Uncivil war rages on behind the doors of the Bolshoi

Katie is an award-winning arts journalist specialising in dance and physical theatre
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It's been almost a month since the chilling acid attack on Bolshoi Artistic Director, Sergei Filin, outside his home in Moscow that left him with third degree burns and severely damaged eyesight.

No sooner had word reached the papers about the abhorrent assault, than reports were emerging that Filin was directing the company (due their first London visit under his directorship this summer) from his hospital bed, casting ballets and making decisions about the theatre, although former Bolshoi principal Galina Stepanenko, has now been named acting artistic director for the company.

What followed was a media flurry with enough drama and scandal to rival the ballets put on in the recently renovated Bolshoi Theatre, unearthing old and bitter disputes from inside the company. For years, there has been notorious infighting at the Bolshoi. The level of competition within the company is extreme, with the highest levels of celebrity achieved by the top ranks of the company and rumours of the desperate struggles to get there. Clashes over casting, disagreements about which ballets to produce and fanatical fans clamouring to show loyalty, abound.

And then there are the disturbing rumours including that of a dead cat being hurled onto the stage instead of flowers, alarm clocks set to go off during important moments in the ballet, needles in costumes and crushed glass being put into dancers’ pointe shoes.

Since the fall of communism in 1989 the rivalry within the ballet world between the conservatives and modernisers has been reflective of clashes elsewhere in Russia: In 1995, Oleg Vinogradov - now Kirov director, then artistic director of the Mariinsky -  was allegedly attacked by the Russian mafia; Bolshoi director Alexei Ratmansky, who bought new commissions and new dancers to the company was pushed out in 2008 by conservatives who hark back to the days of Yuri Grigorovich (artistic director during the late Soviet era, who was ousted in 1995 after 31 years in the role); Gennady Yanin, Bolshoi director in 2011 was forced to resign after graphic pictures of a man who looked like him in bed with other men appeared on the internet – said at the time to have been posted by the conservatives as homosexuality is still taboo in Russia, having been legalised only in 1993.

Last week, Ratmansky took to Facebook about the recent attack, saying: "What happened with Sergei Filin was not accidental. The Bolshoi has many ills. It's a disgusting cesspool, of those developing friendships with the artists, the speculators and scalpers, the half-crazy fans ready to bite the throats of the rivals of their favourites... This is all one snowball caused by the lack of any ethics at the theatre.”

Throughout, Filin has demonstrated in the extreme, balletic values of strength and resilience, but also grace and discipline. He has carried himself with dignity, saying he forgives his attackers “because man is weak”. On his way from Moscow to Germany to receive treatment to save his eyesight, he commented: “I feel well, I’d say even great, if only my eyes could see a bit better.” He then added “one day I will be able to see my children again”.

Shortly before the acid attack, Filin’s computer was hacked, his car vandalised and he received a number of threatening phone calls. He was offered protection, but thought it wouldn’t become physical. He said at the time that the attacker’s aim was to “remove me as the Bolshoi's artistic director for a long period, and to damage the reputation of the Bolshoi Ballet”. When interviewed from his hospital bed, the 42-year-old said he was "absolutely certain" he knew who was behind the attack.

Bolshoi star Nikolai Tsiskaridze – one of the most famous dancers of the company, rival for Filin’s position as director and longstanding critic of its management, describes the allegations against him as a “witch hunt”, saying that “it’s like being back in the days of Josef Stalin and that the Bolshoi general director is trying to get rid of all the people they don’t like.”


General director of the Bolshoi Anatoly Iksanov has been outspoken about his view claiming:

“Tsiskaridze is like an abscess. All his worldwide speaking bad about his own home which made him a star, and he is doing it and he never stops and he will not be stopped. Without any punishment or any reaction, he is free to do what he wants – it brings an unhealthy atmosphere inside the company. I am not ashamed to say it openly, because evil has now appeared here.”

Tsiskaridze denies any involvement in the attack and was at the Moscow Arts Theatre alongside thousands of others at the time of the event. But he has recently caused controversy by seeming to question whether the attack happened at all after seeing Filin’s unbandaged face, and saying the whole thing is actually a conspiracy against him. He told the BBC:

“God forbid, if that really was acid, you wouldn’t be able to show your face for months. I don’t know what the substance was but it’s clear that it wasn’t what they claim it is. And if you look at all the specially commissioned TV shows which have been hinting at my involvement, it looks like a campaign - against me. This isn’t against Sergei Filin. It’s directed against me.”

A Bolshoi spokeswoman later dismissed the suggestion, saying: “I’m speechless. I don’t care what Tsiskaridze thinks about it.”

It’s clear that this isn’t a cut and dried situation – it’s dangerous and murky and all the facts are not yet known – and I wonder if they will ever be, in their entirety. For now, all we can do is look at the stories as they emerge – Moscow police have stated they will name the attacker as soon as an arrest has been made.