More Tales from the Bolshoi

Simon Morrison

On 19 March, Anatoly Iksanov, the general director of the Bolshoi Theatre, held a press conference in Moscow to announce a month-long festival to celebrate the centenary of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. His aim was to reclaim the ballet for the nation that inspired it. (It had its premiere in Paris in 1913.) Most of the journalists who cleared the metal detectors were familiar faces trusted by the Bolshoi’s administration. Iksanov introduced the choreographers of the season’s four new productions, then fell silent. In February the avant-garde choreographer Wayne McGregor, who had been due to put together an entirely new production of The Rite of Spring, suddenly pulled out, leaving the Bolshoi scrambling to find a replacement. McGregor had received the commission in 2009; the concept was settled and the set designed. He hasn’t publicly explained his withdrawal, although it’s generally assumed that the recent scandals surrounding the company – most notoriously the acid attack in January on Sergei Filin, the artistic director of the Bolshoi – scared him off.

When Iksanov opened the floor to questions, one of the reporters asked about another scandal. Two days earlier, Anastasia Volochkova, a former Bolshoi ballerina, suggested on a TV talk show that the Bolshoi pimped out its younger dancers ‘to the rich and influential’. The story first surfaced in 2011, but then quickly faded. As a source Volochkova was parti pris. Iksanov fired her in 2003 for being overweight; she sued, and although a judge ordered her reinstatement, she hasn’t danced in the theatre since. Iksanov must have expected to be asked about Volochkova but he bristled even so.

In the first days after the attack on Filin, as reports circulated of his disfigurement and possible blinding, people said that someone inside the Bolshoi was responsible. Was it Nikolai Tsiskaridze, a senior dancer who had long been critical of the administration, and whose students, he claimed, had been denied the star turns they deserved? Or was it a broader conspiracy connected to Filin’s financial decisions? Now 39, Tsiskaridze is long past his prime as a soloist, and has been confined to character roles. He liked being in the New Year’s Eve performances of The Nutcracker: ‘$1500 a ticket at the official rate,’ he boasted to me, ‘and Iksanov says I can’t dance.’[*] In May, his lawyer threatened to sue the theatre in response to the reprimands he had received from Iksanov for speaking out. On 7 June, Zavtra broke the news that his two contracts with the Bolshoi, as performer and teacher, had been cancelled. The next day he confirmed this to me by text message: ‘What did you expect? It’s a gang there.’ A few of his supporters mounted a protest on 15 June in front of the theatre, inspired by his declaration in Le Figaro that ‘Le Bolchoï, c’est moi.’ But the Bolshoi is divided against itself: Tsiskaridze stands with the old guard – those dancers attached to traditional stagings of the Russian repertoire as opposed to the innovative productions favoured by Iksanov and Filin. Conflicts between conservatives and progressives, dancers and administration, abound over what is staged, how it is prepared, who is cast and how much they are paid.

From left to right, Iksanov, Filin, Dmitrichenko, Tsiskaridze.
From left to right, Iksanov, Filin, Dmitrichenko, Tsiskaridze.

At the beginning of March, Pavel Dmitrichenko, a lead dancer, confessed to having paid 50,000 rubles (£1000) to a thuggish acquaintance to carry out the assault. But many dancers didn’t believe him. Money is tight at home: he has ageing parents as well as a daughter to support. Nearly three hundred of his colleagues at the Bolshoi signed a petition addressed to Putin, protesting his innocence and pleading for ‘a fair and impartial investigation into the tragedy’. Dmitrichenko, they noted, had been interrogated non-stop for 18 hours before he signed the confession. If convicted, he faces up to 12 years in prison. He has been held on remand since March. His trial was promised for June but has now been postponed until August.

Dmitrichenko’s lawyers include Violetta Volkova, who defended the two imprisoned members of the punk rock group Pussy Riot (she is working for him pro bono). Pleas to have him released under guard to give him a chance to exercise have been unsuccessful. Dmitrichenko retracted his confession in a note addressed to his supporters: ‘I didn’t arrange for acid to be spilled onto Filin. It’s not manly behaviour. I would never have done such a thing, never mind paying for it!!! Thanks a million for not being afraid to speak out in my support. I embrace and love you. Your colleague, Pasha.’

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