MOSCOW — A controversial ballet based on the life of Russian dance legend Rudolf Nureyev opened at the Bolshoi Theater 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 theater’s modern history, the Bolshoi in July canceled 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. At the time, Russian state news agency TASS quoted a source close to the culture ministry saying there were concerns about the ballet’s gay themes.

A month later, the production’s edgy director was charged with embezzling state funds. Under house arrest, he was unable to take part in rehearsals. Serebrennikov’s supporters alleged he was being punished for challenging the establishment, and that his production would be watered down.

Several audience members told AFP 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 film actress Alexandra Korendyuk, 28. The “wonderful” performance received a standing ovation, she said.

“For people who love the theater 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 theater announced in September the production would go ahead.

Serebrennikov, who heads Moscow’s innovative Gogol Center theater, is accused of defrauding the state of over $1 million 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 theater’s general director said 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.

At a rehearsal to which the media was admitted on Friday, Bolshoi staff said the production had undergone only minor technical changes since Serebrennikov was replaced. Serebrennikov has not commented publicly.

In one scene, dancers playing Nureyev and his lover, Danish dancer Erik Bruhn, perform a touching, sensuous dance intended to represent them falling in love. Another scene depicts Nureyev visiting a drag act in Paris, soon after arriving there having defected from the Soviet Union. During the rehearsal, a huge image of a completely naked Nureyev briefly appeared as the backdrop to the performance. When reports leaked into Russian media about that image earlier this year, it caused an outcry among social conservatives.

The ballet as performed on Friday also features a character reading official files on Nureyev from informers, alleging that in Paris he was spending time with “dubious people, some of them pederasts, among whom were clearly representatives of Western intelligence agencies.” The word “pederast” is often used in Russia as a derogatory term for homosexuals.

Russian government officials have yet to say what they think of the production.

Although homosexuality was decriminalized 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.

Theater management insisted at a press conference 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 theater in May. — AFP/Reuters