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Sunday, May 10, 2020

Bad Blood at the Bolshoi

     In Russia, they take ballet very seriously, perhaps too seriously. One would assume that the Bolshoi, the world's largest and most prestigious ballet company, would be one place in this corrupt, crime-ridden country immune from criminal violence. But this was not the case. Professional and artistic rivalry in the Bolshoi world of dance was intense, and vicious.

     Sergei Filin started dancing at the famous Moscow theater in 1988. He left the Bolshoi in 2007, returning in March 2011 as the artistic director of the ballet company. Filin's predecessor, Gennady Yanin, the target of threats and harassment during his tumultuous tenure, had to step down after an artistic rival posted erotic photographs of him on the Internet. There have also been incidents of performance sabotage including an alarm clock going off in the audience during a particular scene; a dead cat being tossed on stage in lieu of flowers; needles inserted into costumes; and broken glass planted in the tip of toe shoes.

     It seemed the artistic director of the Bolshoi, like the head of a Mafia family, was in constant danger of being unseated by a jealous, power-hungry challenger. Who would have guessed that behind the scenes, these world-class ballet dancers were Tony Sopranos in tights?

     Shortly after assuming his role as artistic director, Sergei Filin became embroiled in a variety of ballet disputes and feuds. One of the performers he crossed swords with was Nikolai Tsiskaridze, a famous principal dancer. In December 2012, someone scratched-up Filin's car, slashed his tires, and hacked into his email account. The artistic director's tormentor/stalker also posted a derogatory Facebook page under Filin's name.

     The harassment became so intense, friends of the 42-year-old Bolshoi director recommended that he hire a private bodyguard. (A big business in Moscow.) Filin, believing that the intimidation tactics would not become physical, rejected the suggestion.

     At eleven o'clock Thursday night, January 16, 2013, when Sergei Filin opened the gate to his central Moscow residence, someone called out his name. A man wearing a face-mask emerged from the darkness carrying a bottle of acid which he threw into the artistic director's eyes. After the attack, the masked assailant fled the scene on foot.

     The acid caused third-degree burns on Filin's face, and partially destroyed his sight. There were plans to send him to Belgium for treatment, a process that could take up to six months. Police investigators in Moscow were working off the theory that the assault was work-related.

     In the fall of 2013, Bolshoi Ballet dancer Pavel Dmitrichenko was found guilty of ordering the attack on Sergei Filin. Two others were also convicted of the assault. All three defendants were sentenced to six years in prison.

     In May 2016, the authorities released Dmitrichenko on parole. While admitting that he had orchestrated the attack, Dmitrichenko told reporters that he had not intended his accomplices to use acid.

     The Bolshoi management, in November 2016, gave Dmitrichenko a pass to return to the site of the assault in order that he could practice. The building was also the place where his victim, Sergei Filin, practiced ballet.

    This case illustrates that in Russia, ballet is much more important than criminal justice. In the United States, in a similar case, Tanya Harding, following the assault of a fellow figure skater, was thrown out of the sport even though she was not convicted of the crime.

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