It's a story right out of the movies: The artistic director of one of the most prestigious ballet companies in the world is violently attacked. His attacker and the motive are shrouded in mystery. But behind these sensational headlines is a ballet company that is both legendary and plagued with scandals and infighting.
Last month in Moscow, Sergei Filin, the Bolshoi Ballet's artistic director, was attacked by a masked man who threw acid in his face, causing severe burns and nearly blinding him. Filin, a handsome, 42-year-old former principal dancer, has been with the company since he was a teenager. He was attacked one night as he was returning home, says New York Times Moscow correspondent Ellen Barry, who has been covering the story.
"He was fiddling with the code on his gate when a masked man came up behind him, called his name, and then threw a jar of sulfuric acid in his face," Barry says.
The passions for the Bolshoi Ballet run deep in Russia. Barry says the Bolshoi is a symbol of national pride.
"As one of their dancers told me, it is older than our country. It's just a major state institution," she says. "It's one of the things that Russians have always done so well."
Bolshoi spokeswoman Katerina Novikova says the viciousness of the attack was a shock.
"You never could expect such violence," Novikova says. "I mean, small intrigues, it's OK, it's normal for any big company. Because as soon as you have 220 people in constant competition, it's not easy to manage, surely. But this kind of violence is just outstanding."
Filin suffered third-degree burns on his face and neck. He's had several operations, and doctors are working to restore his eyesight. Novikova says he is recovering well. He's now in Germany for more treatment and rehabilitation.
As for who's behind the attack, Barry says she's heard many theories: an artistic rival of Filin's; the black market that takes advantage of the huge demand for tickets to see the Bolshoi; or even a spurned lover.
"People say here in Russia that men don't throw acid," Barry says. "That it's a crime of passion — it's not business-related."
Investigators have been questioning Bolshoi dancers and staff members. George Jackson, a dance writer who's followed the Bolshoi for decades, believes the attack was an escalation of tensions within the company. He says Filin was making artistic changes that were bound to have upset members of the company.
Those changes include "bringing in new repertory and not casting some of the previous principal dancers at least as often as they used to dance; and bringing up new talent," he says.
The Bolshoi has been shaken by other scandals. One of its leading dancers recently announced that she fled Moscow because she was receiving threats — not related to Filin, but to a business dispute involving her husband, who's working on a film about a famous Russian ballerina.
An Internet smear campaign was waged against another Bolshoi dancer, Gennady Yanin, who was working as an administrator for the company. Someone posted images of a man who appeared to be Yanin in bed with other men.
Christina Ezrahi, the author of Swans of the Kremlin: Ballet and Power in Soviet Russia, says the sabotage seemed to be related to the appointment of a new artistic director.
"Literally on the day when the management was supposed to make an announcement [about] who would be the next artistic director, suddenly a lot of people in the ballet world started receiving these emails with photos of somebody looking like him and posing to be Yanin in very compromising, erotic poses," Ezrahi says.
The back-stabbing, the gossip, the power struggles — the story of the Bolshoi has more twists than a soap opera. But by far, the most tragic was the acid attack on Filin. On Monday, he told reporters he is convinced it was the act of people unhappy with the Bolshoi's leadership.
One former leader paints a scathing picture of the Bolshoi culture. Choreographer Alexei Ratmansky — who's now with the American Ballet Theater — was the Bolshoi's artistic director for a few years beginning in 2004. After Filin was attacked, Ratmansky wrote on his Facebook page: "The Bolshoi is riddled with disease. The terrible cliques that drive a wedge between the performers; black-market ticket dealers ... half-loony fans ready to gnaw out the throat of rival stars ... lies in the press ..."
The Bolshoi Ballet has postponed a centennial production of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, which had been scheduled for late March, until Filin fully recovers.