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Gay 'Propaganda' Furor Brews Over Canceled Bolshoi Ballet About Nureyev

The Bolshoi Theater building is reflected in a plaque announcing the Nureyev ballet premiere in Moscow.

Did Russia's culture minister kill the premiere of a Bolshoi Theater ballet because it was too gay?

That's one question at the center of an escalating scandal over the last-minute cancellation of a highly anticipated biographical show about legendary Soviet ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev, who defected to the West in 1961.

Just days after the Bolshoi called off the premiere, Russia's state-run TASS news agency quoted an unidentified "source" as saying that Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky ordered the show postponed because it may constitute gay "propaganda."

A 2013 law bans disseminating "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations" to minors, a statute that rights activists and Western governments have denounced as discriminatory and stigmatizing of sexual minorities.

Leaked images, video, and anonymous interviews with people linked to the show -- which carries a warning that it is for audiences 18 or older -- indicate it features elements and storylines likely to irritate conservative spectators and activists, including nudity, transvestites, and Nureyev's homosexuality.

The original July 10 TASS report was subsequently deleted. And as the Russian news site Meduza noted, readers who went to the original link were redirected to a new link with a new article without the comments by the anonymous source about Medinsky's alleged intervention. (An archived version of the original report is available here).

The new report features a headline stating that Medinsky "supported" the Bolshoi leadership's decision "to postpone the premiere of Nureyev" and a denial by the culture minister, who has urged more patriotism in Russian culture and has been accused by detractors of revisionist propaganda.

"This didn't happen. We don't interfere in repertory politics and don't engage in censorship," Medinsky was quoted by TASS as saying.

TASS did not respond to RFE/RL's request for comment about the removal of the anonymous source's comments.

'Everyone Already Knew'

The Bolshoi's decision to postpone the show emerged on July 8, three days before the planned premiere, when the theater's press service confirmed the cancellation but did not provide a reason.

Amid the brewing storm over the ballet, written and directed by acclaimed and controversial director Kirill Serebrennikov, the Bolshoi's general director told reporters in Moscow that the premiere was postponed due to the "poor" quality of the ballet.

Vladimir Urin added, however, that a July 8 rehearsal showed promise and that the premiere would go forward in May 2018.

Commenting on Medinsky's alleged role in the postponement, Urin said that he spoke with the culture minister on July 9 "after everyone already knew that the show was canceled."

"He called and asked, 'Why was it canceled?' I told him the same thing I told you. He said he was calling because he didn't know what to tell journalists. And now he knows," Urin told a July 10 news conference in Moscow.

'Provocation' Or 'Propaganda'?

The cancellation triggered condemnation and expressions of despondence among some Bolshoi dancers, including Maria Aleksandrova, who likened the move to a notorious era of political terror under Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.

"The last time this happened in the theater was in the 1930s," Aleksandrova wrote on Instagram.

Urin was quoted by the Russian daily RBK as calling reports of alleged censorship by Medinsky a "provocation." "It's hard for me to say who might disseminate such provocations," he said.

Medinsky's first deputy, Vladimir Aristarkhov, told RBK that he was not aware of the reasons for the cancellation of Nureyev but added, "The propaganda of nontraditional relations is, without a doubt, unacceptable."

While the anonymous claim that Medinsky ordered the premiere halted due to gay "propaganda" was removed from the TASS article, a story based on the original report remained available on the website of Russia's state-run television news program Vesti.

The headline reads: Gay Propaganda Was Found In New Bolshoi Ballet Nureyev.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Russian Service
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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.