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The ballet world gasped in horror at the violent attack on Bolshoi artistic director Sergei Filin on January 17. But now we are murmuring in puzzlement. In between there were some absurdist moments. Here’s a brief summary of post-attack news:
• First there were the bizarre statements of faded Bolshoi star Nikolai Tsiskaridze saying it couldn’t have been real acid, and that the investigation was really a witch hunt against him. (He recently repeated these statements on a state-supported TV show.)
• Then there was the haggard confession by lead dancer Pavel Dmitrichenko that he ordered the attack but not the acid. (He even claimed noble restraint by divulging that he rejected the hit man’s enthusiastic offer to kill Filin.) Then Zarutsky, the hit man, claimed he was acting alone. (No motivation was mentioned or could possibly be convincing.)
• Next, 300 Bolshoi performers signed a letter to President Putin accusing the Moscow police of a biased investigation, defending their fellow dancer Dmitrichenko, and asking for a re-investigation.
• Most recently, the Bolshoi announced the formation of an “Arts Committee” to participate in the “realization of creative ballet programs.”
A committee? Isn’t that the most Soviet way of going about things? Is the purpose of the committee to make sure Filin doesn’t make any programming or casting mistakes? Are they demoting Filin’s right to act on his own opinions? Or, in the best possible light, will the committee protect Filin from the next psycho disgruntled dancer?
Galina Stepanenko, the Bolshoi's interim artistic director, as a student at the Bolshoi Academy.
The arts committee is not a new thing, but my understanding is that in the past, the arts committee was headed by the current artistic director. Galina Stepanenko, whom Filin appointed interim director, serves on the committee but was not asked to lead it. That position goes to Boris Akimov, a Bolshoi star of a previous generation. When he led the Bolshoi Ballet 2000-2003, Akimov brought back Grigorovich ballets, which had been out of favor during Vladimir Vasiliev’s reign.
Boris Akimov (left), coaching Sergei Filin, in the '90s. Photo by Nina Alovert. Photos from the DM Archives.
In Soviet times, the Bolshoi was at least partly controlled by the Kremlin. The theater is only a few blocks away, and Stalin would come often to watch Maya Plisetskaya in Swan Lake. (Apparently Stalin was not fazed by the fact that his purges had killed her father.) As Plisetskaya has written in her autobiography, it was hard to get a new ballet past the censors.
Alexei Ratmansky, the resident choreographer at ABT who helmed the Bolshoi from 2004 to 2008, was quoted as saying in Judith Mackrell’s blog at The Guardian in 2011, “The weight of habit and tradition was overwhelming."
Sergei Filin was doing his share to lift that weight. In his rep choices, he was balancing the clamor for tradition with the stimulation of the new. He gave Grigorovich’s Sleeping Beauty pride of place in opening of the newly restored Bolshoi Palace (oops I mean Theatre) last year. And he’s invited the likes of Mats Ek, Jorma Elo, and John Neumeier to work with the Bolshoi dancers. As he said in his interview with me in May, he wanted his dancers to have the opportunity to work directly with internationally renowned choreographers.
I think it's possible that, after Filin returns from this medical and psychological hell, he will command the company with the authority of someone like Grigorovich, and hopefully not be the target of either petty and violent minds. He has the capability of steering the Bolshoi into the future while honoring its amazing heritage.