A Starry Turnout, Minus One

Posted December 10, 2017 6:26 p.m. EST

MOSCOW — “A country that does not value its heroes is such a shame.” That’s a line spoken late in the Bolshoi Ballet’s “Nureyev,” the much anticipated, gossiped about, postponed and rescheduled new ballet about the great Russian dancer Rudolf Nureyev that opened at the Bolshoi Theater amid intense speculation and rumor here on Saturday.

Crowds thronged around security guards zealously manning the entrances. Sequins and blingy jewelry, supernova heels and pouty lips made their way into the Bolshoi’s gold and red interior. A who’s who of Muscovite society, including Vladimir Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, and the film producer Alexander Rodnyansky (“Leviathan”), turned up. So did Sergei Filin, the former Bolshoi Ballet director who was the 2013 victim of an acid attack, his severely injured eyes covered by dark glasses.

One man was notably absent: Kirill Serebrennikov, the production’s director, who has been under house arrest since Aug. 22, on suspicion of embezzling more than $1 million in government funds through the Gogol Center, the progressive theater he runs.

Leading cultural figures, including Vladimir Urin, the Bolshoi’s general director, have rallied around Serebrennikov, who has denied all wrongdoing. Many have suggested that his arrest was politically motivated and could signal a crackdown on artistic freedom.

But even before Serebrennikov’s arrest, “Nureyev” had provoked intense media speculation when the Bolshoi canceled the ballet’s scheduled July 11 premiere just two days before opening night. Commentators wondered if its explicit portrayal of homosexuality, the inclusion of nudity — in the form of a full-frontal photograph of Nureyev by Richard Avedon used as a backdrop — and the ballet’s depiction of a defector who chose the West over Russia, had been deemed inappropriate by the government, which provides 70 percent of the Bolshoi’s budget.

The decision to use Serbrennikov was unusual in the first place. Unlike opera, ballet rarely uses a director; the choreographer both creates the movement and makes all artistic decisions. “Nureyev” is nonetheless Serebrennikov’s second collaboration with choreographer Yuri Possokhov and composer Ilya Demutsky. The three created the well-received “A Hero of Our Time,” commissioned by Filin, in 2015.

As Serebrennikov himself notes in a program interview: “I am doing an exotic, probably nonexisting job. Perhaps I am the only ballet stage director around.”

And so the big questions: Does having a director make a difference? And is “Nureyev” any good?

The answers are yes and somewhat. Serebrennikov’s impact is clear in the detailed libretto (published in the program), which structures the action around the auctions of Nureyev’s belongings that took place in 1993, two years after his death, from AIDS, at 54. Various items — a 1956 Vaganova School report; the Avedon portraits; a letter to Eric Bruhn, the Danish dancer who was Nureyev’s greatest love; costumes — serve as a chronological pathway through the dancer’s life, enabling Possokhov to move in swift and sometimes surreal fashion between reality and dream, memory and fantasy.

The use of an actor (Igor Vernik, speaking credible French and English as well as Russian) playing the auctioneer, Avedon and an apparatchik who reports Nureyev’s defection, provides a dramatic fillip and smooth linkages. Images of the items are projected on the sides and back of the stage, to sometimes hallucinatory effect. At one point, the Avedon portraits fill the stage — the frontal nude getting just a millisecond’s worth of exposure at the end of the scene.

Demutsky’s music is melodic and serviceable, incorporating quotations from patriotic Soviet themes, Bach, Lully and various ballet scores, as the narrative demands. Singers frequently appear, sometimes with a literal function (to deliver “The Motherland Song,” during a patriotic school concert), sometimes with a more poetic, associative one (singing a Tartar lullaby that suggests Nureyev’s loneliness after his defection).

A countertenor and chorus sing an “ode to the King,” in which Nureyev (a look-alike, charismatic Vladislav Lantratov, with excellent Nureyev hair) appears as Louis XIV, flanked by adoring courtiers. This surreal scene, which has some of the courtiers disrobing to become live images of the naked St. Sebastian paintings projected on the walls, suggests something of what “Nureyev” could be if Serebrennikov and Possokhov stripped away the work’s more literal sections.

But the ballet can’t quite decide what it wants to be, hovering uncertainly between the fantastical and the literal. This is most egregious in sentimental sections in which letters are read from Nureyev’s French protégés, Charles Jude and Laurent Hilaire (why just the French ones?); and, later, from two of his partners, Alla Osipenko and Natalia Makarova, with a single dancer (first Vyacheslav Lopatin, then Svetlana Zakharova, gorgeous) representing — rather confusingly — the male and female writers.

Most problematically, Possokhov, a former principal with the Bolshoi Ballet who is now choreographer in residence at the San Francisco Ballet, doesn’t find a convincing physical language for Nureyev to suggest something of his character and inner life. The choreography is balletic and skillful but unmemorable, even in a final section that has Nureyev as a tormented Pierrot Lunaire (one of his favorite roles), aware that he is dying. We see Nureyev entirely from the outside (brilliant, moody, posturing, anguished, temperamental), just as we hear about him only through the words of others and the objects that he owned.

Was “Nureyev” censored? Only those involved in its creative process know. But there is nothing — at least to Western eyes — shocking about the decorous pas de deux for Nureyev and Bruhn (a nicely moody Denis Savin), which intimates little more than tender friendship; or about the bare-chested Avedon photographs. (BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM.) At a news conference after the ballet’s July cancellation, Urin, who commissioned “Nureyev,” insisted that censorship had nothing to do with the decision to withdraw the ballet. But the postponement was yet another scandal for the Bolshoi, which still finds itself in the turbulent wake of the shocking attack on Filin, organized by a company dancer, Pavel Dmitrichenko. (Filin was replaced in 2016 by Makhar Vaziev.)

Perhaps sensitive to the bad press around the ballet’s postponement, amplified by the furor around Serebrennikov’s arrest, Urin found an earlier slot for “Nureyev” than he had first announced, and said the director had given permission for the production to be mounted in his absence.

(END OPTIONAL TRIM.) Even if “Nureyev” contains little that is contentious, the ballet is an ambitious project for the Bolshoi — a move away from the straightforward story ballets that its audiences know so well. The rapturous reception at the premiere (“a world event,” Peskov, the press secretary to Putin, told the Tass news agency afterward) suggests that Urin’s gamble on a still-controversial subject has paid off. (STORY CAN END HERE. OPTIONAL MATERIAL FOLLOWS.) In “Nureyev,” that line about valuing heroes comes from a letter by Osipenko, the Russian ballerina who was one of Nureyev’s early partners at the Kirov Ballet (as the Mariinsky was then called) before he defected to the West on June 16, 1961, in a watershed moment for both dance and Cold War politics. But the sentiment could also apply to Serebrennikov, whose house arrest was extended to Jan. 19 this month. When members of the creative team took their bows on Saturday, they all wore white T-shirts bearing a slogan: “Free the director.”