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‘“Nureyev” will live on, in freedom’ Stage director Kirill Serebrennikov on the Bolshoi-banished ballet and why Rudolf Nureyev’s story matters today
Last week, Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater dropped Kirill Serebrennikov’s “Nureyev,” a ballet production celebrating the Soviet-born star dancer and choreographer, from its repertoire. In a series of Telegram posts, Serebrennikov responded to the cancelation, objecting to the theater’s General Manager Vladimir Urin, who said that the decision to permanently cancel the show was “only natural” in view of Russia’s new law prohibiting so-called “LGBT propaganda.” It’s certainly true that Rudolf Nureyev’s life did not conform to the Putinist idea of “traditional values” any more than it fit the Soviet canons of virtue. The bisexual dancer defected from the Soviet Union in 1961 and never looked back. Today, “Nureyev” is once again leaving the Russian stage to “live in freedom.” In his director’s statement, Kirill Serebrennikov explains the new political significance of his ballet and why he believes in the production’s future.
“Nureyev” has been repeatedly canceled and banished. The first attempt to banish it happened in 2017. Then it happened again and again, under different pretexts. The theater’s exclusive rights to the show expired in 2022. And yet again it’s in the news, being canceled.
The main character in this story is completely against the grain of all that’s happening now in the country. He is entirely out of place as a gay person of talent, and as the most successful of all the defectors from the drab and dreary Soviet state in history. Contrary to every prediction, he refused to “die in the gutter” and instead became a first-magnitude Star. Rudy’s leap towards freedom showed not only that a Choice like his was possible, but also that [defection] can sometimes be the only solution for preserving one’s integrity and leading a fruitful artistic life.
He really was a “traitor” in the eyes of all the cultural “Red Guards,” snitches, propagandists, and activists from the USSR. He was also an object of envy for his fellow artists and colleagues who couldn’t make that leap, and a cause of their sad reflections about their own fate. (The astounding Alla Osipenko, whose letter is recited during the production, made this clear.)
“Nureyev,” a ballet commissioned by the Bolshoi and by Vladimir Urin himself on the occasion of Rudy’s anniversary, is being canceled to appease the security apparatus within the arts, and to show the rest of society that there’s a commitment to enforcing the new anti-LGBT law.
The precedent is now established. Everything’s clear. But here’s the bad news. The culture bureaucrats’ and theater managers’ readiness to cancel shows, to erase the names of actors and directors, to post “foreign agent” disclaimers, are all, in my opinion, a product of their “learned helplessness.” These acts look like the worst of what we’ve already seen happen in history. They normalize the nightmare. This compliance with criminal orders is itself criminal, even if this isn’t a crime against humanity but merely an attack on the arts.
Let’s not mourn this show, which has been so important to all of us. “Nureyev” will live on, in freedom.
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