For decades, Russia's ballet dancers have had one dream – to dance at the Bolshoi. With the exception of a few defections to the West during the Soviet era, the Bolshoi is the company that everyone wants to join and nobody wants to leave. So when Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev, the Bolshoi's leading lights and 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 world of ballet was stunned. Even more surprising was their destination – the Mikhailovsky Theatre in St Petersburg.
"If they had left us for La Scala, or Paris, or even the Mariinsky, 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 has a long history – it was founded by Tsar Nicholas I in 1833 – but it has never been considered on the same level as Moscow's Bolshoi or St Petersburg's Mariinsky, the two biggest opera and ballet houses in Russia, engaged in a constant rivalry and well ahead of the pack.
In 2007, 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 of his own money at the theatre, funding renovations, star acquisitions, and lavish sets, all with the aim of transforming the Mikhailovsky from a plucky also-ran to a force to be contended with. The signing of the Bolshoi's two stars this week is the biggest indication so far that his plan is succeeding. "We are the most experimental, the most creative and the most exciting theatre in Russia," Mr Kekhman told The Independent yesterday. "We match the Bolshoi and the Mariinsky in quality for most of our productions, and on occasion we better them."
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. Both dancers denied that their move was motivated by financial considerations, and Ms Osipova said her transfer was due 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, simply luring the best talent away from rivals 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, and now they will be the biggest stars of this new set up. 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, and facilitated tours to other theatres around Europe. "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 right at the start of the new season, overshadowing the reopening of the Bolshoi's new stage, rather than wait until the end of the season, and suggested that they had been "manipulated" as part of a plot against the theatre.
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 said that the theatre saw the pair as its children, and would always be willing to have them back, hinting that they had been lured to St Petersburg by the promise of pots of cash. He took aim at "big business" trying to muscle its way in on art. Mr Kekhman's background in business has led a number of people, not only Mr Iksanov, to question his ability to run a major theatre.
He has been compared to Lopakhin, the greedy merchant who wants to fit in with his aristocratic betters in Anton Chekhov's play The Cherry Orchard (though one columnist suggested that the play might be renamed The Banana Grove specially for him). However, others say that during his time in charge, he has proved that he can attract leading international stars in opera as well as ballet to the previously unfashionable theatre.
The fruit tycoon is in no mood to back down in his war of words with the Bolshoi, and even upped the ante during his interview yesterday. "Mr Iksanov says that Osipova and Vasiliev are like his children – what way is that to talk about leading artists? What kind of children does he see them as? Serf children? Adopted children? And if he really thinks they are his children, how can he then turn around and accuse them of taking decisions for financial reasons?
"He has no right to talk like this, and his statements are inappropriate and humiliating, not least for himself." He vowed that until Mr Iksanov made a full apology to the Mikhailovsky and the dancers themselves, the pair would not appear on the Bolshoi stage again, even as guest artists.
Mr Kekhman admitted that he offered "good conditions" to Ms Osipova and Mr Vasiliyev, and had thrown some city-centre property into the mix as well, but denied that he was offering any more that other top European ballet theatres would. He suggested that a creative malaise at the Bolshoi was more of a factor behind the pair's decision than financial considerations.
The Bolshoi Ballet has been beset by problems recently, with its artistic director resigning after pornographic photographs of him were posted online earlier this year, and principal dancer Nikolai Tsiskaridze continually criticising the theatre's management in the media. He also told Russian journalists he thought the Bolshoi's extensive renovations made it look like a Turkish hotel.
One bright spot for the Bolshoi has been the acquisition of leading American dancer David Hallberg, which was seen as a sign both that the theatre can still attract the world's best talent, and that it was shedding its conservative reputation to hire a foreigner as a principal dancer for the first time.
Unfortunately for Mr Hallberg, the Bolshoi engagement will no longer include the perk of dancing together with Ms Osipova, whom he has already partnered in productions at the American Ballet Theatre in New York. And rather like a mischievous football manager trying to unsettle the star centre forward at a rival team, Mr Kekhman has spotted in Mr Hallberg another way to rile the Bolshoi. "I would like to see David Hallberg join us as well," he said. "It won't take more than a season for the current creative atmosphere at the Bolshoi to get on his nerves, and I'm confident that in a year or so, we'll get him. We can't wait for him to arrive."
Oligarchs and the arts: Major donors
Funds his girlfriend Dasha Zhukova's Moscow art gallery, and has signed up to back the £260m overhaul of an island in St Petersburg, which will feature another branch of Ms Zhukova's gallery. Also bankrolled a tour by Moscow's Sovremennik theatre to London.
One of Russia's richest men, Mr Vekselberg not only has the obligatory oligarchic private art collection but has also paid for the repatriation of major Russian artworks. Most notably, he has collected Fabergé eggs, the elaborate ornaments made for the Tsars.
Made his billions in metals, and now a major donor to St Petersburg's Hermitage Museum. His foundation also sprinkles donations across other artistic causes, and he sits on the board of the Guggenheim Foundation.