It is a story that could have been written by Pushkin, staged by the great French-Russian ballet dancer Petipa and set to Tchaikovsky. The artistic head of the world’s most renowned ballet troupe is savagely attacked outside his Moscow home. The backdrop: mutual back-stabbing, soaring egos, and allegations of corruption at Bolshoi Theatre.
In the two weeks since a masked assailant doused the face of the Bolshoi’s artistic director Sergei Filin in acid, a clearer picture has emerged of the troubles besetting the theatre.
As the police pull aside ballerinas for interrogation, sometimes hours before they are due to perform to a packed house, the dancers and Bolshoi staff are running through their own list of possible motives for the crime. They say the attack transcends the many theatrical scandals in the Bolshoi’s long history and comes against the backdrop of a bitter rift between Mr Filin and a rival.
In multiple interviews this week, members of the Bolshoi’s troupe and staff shared with the Financial Times their theories about the attack – money, ambition, artistic rivalry, a love affair gone awry. In a sign of how poisonous and conspiratorial the atmosphere has become, some have even asked whether Mr Filin, who suffered third-degree burns to his face and neck, staged the attack himself – an accusation to be aired this weekend on one of Russia’s main TV channels.
“It is an absurdity, such an insane idea. But I understand where it is coming from,” Anastasia Meskova, a Bolshoi ballerina, said of the latest conspiracy. “Because truly you throw up your hands, you just can’t explain it. You think, maybe this? But of course not! Maybe that? Of course not!”
Svetlana Lunkina, a principal ballerina at the Bolshoi who this week revealed she had been forced to flee Russia last year because of threats against her and her husband, said she had spent the days since the January 17th attack on Mr Filin scouring Facebook for hints about why it happened.
“Maybe it was personal, maybe it was theatre-related. Nothing like this has ever happened before,” she said.
“Yes, we have had intrigues like any theatre, with someone envying someone else, someone having more roles… But that’s normal, it is probably part of the internal artistic process. The attack [on Mr Filin] itself is so awful, so low, I cannot imagine what sort of person could resort to it. The Bolshoi is the face of our country.” An institution founded under Catherine the Great, the Bolshoi has survived multiple fires, a second world war bombing and the early Soviet days, when the Bolsheviks considered closing the theatre down.
The scandal comes amid a split in the theatre between those who side with Mr Filin, the boyishly handsome 42-year-old who has held the job since 2011, and those who side with his Georgian rival, Nikolai Tsiskaridze, a Bolshoi prodigy like Mr Filin and a household name in the west.
Mr Tsiskaridze, 39, has waged battle with Mr Filin and the theatre’s general director Anatoly Iksanov for years, accusing the administration of mismanagement and corruption, which it hotly denies. In particular he lambasts a $1bn renovation completed in 2011, which he labelled no better than a “Turkish hotel”.
Just two months ago, his supporters wrote to President Vladimir Putin, demanding that Mr Filin be removed immediately in favour of their own star.
While no one has accused Mr Tsiskaridze directly of the acid attack on Mr Filin, investigators appear to be subjecting his allies to increased scrutiny. Certain dancers have been called in repeatedly for interrogation, while the Bolshoi’s management has pointed to the culprit being from within the theatre itself.
“[The assault] is clearly tied with his profession. Someone is trying to create a divide and disagreement in the theatre’s management,” Mr Iksanov told journalists immediately after the attack. Bolshoi spokeswoman Katerina Novikova told a Russian radio station that the assault was rooted in “the fight for [Mr Filin’s] post, for parts”.
Mr Tsiskaridze has hit back, making much of his full co-operation with investigators and his solid alibi – he says he was at a theatre event.
But he has also turned the accusations back on the Bolshoi’s leadership.
“The reputation of the whole country is suffering because the theatre is being run by people who understand and respect nothing,” the dancer told the FT.
“The moment they allowed themselves to say it was someone on the inside, they humiliated the long history of this theatre and the people who work here. The whole world is talking about corruption, intrigue and a criminal offence.”
Mr Tsiskaridze said he had nothing to fear. However, another dancer who has also been critical of management feared the administration would seek to pin the blame on critics. A conviction in Russia could be secured simply by planting narcotics in the accused’s home, the dancer said.
The attack caps a tumultuous decade for the Bolshoi, now on its fourth artistic director since 2000. Another sore spot has been the over-budget renovation, during which corruption allegations bubbled to the surface.
While most at the Bolshoi praise the theatre’s carefully restored gold leaf mouldings and mosaic floors – and the replacement at last of the hammer and sickle with imperial Russia’s three-headed eagle – others including Mr Tsiskaridze complain about cramped rehearsal spaces: an indication, they say, that the improvements were not made with the performers in mind.
Front-row seats can sell for as much as Rb22,000 – more than $730 – yet most of the ballerinas live on the salaries of a lowly civil servant. One dancer complained: “Part of the income is divided among us, but we don’t get the money we deserve.”
Mr Filin is still in a Moscow hospital but is expected to regain his sight. From his hospital bed, he gives pep talks to the dancers by video conference and the show goes on.
Galina Stepanenko, a feisty former prima ballerina, has stepped into his shoes, and his office, for the time being, as echoes of the scandal continue to ricochet around Moscow.
A few floors above her, two dozen ballerinas in tutus circle the stage en point, preparing for Saturday’s performance of Swan Lake. Below, the silver-haired babushki who perform the theatre’s menial tasks sit in a corner learning the ballet’s original tongue, French.
Elena, whose job is to deliver admirers’ bouquets to the stars, wells up when asked about Mr Filin. “He was raised in our academy and grew up before our eyes. We regard him as our own child,” she says. Svetlana, a second-generation Bolshoi usher, recalls the time the director stopped to give her his best wishes on a holiday. “He is so democratic,” she gushes. “I had assumed the artists were different from us.”
Then she lowers her voice. “When he came he brought in a lot of new soloists. Probably it’s envy, competition. Everyone wants to dance and everyone wants to top the bill.”
Amid the hallowed, even ethereal ambience of Russia’s finest ballet, the ugliness of the attack on Mr Fillin is a brutal shock. “We have all grown up in rather different atmosphere to ordinary people,” says Ms Meskova, the ballerina.
“We are people of culture, people of art. I cannot understand how something like that could have happened alongside art like this.”
High drama fit for the stage
Passions run high over productions
The attack is the latest of several controversies to grip the Bolshoi, where passions have run high over the past decade.
The theatre’s production of the opera Eugene Onegin in 2006 offended traditionalists to such an extent that Galina Vishnevskaya, the legendary soprano, vowed never to set foot in it again. “To the end of my days I will not escape my shame at participating in that public desecration of our sacred national treasure,” she wrote to the theatre’s management.
Anastasia Volochkova, a longtime survivor of backstage battles, told the Washington Post she was surrounded by “jealousy and evil insults”. She described the drama of the movie Black Swan as “little flowers” compared with the intrigues of the Bolshoi ballet.
Her contract was terminated in 2003 reportedly because she was deemed too tall and too heavy. A Moscow court ordered her dismissal overturned and awarded her thousands of dollars in damages. Yet while Ms Volochkova was reinstated, she never performed at the Bolshoi again.
Since 2000, the theatre has gone through four different artistic directors. Alexei Ratmansky quit as head of the ballet in 2008, complaining of the “weight of habit and tradition”. Just a year later, musical director Alexander Vedernikov suddenly stepped down on the first day of an Italian tour, accusing the theatre of putting “bureaucratic interests before artistic ones”.
Sergei Filin’s predecessor Gennady Yanin abruptly resigned in 2011 after gay pornographic photos of him were posted on the internet.