For decades, Russia's ballet dancers have had one dream - to dance at the Bolshoi. With the exception of a few defections to the West during the Soviet era, the Bolshoi is the company that everyone wants to join and no one wants to leave.

So the world of ballet was stunned when Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev, the Bolshoi's leading lights and two of the most famous dancers in the world, announced this week that just as the Bolshoi's historic new stage had reopened after a six-year renovation, they were leaving the theatre.

Even more surprising was their destination - the Mikhailovsky Theatre in St Petersburg. "If they had left us for La Scala, or Paris, or even the Mariinsky, then we would be sad, but we could understand," said Katerina Novikova, the Bolshoi's spokeswoman.

"But to lose them to the Mikhailovsky - a company that is barely known - it doesn't make any sense."

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Since 2007 Vladimir Kekhman - who made his fortune importing fruit and has been dubbed "the banana oligarch" - has thrown more than $61 million of his own money at the theatre, founded in 1833, with the aim of transforming it into a force to be contended with.

The signing of the Bolshoi's two stars is the biggest indication so far that his plan is succeeding. Most Russian ballet critics admit that the pair will have more freedom and crucially be given freer reign to tour abroad and take on guest engagements.

Both dancers denied that their move was motivated by financial considerations, and Osipova said her transfer was due to a "search for creative freedom".

But sceptics complain that Kekhman has pulled off a ballet version of Manchester City's prolific spending in the football world, simply luring the best talent away from rivals with promises of large wads of cash.

OLIGARCHS AND THE ARTS
Roman Abramovich

Funds his girlfriend Dasha Zhukova's Moscow art gallery, and has signed up to back the £260 million ($535 million) overhaul of an island in St Petersburg, which will feature another branch of Zhukova's gallery. Also bankrolled a tour by Moscow's Sovremennik theatre to London.

Viktor Vekselberg

Vekselberg not only has the obligatory oligarchic private art collection but has also paid for the repatriation of major Russian artworks. Most notably, he has collected Fabergé eggs, the elaborate ornaments made for the Tsars.

Vladimir Potanin

Made his billions in metals, and now a major donor to St Petersburg's Hermitage Museum. His foundation also sprinkles donations across other artistic causes, and he sits on the board of the Guggenheim Foundation.

- Independent