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Bolshoi Denies Gay Theme Forced Postponing of Nureyev Ballet

After the difficult rehearsal on Friday, he said, the dancers made a supreme effort to bring the piece together on Saturday, but he felt they needed more time and decided to cancel the opening. “There will be reputational damage for canceling, but for us the quality of the production was paramount,” he said.

The company’s season is winding down, with many of its dancers headed to New York for a 10-day run at the Lincoln Center Festival, starting on July 20.

The contrast between the show’s subject and the current government emphasis on “family values” prompted immediate accusations that Mr. Urin was bowing to Kremlin pressure.


From left, Makhar Vaziev, director of the Bolshoi Ballet, and Vladimir G. Urin, general director of the Bolshoi Theater at a news conference on Monday.

Alexander Nemenov/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Among other themes, the show addresses the influence of Nureyev’s homosexuality on his art, as well as his struggle with AIDS, from which he died in 1993. Russia passed a law in 2013 banning anything that could be interpreted as “gay propaganda.”

The general suspicion in cultural circles and in news media reports was that a ballet celebrating a gay man who had fled the Soviet Union — there is a line in the piece about Russia ejecting its most talented people — and presented on the main stage of the country’s most prestigious theater was too much for the government to bear.

In addition, it was staged by Kirill S. Serebrennikov, considered perhaps the most talented, innovative theater director in Russia, but one with a reputation for mocking social conventions.

Mr. Serebrennikov was detained for questioning in May over allegations of embezzling government funds. His apartment and the Gogol Center, the theater where he is the artistic director, were searched in a case widely condemned as being politically motivated.

Mr. Serebrennikov declined to comment on the postponement of the ballet, deferring to the Bolshoi management, but he told friends that he thought the ballet was ready.

He made a wry speech referring to it on Sunday night after a production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” (The embezzlement charges are partly based on accusations that money for “Midsummer” was pocketed and no play presented.)

“Yesterday, something astounding happened: I came from a play that will not exist,” he said, referring to a rehearsal of the Nureyev ballet, “to a play that did not exist.”

Some people, including cast members, compared the Bolshoi situation to the 1935 incident when Joseph Stalin forced the theater to close a new production of a ballet by Dmitri Shostakovich called “The Bright Stream”; it was not revived until 2003.

The Nureyev ballet was the second collaboration involving Mr. Serebrennikov; Mr. Possokhov, a former Bolshoi star who is a choreographer in residence at the San Francisco Ballet; and Ilya Demutsky, the composer. Their 2015 ballet, “A Hero of Our Time,” inspired by the classic Russian novel by Mikhail Lermontov, was hailed by critics as a major step away from what some called the Bolshoi’s rigid devotion to classicism.

“Nureyev” was expected to be even more groundbreaking, with a potentially global audience because of Nureyev’s fame. But the ballet prompted controversy in Russia well before it got anywhere near the stage.

A leaked video of a rehearsal in which pairs of male dancers performed in high heels provoked some outrage, with one nationalist website calling on the conservative culture minister, Vladimir R. Medinsky, to ban the ballet.

“The video of the rehearsal of the performance clearly testifies to the fact that this ‘creation’ is propaganda for sodomy, which is against current Russian law,” the website commented. “People who have not lost their moral compass are concerned by the impending disgrace.”

Russian media reports continued to suggest on Monday that this was the reason for the cancellation, although there was also speculation that it might take more time to polish last-minute revisions to dilute the gay references.

Both Mr. Urin and Mr. Medinsky denied consulting each other before the cancellation. “I do not want to turn this into a political discussion,” Mr. Urin said.

He said that the already tightly packed schedule for next year meant that the premiere could not be rescheduled before May 2018.

Simon A. Morrison, a Princeton University music professor and author of a recent history of the Bolshoi Theater, was in Moscow and saw video fragments from one of the last rehearsals.

“It looked hesitant, it was shaky, it was not there,” he said, while noting the fog around what would be a rare decision by any ballet company. “If you do something controversial and it doesn’t come off, then it becomes a travesty.”

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