MOSCOW — The stories about vengeance at the Bolshoi Ballet
go back centuries: The rival who hid an alarm clock in the audience, timed to go off during Giselle’s mad scene
, or who threw a dead cat onto the stage at curtain in lieu of flowers. There are whispers of needles inserted in costumes, to be discovered in midpirouette, or — the worst — broken glass nestled in the tip of a toeshoe.
But this ballet-loving city awoke on Friday to a special horror. A masked man had flung acid in the face of Sergei Filin, the artistic director of the Bolshoi, causing third-degree burns and severely damaging his eyes. Video from the hospital
showed Mr. Filin’s head covered entirely in bandages, with openings for his eyes and mouth, his eyelids grossly swollen.
Though police officials said they were exploring theories including disputes over money, Mr. Filin’s colleagues at the Bolshoi said they suspected professional jealousy. In recent weeks Mr. Filin’s tires had been slashed, his car scratched, his two cellphones disabled, his personal e-mail account hacked and private correspondence published, according to Bolshoi officials. On the day of the acid attack, Mr. Filin had met with the Bolshoi’s general director, Anatoly Iksanov, and confided that he was beginning to worry about his children’s safety.
“Sergei told me that he had the feeling that he was on the front line,” Mr. Iksanov said at a news conference on Friday. “I told him, ‘Sergei, I’ve already been on the front line for the last two years, it is part of our profession, the profession of the leadership, so it’s normal.’ ” Then Mr. Iksanov paused. “No, no, it’s not normal,” he said.
The attack provoked a day of soul-searching. The Bolshoi is a revered place in Russia; when its historic stage reopened in 2011
, after a six-year restoration, the country’s elite arranged themselves in crimson-lined boxes, and hundreds of less fortunate people — cabdrivers and cleaners — stood on the street outside for hours on a cold, blustery night to watch the performance on a screen. The ballet’s leadership has experienced poisonous infighting recently as a number of artistic directors have struggled to put their stamp on a deeply traditional company. Two years ago the company’s director, Gennady Yanin
, resigned after a message with a link showing sexually explicit pictures of someone who resembled him was sent to e-mail addresses in Russia and elsewhere.
Gedeminas Taranda, who was a principal dancer at the Bolshoi during the Soviet era, said that there were always rival camps within the company, but that the attack on Mr. Filin had a viciousness that he and his contemporaries could not have imagined.
“Nothing like that happened in our times,” he said on a talk show on Channel One. “We were ready to go out on the street, toe to toe, but it was impossible to think about anything like this. We could have gone and fought it out like real Russian people, although it was still ballet, and all that.”
Old and new have been colliding at the Bolshoi since the late 1980s, when upstart dancers rose up against the longtime artistic director, Yuri Grigorovich, and the rigid Soviet classicism he represented. He resigned in 1995
, but his successors have not had an easy time of it.
Mr. Filin, who is 42, signed a five-year contract as artistic director in 2011. After the scandal of Mr. Yanin’s departure, he was seen as “the political and cultural bridge that the Bolshoi needs,” combining the pedigree of a Bolshoi dancer and a record as an innovator at Moscow’s second-tier company, the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Ballet, wrote Judith Mackrell, a dance critic for the British newspaper The Guardian
. Among his first big decisions was to hire David Hallberg of American Ballet Theater as a principal dancer
— the first American to hold that coveted status, which has typically gone to Russian-trained dancers.
Mr. Filin’s leadership has not stood out as especially controversial, though he suffered a blow in 2011 when two of his stars, Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev, left the Bolshoi
for a lesser-known company in St. Petersburg, the Mikhailovsky Theater. Anastasia Volochkova, a former Bolshoi ballerina, said his power to assign roles made him the focus of sometimes passionate resentment.
“Sergei didn’t do anything he could be condemned for,” Ms. Volochkova said in an interview with Ekho Moskvy, a radio station. “This position is, of course, a sweet one. The head of the ballet decides everything — who will dance certain roles, and who won’t dance them.”
One simmering conflict has involved Nikolai Tsiskaridze, a popular principal dancer who last year harshly criticized the reconstruction of the Bolshoi Theater and has publicly clashed with the company’s leadership since then. A group of his supporters petitioned President Vladimir V. Putin in November, requesting that Mr. Tsiskaridze be appointed director of the Bolshoi.
Katerina Novikova, the theater’s press secretary, said that Mr. Filin began receiving threats soon after he took his post. Dilyara Timergazina, his assistant and adviser, said they had become increasingly oppressive in recent weeks. She said a relative had offered to supply Mr. Filin with a bodyguard, but Mr. Filin refused because he did not believe the threats would lead to physical violence.
The threats, Ms. Novikova said, “don’t show that someone with great conceptual thinking is behind that, but someone very primitive, with unhealthy aspirations.” The person, she said, was “someone full of hate.”
When Mr. Filin met with Mr. Iksanov, the Bolshoi general director, on Thursday, one of the subjects of their discussion was the online publication of compromising documents attributed to Mr. Filin, a tactic known in Russia as “kompromat.” Ms. Novikova said the intent seemed to be to discredit Mr. Filin, but that “there was no scandal,” and that the two men ended their meeting on good terms. She spent Thursday evening with Mr. Filin at a gala and said he was “cheerful.”
Mr. Filin returned to his home after 11 p.m. and was fiddling with the gate to his building’s courtyard when he was approached by a man in a mask. From his hospital room he told Ren-TV that he was seized with fear that the man would shoot him and turned to run away. The man caught up with him, he said, and threw the liquid at his face.
Mr. Filin was expected to be flown to Belgium for further treatment at a military hospital for burn victims. Doctors earlier in the day said that his recovery might take as long as six months. While his injuries include severe burns to his eyes, the Bolshoi said late on Friday that Mr. Filin was not in danger of completely losing his vision.
Alexei Ratmansky, one of Mr. Filin’s predecessors as artistic director and now an artist in residence at American Ballet Theater, wrote on Facebook that the incident was “not a coincidence.”
He added, “Many of the illnesses of the Bolshoi are one snowball — that disgusting claque which is friendly with artists, ticket speculators and scalpers, half-crazy fans who are ready to slit the throats of their idol’s competitors, cynical hackers, lies in the press and scandalous interviews of people working there.”
And Ms. Volochkova, the ballerina, who clashed publicly with the Bolshoi leadership in 2003 after she was dismissed over her weight
, said the crime spoke to a degradation of Russian society.
“It surprises me that there was a time when there were duels — people fought with swords, or settled their relations in a real, noble way,” she said in the radio interview. “When it gets to the point where you can just splash acid, or kill a person, it’s so low.
“I think the end of the world has already arrived in this land,” she added.
Sophia Kishkovsky contributed reporting from New York and Andrew Roth from Moscow.