Russia's famous Bolshoi Theatre premiered the disputed Nureyev ballet after the director was placed under house arrest on fraud charges.

A woman holds a poster announcing the
A woman holds a poster announcing the "Nureyev" ballet premiere at the Bolshoi theatre hall on December 8, 2017 in Moscow. (AFP)

A controversial ballet based on the life of Russian dance legend Rudolf Nureyev opened at the Bolshoi Theatre on Saturday, despite an earlier premiere being pulled at the last minute and its director remaining under house arrest.

In a move unprecedented in the Moscow theatre's modern history, the Bolshoi in July cancelled the world premiere of Nureyev just three days before opening night, after director Kirill Serebrennikov was questioned in a criminal probe.

Serebrennikov was placed under house arrest in August in a fraud case supporters say is part of a politically motivated crackdown on Russia's arts community ahead of presidential elections next year.

Management cited an under-rehearsed cast for the delayed premiere but speculation swirled that it had been pulled because of the investigation or the ballet's treatment of Nureyev's homosexuality.

Several audience members said they had come to the opening night to show support for the director.

"I'm sure Kirill's talent will always be appreciated, with all my heart I wish him creative freedom and I'm sure that all the people who were here tonight will wish the same thing," said 28-year-old film actress Alexandra Korendyuk.

The "wonderful" performance received a standing ovation, she said.

"For people who love the theatre and ballet it was very touching, everyone worked incredibly well, and freedom to Kirill Serebrennikov," said actor Gurgen Tsaturyan, 46.

Some audience members were wearing t-shirts with the slogan "freedom to the director", he added.

Muscovites queued for hours to buy tickets for two performances of the new ballet when they went on sale last month, after the theatre announced in September the production would go ahead.

Adult audiences only

Serebrennikov, who heads Moscow's innovative Gogol Centre theatre, is accused of defrauding the state of over a million dollars in arts funding.

The director has dismissed the case against him as "absurd".

A request from the Bolshoi to Russia's Investigative Committee that Serebrennikov be released to attend final rehearsals was not answered, the theatre's general director said on Friday.

Dozens of prominent figures in Russia and international stars, including Cate Blanchett and Ian McKellen have called for Serebrennikov to be released without charge.

Nureyev, choreographed by Yuri Possokhov, charts the life of the superstar dancer who defected from the Soviet Union and found new fame in the West before dying from an AIDS-related illness in 1993.

The production, which features a gay love duet, cross-dressing male dancers and flashes of nudity in projected photographs of Nureyev, has been approved for adult audiences only.

Although homosexuality was decriminalised in Russia in 1993, prejudice is common and human rights activists report widespread harassment and abuse.

In 2013, Russia passed a law banning "gay propaganda" that has been denounced by the European Court of Human Rights.

Theatre management insisted at a press conference on Friday that it had not imposed any changes on Nureyev since July, but Russian journalists comparing a final run-through to a video of summer rehearsals said nudity had been scaled back.

The Bolshoi announced on Friday that the production would return to the theatre in May.

Source: AFP