Dmitry Peskov and wife Tatiana Navka
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Dmitry Peskov, Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, and his wife, Tatiana Navka, at the Nureyev premiere.
The most hotly anticipated and controversial Russian ballet in years has been premiered as Moscow's Bolshoi Theatre finally staged Nureyev, which tells the life story of the dancer.

The theatre's best dancers took to the stage on Saturday night with much of the Russian elite in the audience. But the ballet's director, Kirill Serebrennikov, was conspicuously absent, having spent the past few months under house arrest.

Nureyev's summer premiere was cancelled at the last minute, with speculation that gay themes in the ballet may have angered some government figures.

Rudolf Nureyev, who began his career at St Petersburg's Mariinsky Theatre - known as the Kirov in Soviet times - is widely regarded as ballet's most gifted male dancer. He defected to the west in 1961, had gay relationships and died from an Aids-related illness in 1993 aged 54.

In Putin's Russia, where "homosexual propaganda" is illegal and distrust of the west is again high, such themes were always going to be controversial.


Kirill Serebrennikov
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Kirill Serebrennikov appears at a court in Moscow. The case against him has shocked the theatre world.
In August, Serebrennikov was placed under house arrest as authorities investigated supposed misappropriation of cultural funds in a case that has shocked the theatre world, which many have suggested could be retribution for pushing artistic boundaries.

Serebrennikov's lawyers had asked for permission for the director to be given leave to attend the final rehearsals of the production, but this was denied. Bolshoi management said they had secured the director's agreement to go ahead.

Only a few hundred tickets were put on general sale for the rescheduled run of two performances, with ballet fans having to queue for hours to get them. The rest were distributed among the Bolshoi's powerful donors and patrons.

The hall for the premiere was a who's who of Moscow high society, from billionaires and government officials to models and celebrities.

The Bolshoi has long had a reputation for scandal on and off stage. In 2013, Pavel Dmitrichenko, a dancer, ordered an acid attack on Sergei Filin, the artistic director of the ballet troupe, and was jailed. But even by the Bolshoi's standards, the Moscow beau monde giving a standing ovation to a play with its director under arrest was a surreal sight.

The ballet, composed by Ilya Demutsky and choreographed by Yuri Possokhov, is based on an auction of Nureyev's possessions after the dancer's death, with each possession a way into a story from his life. Unusually for a ballet, it features an on-stage narrator in the form of the auctioneer, explaining the significance of each item.

Serebrennikov is one of Russia's leading directors, having worked in theatre, film, opera and ballet and staged a number of productions abroad. He is the artistic director of Gogol Centre, a Moscow theatre that often stages politically edgy productions, and has been an outspoken critic of artistic censorship in the Russian theatre scene. "Everyone is scared of offending the officials, who you have to go to and beg for money from," he told the Guardian last year.

The director has many powerful fans, but also many detractors. Nikita Mikhalkov, one of Russia's best-known film directors, showed little sympathy for Serebrennikov and said the production of Nureyev was inappropriate for the hallowed Bolshoi stage. "If you want to hang Nureyev's cock on the back of the stage, do it at your Gogol Centre. Why do it in the Bolshoi Theatre?" he said.

Russian Ballet tickets
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There were only a few hundred tickets on general sale for the rescheduled run of two performances.
In the end, the nude photograph of Nureyev, which had featured in footage from summer rehearsals, had been cropped in this version so as not to show genitalia. Nevertheless, the production made no secret of the dancer's sexuality, with gay themes present throughout.

There was much in the production that seemed to take on an extra meaning given the unusual context of the performance, including sections that mused on Nureyev's defection and the Soviet Union's attitudes to its artistic talents.

"It is a real shame when a country does not value its heroes," was one line from a letter to Nureyev read out during the production.

It is possible that the success of the premiere will increase calls for Serebrennikov's release. Alexei Kudrin, a former finance minister and longstanding confidant of Vladimir Putin tweeted: "It is unfair that Kirill Serebrennikov was not at his own premiere."

At the final curtain call, the audience gave a lengthy standing ovation as the production team came on to the stage wearing T-shirts featuring Serebrennikov's face and the slogan "Free the director".

In the second row of the stalls, Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, and his ice dancer wife, Tatyana Navka, were among those applauding enthusiastically. Putin has publicly denied that there are any political undertones to the Serebrennikov case, saying in September that it was a legal matter.