of Russia’s legendary ballet
Film lifts the curtain on infighting at the institution after an acid attack on its artistic director. The Calvert Journal reports

Carmen Gray for The Calvert Journal, part of the New East network

27, Dec, 2015 @11:59 AM

Article image
Nureyev premieres in Moscow with director under house arrest
Russia’s political elite enjoy ballet about famous dancer at Bolshoi Theatre but Kirill Serebrennikov is conspicuously absent

Shaun Walker in Moscow

10, Dec, 2017 @2:13 PM

Article image
Bolshoi ballet director suffers acid attack
Sergei Filin says assault must be linked to his work in latest incident at scandal-prone Russian theatre

Miriam Elder in Moscow

18, Jan, 2013 @7:28 PM

Article image
Bolshoi Ballet acid attack accused claims police beat him
Pavel Dmitrichenko alleges masked officers assaulted him during escort back to cell after preliminary court hearing

Tom Balmforth in Moscow

18, Oct, 2013 @2:57 PM

Article image
Nureyev ballet to open in Moscow, despite director's house arrest
After last-minute cancellation in July, Bolshoi to bring life story of gay dancer who defected to stage in December

Shaun Walker in Moscow

22, Sep, 2017 @4:10 PM

Article image
Bolshoi acid attack: police question star ballet dancer
Nikolai Tsiskaridze questioned along with Bolshoi Theatre staff and relatives as Sergei Filin battles to regain sight

Miriam Elder in Moscow

25, Jan, 2013 @3:56 PM

Article image
Bolshoi ballet acid attack: theatre members support dancer
Over 300 members of theatre ask Vladimir Putin and Kremlin officials for inquiry into 'absurd' arrest of Pavel Dmitrichenko

Miriam Elder in Moscow

12, Mar, 2013 @4:01 PM

Article image
Bolshoi ballet director quits after erotic photos are published online
Gennady Yanin steps down after link to a website with the photos is sent to thousands of email addresses

Miriam Elder in Moscow

16, Mar, 2011 @10:46 AM

Article image
Bolshoi ballet artistic director 'calm' after acid attack on Moscow street

Sergei Filin undergoes operation to save his sight as Russian police say they have made no arrests three days after attack

Miriam Elder in Moscow

20, Jan, 2013 @2:36 PM