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.’

In response to the petition, Putin’s spokesman Dmitri Peskov said that he was confident the Bolshoi would survive unscathed. But the scandal has brought some nasty things to light. The attack on Filin is explained by some insiders as a protest against Iksanov and the alleged financial looseness of his administration. The massive cost overruns on the billion-dollar restoration of the theatre were widely assumed to be the result of embezzlement. When the building reopened in 2011 (work had begun in 2005) the dancers found that studios had been reconfigured and historic fixtures had gone. Tsiskaridze said that the new marble foyers belonged in a ‘Turkish hotel’, a criticism so impolitic he wasn’t asked to perform at the gala opening.

The first performance after the renovations was supposed to be Mikhail Glinka’s 1836 opera A Life for the Tsar, but at the last minute Iksanov switched it for the mock-nationalist epic Ruslan and Ludmila. It was a controversial choice. The kitsch and rather risqué staging held up an unflattering mirror to the nouveau riche audience. There was heckling. The conductor, Vladimir Jurowski, noticed that the same catcalls came night after night from the same corners of the auditorium, as if they had been scripted. They spread to other productions, including The Nutcracker, suggesting a concerted effort to humiliate Iksanov. The embarrassments continued. Almost immediately after the opening, two star dancers, Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasilev, decamped to the Mikhailovsky Theatre in St Petersburg. In March 2011, the sexcapades of the ballet’s then deputy director Gennady Yanin were exposed on the internet. If this was an attempt to discredit him as a candidate for the top artistic job, it worked: Iksanov appointed Filin. Filin was a known quantity: a famous dancer, People’s Artist of the Russian Federation for 2001, with three years’ experience as artistic director of the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Theatre.

Iksanov and Filin have great power: they control the fate of individual dancers, promote careers, cast lucrative roles and direct the money that flows through the theatre. The government has launched an audit of the Bolshoi’s £70 million budget, including the £7.5 million presidential grant that supplements the dancers’ baseline salaries. Pensions are at risk, as are the various bonuses top dancers receive for each performance. The government claims the investigation was planned long ago, and is unconnected to recent events, but Filin’s spending is under scrutiny, the destination of individual grants especially. Dmitrichenko served on a committee that was supposed to decide how these grants were awarded, but was removed in December after he and a colleague challenged their distribution. Filin also drew criticism from the dancers for continuing to serve as leader of the theatre’s union after his appointment as artistic director. ‘Thus,’ as one of them put it, ‘for the past two years the union made decisions’ – concerning salaries, benefits and perks – ‘that were beneficial to the theatre administration and Filin personally.’ Dmitrichenko, the union’s previous leader, was re-elected by the members of the orchestra, opera and ballet after Filin, succumbing to pressure from the collective, stepped down. The vote seems to have taken place just before Dmitrichenko’s arrest.

‘I pity Pasha,’ one of the Bolshoi’s prima ballerinas, Svetlana Lunkina, posted on Facebook. ‘He was perhaps the one true fighter against corruption at the Bolshoi.’ Lunkina herself left the theatre last September, to live in self-imposed exile in Ontario with her husband, the producer Vladislav Moskalev, and their children. Threats connected to Moskalev’s business dealings prompted the move. Moskalev had his own hypothesis about the attack on Filin. In his view, it stemmed from Filin’s wish to take over from Iksanov as general director.

Filin’s ambitions had been encouraged by Vladimir Vinokur, an impresario with connections to ‘persons of influence’ in the Kremlin. Vinokur put several people forward for Iksanov’s position as a way of gaining influence over the operations of the theatre. Filin was one of them. Vinokur introduced him to a friend in the Kremlin who would help him arrange some gala concerts. Moskalev speculates that once inside the Kremlin, Filin ‘began to talk right and left about his prospects. Soon the puppetmasters who didn’t want Iksanov replaced heard about this. These puppetmasters organised the splashing of corrosive liquid in Filin’s face as a warning.’ There is no evidence to corroborate this tale, no suggestion as to who the ‘puppetmasters’ might be or the nature of their interest in the Bolshoi but money must be involved. Moskalev himself recently fell out with Vinokur, who was previously a business partner. ‘Vinokur persuaded Filin to find a way to dismiss Lunkina,’ Moskalev claims, ‘and asked him to spread false information about her in the theatre. It was psychological warfare against me.’ Tsiskaridze told me that ‘Filin boasted in September in front of the ballerinas who share Svetlana’s dressing room that she wouldn’t be returning! That’s how we found out. Everyone was horrified.’

Lunkina’s departure is a substantial loss for the Bolshoi. She has performed more than forty roles, and has a huge fan base. Tsiskaridze describes her, admiringly, as ‘the last Romantic ballerina’. She inherited her suppleness from her mother, a circus contortionist, but is known for more than her physical daring. She and Filin were partners in Romeo and Juliet and Anyuta, a melodrama inspired by Chekhov about a poor girl who leaves her true love, a student, for a prosperous landowner.[†] The relationship crossed over into real life. But that was more than a decade ago. Now Lunkina’s feelings for Filin are decidedly mixed: she continues to admire him as an artist, but disapproves of his lifestyle (‘he’s a shopaholic’) and what was said to be his habit of charging large fees for the privilege of an audition. After her daughter was born in 2009, Lunkina wanted to divide her time between teaching and dancing. She claims Filin told her that if she wanted to teach she would have to give up the stage. She was only 30. Training in the Bolshoi has always depended on younger dancers finding a mentor, a teacher they can relate to who still dances, so this was a break from tradition.

Lunkina remains connected to the intrigue at the Bolshoi from a distance. In a morning class at the theatre I watched six soloists and coryphées being coached through adagios and allegros by the retired ballerina Marina Kondratieva. As the dancers towelled off at the end of class, I asked their names, and was given one familiar one, Lunkina. ‘Hah, just like Svetlana!’ I said. ‘That’s my sister,’ Yulia Lunkina replied. She is one of Dmitrichenko’s supporters. Not everyone is. His detractors like to point out that before his arrest he was best known for the role of Ivan the Terrible. It was Ivan who commissioned St Basil’s Cathedral on Red Square. Legend has it that to ensure that the architects would never erect its equal, Ivan had them blinded.

Olga Smirnova, a 21-year-old superstar in the making, has long been mentored by Filin, who continues to coach her from his hospital room in Germany. Smirnova was not in top form when I saw her, having bruised a foot by mistiming a jump in La Bayadère. Of Filin and the ‘situation’, as she put it, she said: ‘I think the investigators should be left to do their work. Not everyone in the troupe is on Pavel Dmitrichenko’s side.’ She was relieved when I returned to questions about her work. It had been an easy Tuesday: three and a half hours of rehearsal with her coach and a dutiful pianist called Sasha. She went over some tape, though she hated watching herself, and looked forward to an evening trip to the sauna. Filin used to drive her home from the theatre, as he did on the night of the attack, dropping her off before continuing to his apartment. Now she was on her own.

*

The press officer at the Bolshoi is Katerina Novikova. Since the attack in January she has been trying to deal with a barrage of negative publicity. While fielding text messages and phone calls from Iksanov, Filin’s mother and a slew of theatre staff, she told me about her first job managing a St Petersburg mime troupe, and her work as a translator for the Mariinsky Theatre. She’s been running the press office at the Bolshoi for a dozen years, and somehow manages to empathise with all the dancers, even those who have opposed Filin. ‘The worst was Paris Match,’ she said, referring to an article in February entitled ‘Bolchoï, la danse macabre’. It profiled Tsiskaridze, representing him as the victim, in his own words, of a ‘Stalinist witch hunt’. He was, he said, like Maria Callas, whose countless detractors have all been forgotten while her star shines on.

Tsiskaridze used to be fun at parties, Novikova recalled, but she didn’t see him socially any more and she didn’t approve of his public campaign against her boss. Tsiskaridze appeared beside Volochkova on the talk show, nodding at her tales. In February, he called on ‘the authorities’ to liquidate the Bolshoi’s administration, and on 17 March he announced that, if asked, he was ‘absolutely prepared’ to replace Iksanov as general director. When I asked him if he feared for his safety, he said that his car was in for repair, meaning he walked a lot. ‘People constantly come up to me to say they’re on my side. If they want to shoot me, they’ll shoot me.’

Why, I asked Novikova, if the Bolshoi is a symbol of the nation, do the Russian media prey on its misfortunes? The answer, she said, was that ‘no one gives a damn.’ Although it is often said that the Russian media are state-controlled, that control is partial and inconsistent. Only one television station, RTR, is wholly owned by the government. Producers and reporters are certainly monitored when they speak about the Kremlin but when it comes to culture, anything goes. This makes many Russians sad. There is tremendous nostalgia within the Bolshoi for the era of Yuri Grigorovich, artistic director from 1964 to 1995 – from Brezhnev to Yeltsin. As the choreographer of ballets on heroic Soviet themes, he ensured that the theatre stood for something. Now it stands for a vague notion of ‘tradition’ championed by dancers like Lunkina, Tsiskaridze and Dmitrichenko, and challenged by Iksanov and Filin in their more adventurous, cosmopolitan programming. The Ministry of Culture pushes the Bolshoi to put on more and more performances. It’s treated like a factory, with five hundred shows on the books for 2013. Vladimir Medinsky, the culture minister, wants to be able to claim that on his watch the Bolshoi exceeded its norm.

‘They can’t force me,’ Tsiskaridze said when I asked, in February, why he had refused to take a lie detector test. He added, illogically, that ‘they need everyone to think that I’m hiding something. But they don’t tell me anything.’ Several other dancers refused to take the test, including Dmitrichenko and Filin’s immediate subordinate, Ruslan Pronin. A former classmate of Filin’s at the Moscow Choreographic Academy, Pronin entered the company as a lead dancer in 1988, performing character parts and solos in productions by three generations of choreographers, from Grigorovich to Alexei Ratmansky. He has danced the part of the illusionist Drosselmeyer in The Nutcracker and the sorcerer Von Rothbart in Swan Lake. Pronin is on the side of the old guard, but was picked by the more progressive Filin to serve as assistant artistic director. The two men fell out over Filin’s advancement of younger dancers like Smirnova and his pursuit of commercial ventures. Pronin has not been linked to the attack, but is the subject of a whispering campaign in the theatre. His contract as performer has just expired and, like Tsiskaridze’s, will not be renewed. He didn’t respond to my request for an interview. Filin has just had his 18th eye operation at the university hospital in Aachen. The latest procedure, a tissue transplant, lasted five hours, during which time – his wife reported on Facebook – he dreamed he could see again. He woke up in agony, his eyes sealed shut. There is still hope of saving his left eye, but grave doubts about the right.

Speaking to the press earlier in the spring, Filin gave Dmitrichenko a chance to implicate others: Dmitrichenko, he suggested, was just one of a ‘narrow circle of people’ who sought to force his resignation through extreme violence. Iksanov too has alleged that the ‘puppetmaster’ is still at large. And Filin’s lawyer, Tatiana Stukalova, declared on television that Dmitrichenko wasn’t acting alone: someone ‘permitted’ the attack. Pressed by a nervous interviewer, however, she declined to name names. ‘I think that that’s a question for the investigators.’ Pause. ‘Maybe we’ll never find out.’ By email in April, I asked what she thought about the coverage of the crime. ‘I believe that the media needed to give as much attention to this matter as they have, since the incident itself is so sensational,’ she wrote. ‘I think that when such tragedies happen to celebrities … the media are obliged to inform citizens of the results … The fact that this crime has been exposed should serve – along with the punishment that the suspects will suffer – as a warning to those planning to break the law in this way.’ According to Stukalova, the staff of the Bolshoi learned of Dmitrichenko’s arrest from the media. Lunkina, however, heard that Stukalova announced the news herself, after gathering together the corps de ballet, coryphées and soloists. Everyone, she reportedly said, had to stick to the line that they were glad the nightmare was ending.

The evening after Iskanov’s confrontational press conference about The Rite of Spring, the Perm ballet was in town to perform Prokofiev’s black comic ballet The Buffoon Who Out-Buffooned Seven Buffoons at the small Hermitage Theatre, half an hour’s walk from the Bolshoi. Novikova’s husband couldn’t make it, so I took his ticket. Friends and colleagues greeted her like a hero, teasing her about the happy life she must be leading. Someone proposed making a movie about the Bolshoi. She laughed, and agreed that recent events had everything a Hollywood scriptwriter would dream of. ‘Let’s do it,’ she said, turning to me excitedly. ‘I mean, let’s at least make some money out of it.’

22 June