Russia's delayed Nureyev ballet to test Kremlin tolerance

MOSCOW (Reuters) - A Bolshoi Theatre ballet about the life of Russian dancer Rudolf Nureyev set to premiere on Saturday contains tender scenes of gay romance, testing the Kremlin’s tolerance for what it calls “homosexual propaganda”.

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The production had been due to open in July but was canceled at the last minute, with the theater’s management saying it was not ready. At the time, Russian state news agency TASS quoted a source close to the culture ministry saying there were concerns about the ballet’s gay themes.

A month later, the production’s edgy director, Kirill Serebrennikov was charged with embezzling state funds. Under house arrest, he was unable to take part in rehearsals. Serebrennikov’s supporters alleged he was being punished for challenging the establishment, and that his production would be watered down.

Regarded as one of ballet’s most gifted male dancers and an accomplished choreographer, Nureyev died in 1993 from AIDS.

At a rehearsal to which the media was admitted on Friday, Bolshoi staff said the production had undergone only minor technical changes since Serebrennikov was replaced. Serebrennikov has not commented publicly.

In one scene, dancers playing Nureyev and his lover, Danish dancer Erik Bruhn, perform a touching, sensuous dance intended to represent them falling in love.

Another scene in the ballet, which is choreographed by Yuri Posokhov, depicts Nureyev visiting a drag act in Paris, soon after arriving there having defected from the Soviet Union.

During the rehearsal on Friday, a huge image of a completely naked Nureyev briefly appeared as the backdrop to the performance. When reports leaked into Russian media about that image earlier this year, it caused an outcry among social conservatives.

The ballet as performed on Friday also features a character reading official files on Nureyev from informers, alleging that in Paris he was spending time with “dubious people, some of them pederasts, among whom were clearly representatives of Western intelligence agencies.”

The word “pederast” is often used in Russia as a derogatory term for homosexuals.

Russian government officials have yet to say what they think of the production.

In 2013, Russia adopted a law banning the spreading of “propaganda for non-traditional sexual relations” to minors. The Kremlin denied it was discriminatory, but Western governments and rights groups say it enshrines prejudice against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

The producers of the ballet have given it an 18+ rating. Asked by Reuters on Saturday why, a spokeswoman for the Bolshoi referred the question to Vladimir Urin, the theater’s director general. He did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Speaking to reporters about the ballet in general on Friday, Urin said: “The production gives rise to arguments, appreciation by some people, rejection by others. But that’s art. We have productions that give rise to arguments.”

Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Clelia Oziel