When the Bolshoi unveiled its take on a Russian literature classic this week, among the dancers was a Paralympian who lost his leg to frostbite while serving in the Russian army, swirling on stage in his wheelchair.
Wednesday's premiere of Mikhail Lermontov's "A Hero of Our Time" marked the first time that wheelchair dancers appeared on the stage of the world's premier ballet theatre, which had to modify its storied house near the Red Square to accommodate them.
"The Bolshoi is a traditional ode to the body, to health," said Kirill Serebrennikov, who directed the production. "We wanted to show that people commonly associated with a bodily deficiency are just as beautiful."
"There has never been anything like this in the world," said Konstantin Vasilyev, who coaches the dancers.
The lavish production, which blends ballet with opera arias, marks several other firsts -- the first time that Lermontov's classic has been made into a ballet and the first ballet for Serebrennikov, a film and theatre director who has fallen out of favour in increasingly authoritarian Russia for his socially-charged and edgy creations.
The production adapts Lermontov's 19th-century work whose Byronic main character, Grigory Pechorin, callously casts aside romantic conquests while serving in the Caucasus mountains in the tsarist era.
The three members of Russia's wheelchair dance sport team play wounded soldiers.
Initially the ballet's producers planned to use able-bodied dancers in wheelchairs.
"When we came to show them what we can do, they decided to develop more complicated choreography," Vasilyev told AFP.
The theatre itself had to update some of its facilities to make them wheelchair-accessible for the dancers.
- Director falls out of favour -
"Hero of Our Time" comes out as Serebrennikov, director of several critically acclaimed films and cutting-edge plays and operas, is rapidly falling out of favour with Russia's cultural authorities.
Last month, prosecutors asked to check seven of his productions for possible pornography, and Russia's culture minister denounced his adaptation of the classics as inappropriate.
Activists from conservative groups have protested against his state-funded theatre, Gogol Centre, once installing a naked cutout of the director outside.
Under fire at home, Serebrennikov this month was a rare Russian presence at the Avignon Festival, with his theatrical version of Lars Von Trier's 1998 film, "The Idiots."
He previously staged an opera at the Bolshoi in 2011.
His adaptation of "A Hero of Our Time" was delayed several years after a brutal acid attack in 2013 on the Bolshoi's artistic director Sergei Filin threw the theatre into turmoil.
The choreography is by Yuri Possokhov, a former Bolshoi principal dancer who is a longtime choreographer in residence at the San Francisco Ballet.
The dense score by composer Ilya Demutsky is inspired by Prokofiev and Stravinsky and written in a "classic symphonic style" despite the unusual use of operatic arias, the composer said.
The ballet casts the Bolshoi's young soloists Igor Tsvirko, Artyom Ovcharenko and Ruslan Skvortsov to play three different Pechorins over the course of the plot.
Rising star Olga Smirnova dances the role of Bela, a proud Caucasian princess Pechorin abducts and who falls passionately in love with him.
Prima Svetlana Zakharova plays Princess Mary, a naive young girl Pechorin cynically seduces and woos away from his friend, a fellow officer.
The ballet begins with a starkly minimalistic set for the act in the Caucasus mountains before moving to a busy spa resort where a mix of high society and wounded soldiers use 19th century exercise machines in a manner boarding on slapstick.
The composer Demutsky has previously dabbled in taboo subjects: his opera "The Closing Statement of the Accused" was inspired by the 2012 courtroom drama of the Pussy Riot punks.
Last year he was attacked in his native Saint Petersburg over another controversial opera about a man who hunts down and tortures paedophiles. The opera never saw the light of day after two venues cancelled it.