Bolshoi stung as ballet stars jump ship to rival


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For decades, Russia's ballet dancers have had one dream – to dance at the Bolshoi. So when Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev, two of the most famous dancers in the world, announced earlier this week that just as the Bolshoi's historic new stage had reopened after a six-year renovation, they were leaving the theatre, the ballet world was stunned. Even more surprising was their destination – St Petersburg's Mikhailovsky Theatre.

"If they had left us for La Scala, or Paris, then we would be sad, but we could understand," said Katerina Novikova, the Bolshoi's spokeswoman. "But to lose them to the Mikhailovsky – a company that is barely known – it doesn't make any sense."

The Mikhailovsky was founded by Tsar Nicholas I in 1833, but has never been considered on the same level as Moscow's Bolshoi. In 2007, however, the Mikhailovsky was taken over by tycoon Vladimir Kekhman, who made his fortune importing fruit to Russia and has been dubbed "the banana oligarch". He has thrown more than £30m at the theatre, funding renovations, star acquisitions and lavish sets. "We are the most experimental, the most creative and the most exciting theatre in Russia," Mr Kekhman told i's sister paper, The Independent.

Russian ballet critics might dispute that claim, though most admit that the pair will have more freedom in repertoire at the Mikhailovsky and, crucially, be given freer reign to tour abroad and take on guest engagements. The Mikhailovsky has acquired Nacho Duato, a renowned Spanish choreographer, who will now create a ballet specifically for the two new stars. Ms Osipova said her transfer was owing to a "search for creative freedom". But sceptics complain that Mr Kekhman has pulled off a ballet version of Manchester City's prolific spending in the football world, luring the best talent with promises of large wads of cash.

"They will be treated like a king and queen there, that's for sure," said one ballerina well acquainted with the St Petersburg scene. "Of course partly it is about the better conditions they will have and the money. But the chance to work with Nacho Duato also shouldn't be underestimated. What has happened over the past five years at the Mikhailovsky is pretty amazing. They have the chance to be a bigger diamond in a smaller setting."

The Bolshoi has responded furiously. Ms Novikova said the theatre had given the two dancers every opportunity to shine. "Both of them came to the Bolshoi at the start of their careers, and the theatre has done everything possible to support them in every aspect of their development," she said. "Their decision is a huge surprise for us, and a very sad surprise." She added that the theatre was particularly upset that the stars had left at the start of the season, overshadowing the reopening of the Bolshoi's new stage.

The Bolshoi's General Director, Anatoly Iksanov, went on television to say he would not sign off on the dancers' resignation papers for two weeks, to give them a chance to reconsider their decision. He took aim at "big business" trying to muscle its way in on art.

Rather like a mischievous football manager trying to unsettle the star centre-forward at a rival team, Mr Kekhman has spotted another way to rile the Bolshoi. "I would like to see David Hallberg join us as well," he said, referring to a leading American dancer recently acquired by the Bolshoi. "We can't wait for him to arrive."