The ugly side of Russian beauty

An acid attack on the Bolshoi's artistic director has laid bare toxic rivalries behind the scenes

Moscow

When a masked assailant ran up to Sergei Filin outside his Moscow home, splashing his face with liquid that turned out to be acid, the long-simmering conflict within the Bolshoi Ballet took on a chilling new dimension. Russia's most prestigious theatre has been riven with intrigue for many years, and the petty bickering and public insults that have come from those dancers unhappy with the theatre's personnel and repertoire policy have almost become part of the theatre's brand. But never before have the rivalries escalated into a full-blown physical attack.

Mr Filin, 42, was made artistic director of the Bolshoi's ballet troupe in 2011. Although he had previously received threats, had his email account hacked and messages published online, and had the tyres slashed on his car, the acid attack on him on Thursday last week has plunged the Moscow ballet world into shock and despair.

The first operation on his eyes, on Saturday, was a success, and he will undergo another operation this week. Doctors are confident that he will regain sight, though he also has severe burns to much of his face. Police have arrested one person believed to be behind the email hacking, but are still investigating the acid attack. A police spokesman said early tests suggest the assailant used sulphuric acid.

Mr Filin's personal assistant said yesterday that he is "an extremely courageous man", and is trying to continue as normal. He is discussing theatre matters from his hospital bed, and his family are reading him emails that come in. "We are hoping he will be back at the theatre within a couple of months," she said.

The attack has again shone the spotlight on intrigue at the Bolshoi, the iconic theatre located just a stone's throw from the Kremlin in central Moscow.

"He grew up in this theatre, and everyone here knows him well," said Anastasia Meskova, a Bolshoi soloist who previously danced in a pair with Mr Filin and now works in productions he directs. "He's very kind, but he's also extremely demanding in the best sense of the word. I just can't believe that among the people we know at the theatre there is someone who could do this."

The Bolshoi has always been something more than just a theatre. A symbol of Tsarist opulence, the Bolsheviks initially wanted to blow it up after the 1917 revolution. In the end, they kept the theatre, but transformed it into a symbol of Soviet power; Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin made key speeches from its stage, and at the height of the Great Terror in 1937 the NKVD secret police held a gala to celebrate their achievements. In the later Soviet years, both the opera and ballet troupes became world-famous, but political concerns meant that often those who were deemed "politically unreliable" were not allowed to travel on foreign tours.

The legendary ballet dancer Maya Plisetskaya, who danced at the Bolshoi for nearly five decades between 1943 and 1990, wrote in her autobiography about the backstage squabbling and infighting among different groups of dancers at the Bolshoi. She was persecuted both for her Jewish origins and for her unwillingness to attend the obligatory weekly Communist Party meetings at the theatre.

The rivalries continued into the post-Soviet era. The former Bolshoi ballerina Anastasia Volochkova, who was famously fired in 2003 for being too fat, said the Bolshoi's leadership, led by general director Anatoly Iksanov, is to blame for the deteriorating situation. "After I was fired, I was taking the theatre to court for unfair dismissal, because all the dancers had signed a document saying I was too heavy to lift, and they all came to me afterwards and apologised, saying they were forced into doing it," Ms Volochkova told The Independent yesterday. "People came to me with threats, even with knives, telling me to drop the case. Is that normal? Is this normal for a theatre?"

The Bolshoi administration has always denied that there was any ulterior motive behind Ms Volochkova's dismissal. It has also denied her claims that leading ballerinas were effectively pimped out by the theatre as escorts for wealthy Russian businessmen.

The Bolshoi's spokesperson, Katerina Novikova, admitted there is tension at the theatre, but said the common perception of all-out war among different dancing factions is exaggerated. "There are 220 dancers; there are 3,000 people at the theatre. Of course, when you take decisions there will be people who are unhappy with them," she said. "But this is not normal rivalry. This is the act of one crazy person, it does not mean that the theatre itself is in trouble."

There have long been signs that all is not well at the Bolshoi, however. Gennady Yanin resigned as director of the ballet troupe in 2011 after pornographic photographs in which he allegedly featured were posted online, and the squabbling has led to young talents, such as the dance pairing Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev, who are tipped for global stardom, leaving the Bolshoi for new pastures.

Nikolai Tsiskaridze, the Bolshoi's lead male dancer, has fallen out with the management and is effectively barred from dancing at the theatre. He has begun a public campaign against the leadership and has called for Mr Iksanov to be toppled. He wishes to take over himself. Over the weekend, the dancer said he had nothing to do with the acid attack, and added that he expected it was linked to personal or financial problems. "Such things have always happened," he told Moskovskii Komsomolets newspaper.

Ms Novikova, Mr Filin's assistant, and other sources at the theatre all insisted that Mr Filin has no personal or financial problems and were sure the attack was due to professional jealousies.

After the attack on Mr Filin, other Russian theatre directors have come forward to say they had also received physical threats. Kirill Serebrennikov, a radical young director who has staged an opera at the Bolshoi but is better known for his film and theatre work, published a threat he received on New Year's Eve via SMS. "If you don't get out of the Gogol Theatre, YOU will be next," reads the message, which came after one of his assistants was assaulted after leaving the theatre, a traditional Soviet-era institution that Mr Serebrennikov wants to modernise. "Happy new year… We'll beat you up properly this time. Watch out."

"It's unthinkable. We are artists, this is art," said Ms Meskova of the attack and threats. "What does any of this have to do with art? It is just disgusting."

Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tvReview: Bread-making skills of the Bake Off hopefuls put to the test
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Arts and Entertainment
Johhny Cash in 1969
musicDyess Colony, where singer grew up in Depression-era Arkansas, opens to the public
Arts and Entertainment
Army dreamers: Randy Couture, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tvReview: It's not going to set the comedy world alight but it's a gentle evening watch
Arts and Entertainment
Umar Ahmed and Kiran Sonia Sawar in ‘My Name Is...’
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
This year's Big Brother champion Helen Wood
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Full company in Ustinov's Studio's Bad Jews
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Harari Guido photographed Kate Bush over the course of 11 years
Music
Arts and Entertainment
Reviews have not been good for Jonathan Liebesman’s take on the much loved eighties cartoon
Film

A The film has amassed an estimated $28.7 million in its opening weekend

Arts and Entertainment
Untwitterably yours: Singer Morrissey has said he doesn't have a twitter account
Music

A statement was published on his fansite, True To You, following release of new album

Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
    eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

    eBay's enduring appeal

    The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

    'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
    Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

    Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

    Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
    Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

    Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

    After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
    Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

    Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

    After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
    Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

    Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

    Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
    7 best quadcopters and drones

    Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

    From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
    Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

    A descent into madness in America's heartlands

    David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
    BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

    BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

    Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home