On Saturday, five months late, Russia’s most controversial ballet in years opened at the Bolshoi.
Nureyev, which traces the life and Aids-related death of Soviet dancer and choreographer Rudolf Nureyev, had been pulled just two days before its scheduled premiere in July. Insiders suggested the ballet’s frank treatment of homosexuality – and a reported intervention by the culture ministry – lay behind the dramatic decision to cancel. The parallel investigation and August arrest of the ballet’s director, Kirill Serebrennikov, added to those suspicions.
Right up until the last moment, there were doubts that the premiere would ever happen. Speaking on Friday, lead dancer Vladislav Lantratov, who plays Nureyev, said the experience in July had been “very difficult”. The cast had “dreamed the show would happen,” he said.
Looking at the audience, you could be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss was about. Moscow’s elite was out in force, with many an advert for the city’s plastic surgeons. Ministers, ex-ministers, ambassadors and several top oligarchs all made an appearance. They gestured and waved to one another in the hall.
Given the absence of director Serebrennikov, however, it was a bizarre and emotional scene. His absence was drilled home at final curtain when the creative team appeared on stage wearing “Free the director” T-shirts.
The Cannes-winning director remains under house arrest, awaiting trial. He is unable to work, talk to the press or see his elderly, infirm parents. He was not allowed to play any direct role in the final preparations of the ballet.
State investigators accuse him of embezzling 68m roubles (£850,000). Among other charges, they alleged his production company falsely claimed to have produced a version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In fact, the show ran and had even been nominated for a prestigious Golden Mask theatrical award. The detail was later dropped from the charge-sheet.
Serebrennikov’s supporters say the allegations are politically motivated. They say his experimental Gogol Centre theatre has irked the Kremlin’s conservative wing. Lawyers argue there is no evidence of enrichment by either Serebrennikov or his co-defendants.
“Officially, the case is about financial impropriety but things look very different from our point of view,” says Valery Pecheykin, a playwright at Gogol Centre and one of few people prepared to speak on record. The real issue, he says, was that Serebrennikov stood out as the “only” director prepared to stage “provocative, independent, tolerant works” and to “cover the full range of human sexuality”.
The investigations around Gogol Centre and the cancellation of July’s premiere at the Bolshoi are “obviously linked” by homophobia, insists Pecheykin: “It’s Russia’s best export. We don’t manufacture telephones and rockets keep falling out of the sky, but our homophobia is flying high.”
Pecheykin recalls the day Serebrennikov told him about the fate of Nureyev: “Kirill came back from the Bolshoi the evening just after he learned his show had been banned, and we were, as it happens, running through A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Gogol Centre. I remember what he said: ‘I’ve just come from a play that won’t happen to a play that doesn’t exist’.”
On Saturday night the production did finally make it to stage. Mixing ballet, opera and theatre, it skips through Rudolf Nureyev’s story – from his time in Russia, through his defection to the West and to scenes in France, where he spent the latter part of his life and ultimately died. It has already been hailed as a creative triumph.
From a transvestite serenade in the Bois de Boulogne, through an orgy of leather-capped, bare-chested dancers, intimate diaries and a scene depicting Nureyev’s famous naked photoshoot with Richard Avedon, the production retains obvious shock value.
But there was also one clear absence from the old version of the production, seen in leaked rehearsal videos. In those videos, the most famous picture from Avedon’s photoshoot – Nureyev in full-frontal mode – was projected onto a large backdrop screen. Insiders reported that it was this detail that had proven to be the most controversial for authorities.
By Saturday, the 10-second scene had been cut – undermining the theatre’s narrative that politics had not played a role in the original cancellation.
Russia’s political elite seems far from united on the affair. The influential former deputy prime minister Alexei Kudrin and current presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov were both in the audience and uttered words of support. It was “unfair” that Serebrennikov was not present at his own premiere, Kudrin told journalists.
President Putin has made contradictory statements on Serebrennikov’s detention. At one point, he called investigators “fools”, but has since undone that statement by saying the case was about “serious economic crimes”.
According to the prominent rights activist and journalist Zoya Svetova, a delegation of “influential figures” has lobbied the President to release Serebrennikov. So far, those efforts have come to nothing.
“Putin has it in his mind that Serebrennikov is some petty criminal, and then there is all this gay stuff in the background,” Svetova told The Independent.
“There are absolutely no signs he’s about to pardon him.”
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