MOSCOW (AFP) – Russia's legendary Bolshoi Ballet next week begins a tour to London seeking to show it remains one of the greatest dance companies in the world, despite a season plagued by scandal and the attack on its artistic director.
Since the Bolshoi's first tour to London at the height of the Cold War in 1956, visits to the British capital have been a major calling card and a showcase for its talents.
"In Moscow, we are one of the theatres that people visit. But in London, people have been waiting for us for several years and it is always an event. We feel this," Bolshoi prima ballerina Maria Alexandrova, who will star in several of the performances, told AFP.
"What I want is for the (Bolshoi) theatre to look as good and interesting as possible -- this theatre is my favourite place and I really care for it," added Alexandrova, a people's artist of Russia, the country's highest artistic accolade.
The Bolshoi's famous tour in 1956 saw London swoon over the talents of great Soviet ballerina Galina Ulanova and subsequent visits left the Moscow company with an almost mythical reputation for its epic and supremely athletic style.
Yet this year's tour, which begins on July 29 with "Swan Lake" at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, could not be taking place against a more troubled background as artistic director Sergei Filin seeks to recover some vision in a German clinic after having acid thrown in his face.
One of the company's dancers, soloist Pavel Dmitrichenko, is currently in detention awaiting trial on charges of organising the attack.
Star dancer Nikolai Tsiskaridze was fired after falling out with management in the wake of the attack while prima ballerina Svetlana Zakharova walked out of a new production of the ballet "Onegin" in a huff after not being chosen to dance on the first night.
To cap it all, the Bolshoi will travel to London with a new general director, Vladimir Urin, after previous incumbent Anatoly Iksanov was forced out earlier this month.
"All these scandals have touched us," Alexandrova acknowledged.
"But the people of the Bolshoi are unbelievable professionals and everyone finds consolation in their work. This is why we come to the theatre -- not for scandals but to be on stage."
Alexandrova vehemently denied there was any split in the company. "We have all known each other a long time. It's a situation like in a family when something happens."
Galina Stepanenko, a former prima ballerina who is acting artistic director in Filin's absence, said that the company was on "splendid" form for the three-week residency at Covent Garden.
"Any tour there for us is a huge responsibility as London has great and varied cultural life," she told AFP. "We are on a creative rise and the company is totally ready."
Zakharova, one of the world's pre-eminent dancers, will dance in the opening night "Swan Lake" and Londoners will then enjoy the Bolshoi's productions of "Sleeping Beauty" and "La Bayadere".
Also on offer are George Balanchine's 20th century masterpiece "Jewels" and "Flames of Paris", a resurrection of a Soviet ballet about the French revolution by contemporary choreographer Alexei Ratmansky.
Most intriguingly of all, the August 16 performance of "Flames of Paris" will star Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev, the real-life star couple who spectacularly quit the Bolshoi in 2011 before the scandals broke.
It will be the first time they have danced with the company since and the performance has been sold out for months. Stepenanko said there were as yet unconfirmed plans for the couple to return to Moscow to dance with the company as guest stars next season.
A London tour can also propel younger dancers to instant stardom and British critics will be awaiting performances by rising ballerina Olga Smirnova and charismatic male dancer Vladislav Lantratov who have already impressed at home.
Stepanenko said Filin was still playing a role in the life of the company from his clinic in Germany and the Bolshoi hoped to see him back in the next season. "He is aware of all that is happening and is taking an active role in what is going on," she said.