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Return of the Bolshoi upstaged by ex-director's claims of plagiarism

THE BOLSHOI Ballet's triumphant return to Britain was marred yesterday by an unseemly squabble.

The company had hoped to leave behind troubled times and recreate the excitement that reached its peak in the last Fifties when desperate English fans offered their homes in exchange for tickets.

After a six-year absence, and with its opera in tow for the first time, the Bolshoi was hoping for a rapturous and trouble-free tour. But its former director Yuri Grigorovich chose the eve of the long-awaited London season to claim that three of the forthcoming productions were copies of his own work.

Yesterday, the company's new general director, Vladimir Vasiliev, was forced to admit that Grigorovich might be right.

The 72-year-old former impresario, famous for his iron-fisted rule of the renowned company, had known about the planned performances for seven months, yet chose to make his claim only days before the first ballet is due to open at the Coliseum in London. Having contacted the Russian Copyright Society, he appointed a London lawyer last Thursday. He is demanding about pounds 100,000 in royalties.

Vasiliev admitted during the press launch at the Coliseum yesterday that Grigorovich might be entitled to the money and the matter was now the subject of negotiations. But he insisted that the show would go on - before aiming a sideways dig at the man often referred to as his predecessor.

"I have never substituted [for] Mr Grigorovich because the person who substituted him was Mr [Alexei] Fadeyechev [the ballet's director]," he said. To gales of laughter from his company, he pointed out that he headed the entire ballet and opera company, a more senior post than Grigorovich had held.

Grigorovich, who has refused to bow out quietly since his departure four years ago, is claiming copyright to the opening production of the classics La Bayadere and Spartacus, as well as to the rarely performed Raymonda.

Yesterday, however, the 420 dancers, singers and musicians who flew to London on Sunday night were apparently unperturbed by the dispute. At the Urdang Academy around the corner from the Coliseum - where they will perform for four weeks - they were rehearsing La Bayadere.

Grigorovich's London lawyer insisted that the dancers had little to fear. "It is certainly not his intention to place an injunction on the performances. At this point it would be incredibly unfair to all the performers, who are perfectly innocently going about their work.

"It is just that [the Bolshoi] have not come to us for a licence. He just wants the appropriate royalties. He is not out to crucify anybody. We hope it will be sorted out amicably."

The dispute has proved embarrassing for Vasiliev, who took over in 1995 and has been keen to distance himself from the turbulent times that marked the end of the Soviet era. He said London audiences could hope to see some of the best ballet in the world. While promoting the company's modern repertoire, he said the classics would remain the pillar of its agenda.

"Our strongest part is classical. We are the strongest in the world. No one can do it the same way. We perform at the top level and that is what we are going to show you in London," he said confidently.

Emphasising the importance of the Bolshoi Opera's first visit to this country, he added: "There are many people who think the Bolshoi is just the ballet. There is no ballet without the orchestra, there is no orchestra without the opera."

This, he hoped, would be the first of a series of visits to England. "If the British audience like us then we will be back in 2001 at Covent Garden," he promised.

Yesterday, he said that his modern company was stronger than ever and denied reports of its demise. "It could die only with Russia," he said. "As long as Russia is alive, the Bolshoi is alive."