Russia's Bolshoi Theater Crew Protests Director Kirill Serebrennikov's House Arrest Onstage

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Kirill Serebrennikov

The long-delayed first performance of controversial play 'Nureyev' goes ahead without the director's presence.

The production team of a controversial play about the life of gay Russian ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev, performed for the first time over the weekend at Moscow's Bolshoi Ballet, staged a bold onstage protest over the arrest and continued detention of the play's director, Kirill Serebrennikov.

The protest came as the curtain fell, when members of the production team appeared onstage wearing T-shirts with images of Serebrennikov's face and the words "Free the director."

Their presence, in front of an audience largely made up of Moscow's political and social elite, including President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, did nothing to stop lengthy standing ovations for the play. Alexei Kudrin, a former finance minister, later tweeted: "It is unfair that Kirill Serebrennikov was not at his own premiere."

The opening of the play, which ran for two nights only, had been delayed since the summer, when its sudden postponement signaled problems for Serebrennikov, one of Russia's leading theater and film directors.

Serebrennikov, who was also artistic director of Moscow's avant-garde theater Gogol Centre, was subsequently charged along with others in connection with a $1 million fraud involving state funds and, in late August, placed under house arrest.

The production of Nureyev, which had drawn criticism in Russia for its frank portrayal of the ballet star's gay lifestyle, was said at the time to have been postponed for "technical" reasons.

The two performances over the weekend were, the Bolshoi said, staged with the assent of Serebrennikov, though authorities refused permission for the director to attend both rehearsals and performances, which came days after a Moscow court extended his house arrest through Jan. 19.

Ticket sales to the public were limited for the two performances, with most tickets going to members of Russia's social and political elite.

The play, which is focused around an auction of Nureyev's belongings, uses individual items to serve as ways into telling aspect's of the story of the dancer — who defected from the Soviet Union to the West while in Paris in 1961.

The irony that the creative force behind the play is the victim of what supporters say are politically motivated charges and was not present at the premiere was not lost on some Russian commentators.

Anna Golubeva, a journalist for the Echo of Moscow radio station, said: "Serebrennikov has united the nation. A pity he sits at home and does not see for himself."