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© Ismene Brown 2017

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10 JULY  17

The Bolshoi's cancelled Nureyev ballet will be premiered next year, without alterations or censorship, insisted the Bolshoi Theatre chief today at a tense press conference about the sudden withdrawal of what had been heralded as the most important premiere in Russia's capital for years.

As he battled new headlines that the cancellation was made on the personal instruction of the Culture Minister, Urin admitted that it was a grave blow to the Bolshoi's world reputation to stop its highest-profile new creation only two days before its opening, but he denied that censorship had anything to do with it.

Afternoon reports in the TASS and RBK news agencies quote a Ministry of Culture source saying that the Minister spent an hour on the phone to Urin on Friday insisting that nakedness would not be tolerated. The ballet is said to be potentially offensive to social and religious conservatives because Nureyev was both a defector who chose the West over Russia and also an open homosexual.

Photographs taken from the dress rehearsal that have turned up on social media show that visuals included many images of a fully naked Nureyev, showing his genitals, and it is rumoured that some of the dancers appeared to be nude in places. Nureyev's love affair with another leading male star, Erik Bruhn, is not glossed over, though it is unclear how this is being treated in dance terms.

In a Russia where homosexuality has been increasingly repressed and criminalised, the three-act ballet had been  heralded as the season's demonstration of a new, worldly Bolshoi Ballet fully in touch with Western contemporary creativity and social morals, rather than the 'fundamental values' espoused by the Russian Orthodox Church now play a core part in the country's cultural policy. Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky has stated repeatedly that all companies receiving public funds - and the Bolshoi Theatre gets more than any other - are now obliged not to offend these 'fundamental values'. This has resulted in the public remastering of the sexuality of legendary Russian creators who were gay, including the composer Tchaikovsky and the film director Eisenstein.

In today's press conference, Urin admitted having had the Medinsky phone call but denied that his announcement of the premiere's cancellation the next day had any link to it - though TASS and RBK headlines insist differently: 'Postponement was on the personal order of the Culture Minister'.

Leading dancers in the production, including star names such as Maria Alexandrova (who was to play Margot Fonteyn) and Igor Tsvirko (cast as one of three Nureyevs), have erupted on social media with what they see as brutal state interference with an exciting and emotionally fulfilling new production. Some have warned that the ballet will never now be shown.

This may suggest that the postponement will entail a frenzy of obligatory changes which the team on the Nureyev ballet will not accept. Choreographer Yuri Possokhov, a former Bolshoi dancer, is now a leading San Francisco ballet choreographer and can only be diminished, whatever happens; director Kirill Serebrennikov is a headliner among Russia's modern stage directors, outspoken in his challenges to artistic censorship. Both of them have sympathy with Rudolf Nureyev, who quit the Soviet Union in 1961 to find artistic freedom in the West, above all in Britain.

A previous Possokhov/Serebrennikov/Demutsky new ballet, A Hero of Our Time, was well received two years ago by Moscow's cultural and political establishment - its conservatism came as a disappointment to some critics, but was in keeping with the subject-matter, a Russian classic by Lermontov.

In the case of the Nureyev ballet, the suspicion of censorship reflects the reality of the influence demanded these days by the Russian Orthodox Church, who recently caused the late cancellation of a production of Wagner's opera Tannhäuser, in circumstances reminiscent of these.

Its trigger was the appearance in the staging of a poster showing what the church considered a blasphemous image of Christ crucified between a woman's naked legs. The debacle led to the dismissal of both the opera's director and the boss of the Novosibirsk theatre itself - acts taken by the Culture Minister.

Lack of preparation time

However, according to Komsomolskaya Pravda's report of this morning's press conference, Vladimir Urin tried to portray the affair as a simple matter of lack of preparation time for a complex staging.

He said the premiere is simply postponed to May next year. He denied that any pressure from above came his way, though he admitted to taking the Medinsky phone call last Friday - apparently asking him what to say to journalists who rang him asking what was going on.

Urin said that Serebrennikov, as director, and Possokhov as choreographer had little to do with each other in the creative process, and it was the 'substantial dance accents' that were lacking. He said that Possokhov had admitted he felt he needed another month minimum to complete the corps de ballet numbers. The composer Ilya Demutsky had also said he felt too rushed. The company recently returned from a substantial Japanese tour and Urin said it had eaten into necessary rehearsal time for the dancers.

He would make no changes to Serebrennikov’s staging, he declared, and the ‘paranoia’ expressed by many that this amounted to censorship was entirely misplaced.

He said the original plan had been to premiere it next season anyway, not this, and that when the premiere is finally given next May it will be as originally intended.

Urin agreed that the last-minute cancellation was extremely bad for the Bolshoi’s public image, not least in the currently feverish arts climate, in which artists have regularly found themselves picked on by either the Church or the security forces. Serebrennikov himself was recently accused by state authorities of mishandling public money for his theatre company, and his flat was raided by police. Urin was one of several leading arts figures who signed a letter of protest to Putin, stating that this appeared more an act of intimidation of an independent-minded and sometimes provocative theatre creator than a proper pursuit of any real wrongdoing.

The Bolshoi boss told this morning’s press conference that he understood the sensitivity of issues around Serebrennikov, and its effect on the rumours surrounding the ballet’s postponement - 'Whatever I say, those who fantasize are unlikely to believe me. It is exactly as I have stated. I don’t want to turn this all into a political discusssion.’

Komsomolskaya Pravda comments that the authorities appear now to be ‘trying to hush up the embarrassment’ of the heavyhanded targeting of Serebrennikov, ‘one of our theatre’s greatest talents.’

Urin's responsibility

Longer-term, Urin's own position as the theatre's chief is surely heavily damaged by this needless blow to the Bolshoi's international reputation. He has full personal responsibility and credit for commissioning the Nureyev ballet: after the great success of A Hero of Our Time, the theatre boss took up the suggestion by the choreographer Possokhov of Nureyev’s life as a possible subject, and signed up the newsworthy director Serebrennikov once again.

He has greenlighted several new stagings of large full-evening ballets, with very mixed results. But challenging an exceptionally conservative ballet public schooled to be afraid of risk and 'Western' liberalism is fraught with bad press. And in Russia bad press is generally politically motivated, especially with so many pretenders to Urin's office in Russia's flagship opera and ballet house.

A new 2015 Hamlet, co-created by the British Declan Donnellan, was savaged, and a recent billed 'co-production' with the Royal Ballet, Christopher Wheeldon's Strapless, has been quietly forgotten about in the aftermath of the negative British reception. Only A Hero of Our Time is counted a firm success among the creations since Urin's appointment in 2013 - and everything that has happened since then has been in the shadow of the grotesque acid attack on the previous Bolshoi ballet director Sergei Filin by one of his own dancers.

Urin's reputation as a wise company healer has risen fast since those terrible days four years ago, but his insistence on being creative tsar too is less flattering on his record, especially after he admitted in an excellent British documentary, Bolshoi Babylon, that outside political and business influences afflicted a significant proportion of the theatre's artistic policy.

The drafting of the content of Nureyev, the choice of its dramatis personae, the visual concept, and the unavoidability of treating the dancer's political profile and his homosexuality in open dramatic terms, would all have been planned for within the Bolshoi. The wardrobe and staging costs would be considerable. One Russian report claims that the Bolshoi paid the photographer Richard Avedon some $400,000 to use just one image in the scenography.

To cancel it so late implies either a real failure to keep all the elements on track for the early premiere - ineffective management - or an attempt at an explosive premiere, keeping a likely controversy under wraps, hoping to sweep protests before in a succès fou. It is interesting that the Culture Minister, well known for his extreme conservatism, did not know about it until last Friday. But once Medinsky was prodded into his predictable reaction, Urin might well have developed some final nerves about some of the stark nude imagery, and perhaps male-on-male choreography.

Kommersant's expert dance critic Tatiana Kuznetsova, in her report, noted the curious fact that the Bolshoi ballet director Makhar Vaziev said not a word about the new work at the press conference and showed no interest in it - presumably since Urin commissioned it before he appointed Vaziev last year, and Vaziev, she wrote, has  conservative taste.

Some video from the dress rehearsal posted by dancers on social media carry comments that indicate they had no concerns about the production's unpreparedness. The leading ballerina Maria Alexandrova - who had the role of Margot Fonteyn - posted a black square on her Instagram page and referred to the bad old Soviet censorship days of the 1930s.

Urin told the press conference today that it was Serebrennikov's idea to film the dress rehearsal - a decision that may mean that these pieces of film will be the only exposure of a work that several of its leading performers consider of much importance and theatrical boldness.

For Urin himself the decision to postpone raises the personal stakes he has in a very dicey game. If the so-called 'unready' premiere tomorrow had attracted brickbats, he could have turned to the current censorship argument for support. If the postponed Nureyev is altered for its reappearance, or fails to appear at all, Urin is going to look both faint-hearted and lacking in judgment.

Bolshoi boss Urin stays on

Arts conflicts committee takes next step

Russian reaction to Bolshoi Babylon

Urin: "Those who want to fantasize are unlikely to believe me. It is exactly as I have stated. I don’t want to turn this all into a political discusssion"

'Nureyev' ballet will go on, insists Urin