sat 13/07/2024

The Bolshoi acid trial begins - vitriol promised | reviews, news & interviews

The Bolshoi acid trial begins - vitriol promised

The Bolshoi acid trial begins - vitriol promised

Prosecution opens, amid storm over sacked Bolshoi star's job scoop

After the attack: dancer Pavel Dmitrichenko under arrest, left, and his victim and boss Sergei FilinImages RIA Novosti, Russian Business Insider, Bolshoi Theatre

Even by the grand Guignol standards of Russian ballet 2013, this week has been eventful. The trial of the Bolshoi dancer for attacking his boss with acid finally began on Tuesday, and with incredible, tension-ratcheting synchrony, the controversial, mouthy Bolshoi star who was fired in the summer for machinating against his leaders has been appointed to head Russia's world-famous ballet school.

To add still more salt to the seasoning, the same mouthy Bolshoi star will be appearing - it was revealed on Tuesday - as a witness on behalf of the accused dancer in the trial. The Brooks-Coulson hacking trial is milk pudding compared to what it's feared may be undammed in the unpredictable courts of Moscow.

To recap, one night last January the Bolshoi ballet director Sergei Filin - a handsome man and a handsome dancer, well known and appreciated by London audiences on recent Bolshoi tours - had acid thrown in his face. He suffered terrible burns to his eyes and face. Probably his instinctive act in grabbing handfuls of snow from the street and rubbing his burning face with it prevented more severe damage to his skin, but the eyes were another matter. The acid ate in, and kept eating.

There was history in past attacks on him - violent intimidation of past Bolshoi directors is not unknown. Filin's home had received menacing silent phone calls; his car tyres had been slashed, his email hacked. He and his boss, the Bolshoi Theatre general director, Anatoly Iksanov, had both been feeling pressure. Filin's predecessor, Gennady Yanin, had been scandalously dismissed after incriminating photos of him having gay sex were posted on the internet.

As far as Iksanov was concerned, Nikolai Tsiskaridze was a menace

As far as Iksanov was concerned, Nikolai Tsiskaridze was a menace. For several years he had been badgered by the Bolshoi's best-known male dancer - much less popular in Britain than Filin, but much more popular in Russia - to make him the ballet director. When Iksanov refused, appointing Filin, Tsiskaridze and his powerful friends pressed President Putin and the Culture Minister to put him in place of Iksanov.

All this was pre-history to the Filin attack. After Filin was shown, his face completely bandaged, and word came out that he would be flown to Europe for treatment, a leading dancer was arrested on suspicion of ordering the attack, plus two other men allegedly involved. The disturbing TV pictures of the bruised dancer, a short-fused 28-year-old who mostly danced villain parts but was popular among the Bolshoi troupe for getting stuck in on the workers' side, swiftly focused a coherent lobby in his defence, protesting that surely police brutality was involved. Suspicion was rife. The Bolshoi dancers, instinctively backing their own guy, voted him in as their absent trade union leader and demanded an independent inquiry, challenging the authorities' version of events.

The charismatic figure in their camp was “Kolya” Tsiskaridze, the Bolshoi's dramatic, hugely egotistical TV-friendly star, a man who made his own rules, who would proclaim to the press, "I am the Bolshoi", and who had his own TV chat-show. He and Iksanov made no pretence at being anything other than foes.

Iksanov, shocked by what had happened to Filin, blurted out that he believed Tsiskaridze’s stirring and ambitious antagonism had fostered an unprecedentedly turbulent, divided company where such things as sex scandals and violence could happen. He hinted unwisely that Tsiskaridze had a more than tangential involvement with the attack on his rival - and this would prove his undoing.

bolshoi theatre insideTsiskaridze gave media interviews slamming Iksanov's completion of the Bolshoi Theatre's monstrously expensive, corrupted restoration (not a scheme Iksanov had signed off in the first place). Much more dubious and strange was his repeated claim that Filin was not really attacked with acid - that there was a giant conspiracy targeting Tsiskaridze, to drive him out of the Bolshoi. That there was never any acid, Filin was unblemished under his bandages, the Moscow police, the Moscow doctors, the German doctors, the media - all were in cahoots to cook up a plan to see Tsiskaridze booted out of his theatre. And that all was being conducted by the Bolshoi leadership, the men who exploited the dancers.

During the summer, both the men were removed from the chess-board: first Iksanov dismissed Tsiskaridze, by simply seeing that his contracts were expiring and refusing to renew them. Then, in turn, Iksanov was dismissed by Russia's Minister of Culture, Vladimir Medinsky, who replaced him with the theatre director from down the road in Moscow, Vladimir Urin from the Stanislavsky.

Tsiskaridze appeared preternaturally calm about his unemployed status; there was a comic moment when from far north in Yakutsk, an almost permanently frozen Siberian city officially termed Russia’s coldest, came the offer to direct the local ballet company, if only they could afford him. It was never on. Tsiskaridze, as he said in several interviews, was the Bolshoi, and bolshoi means big, the biggest. It now appears he already knew what his next job would be.

Six weeks ago Filin symbolically returned to the Bolshoi Ballet as its artistic director. With further treatment still scheduled on his impaired vision, he has been assessed in the trial’s documentation at having lost 35 percent of his earning capacity, thus qualifying for the legal definition of suffering grievous bodily harm.

Dmitrichenko proclaimed in court this week that he will accuse Filin of operating a casting couch

Dmitrichenko's trial finally began this week, with the prosecution outlining their case. It is a case that the defence lawyers and their supportive press have long been challenging, demanding independent medical examination by Moscow doctors of their own choice to verify or not the "foreign" diagnoses of how damaged Filin’s sight is. Their strategy was to show that medical treatment had alleviated the damage to a condition that no longer qualified for the severest category, GBH, and its concomitant jail sentences. Dmitrichenko is pleading not guilty to the charge put to him; his alleged hitman is pleading partial guilt.

On the first day, the list of witnesses to be called was revealed. Tsiskaridze is to be called on behalf of Dmitrichenko. The link between them is Dmitrichenko's longtime girlfriend, the young ballerina Angelina Vorontsova who was one of Tsiskaridze's few pupils at the Bolshoi (below, Tsiskaridze in class with Vorontsova, credit Vladimir Viatkin/RIA). It was claimed last spring that Dmitrichenko had confessed (though all previous versions of confessions and denials have been in constant evolution since then, maybe due to police and prison pressures) that he was inflamed by Filin's denial of leading roles to Vorontsova, as well as his favouritism in allocating payments.

Tsiskaridze VorontsovaVorontsova is now safely ensconced as principal ballerina at the Mikhailovsky Ballet in St Petersburg (coincidentally, close to her former mentor in his new job). But the favouritism is an issue that is going to be central to the Dmitrichenko trial.

Russia's two great ballet companies, the Bolshoi and the Mariinsky, both operate a basically Soviet-era employment system of large numbers of dancers hired on subsistence salaries which are topped up by fees for the specific roles or numbers that they dance in each ballet.

Under this system, it emerged from miserable Mariinsky corps de ballet dancers last spring, you earn £300 a month and get a top-up of £62 every time you dance a swangirl in Swan Lake. If you don’t get the gig, you scrape a living.

Under this system, a superior principal ballerina such as Daria Pavlenko, one of the Mariinsky's finest artists, who has recently become a spokesperson against the system, has been held on a much lower salary than less demonstrative principals, being cast no longer in leads but in subsidiary roles. In Britain and Europe, this would be grounds for an industrial tribunal case.

However, it is the Russian way, and Sergei Filin used this system, as previous artistic directors had done, his own way. Dmitrichenko proclaimed in court this week that he will accuse Filin of operating a casting couch for young ballerinas.

Dmitrichenko has considerably changed his position since he was arrested. So have his associates. Some commentators have noted that their changes of story, if accepted, would have the effect of reducing any possible sentence for any of them, by removing the conspiracy angle. Others have argued that the Moscow police are notoriously disdainful of rules of justice, and pointed out that the legal system appears to result with almost inevitability in a guilty verdict - the judge for the Bolshoi acid trial has tried 150 cases and has not acquitted a single defendant.

The Vaganova Academy job is the third most prominent job in all Russian ballet

In this excitable atmosphere, the Culture Minister decided that now was the time to announce Tsiskaridze's new job. (As one prominent Moscow political blogger acerbically typed this week, you would think the Russian government had no other concern than to sort out the dancer's next career move.)

The Vaganova Academy job is the third most prominent job in Russian ballet, after the top jobs at the Bolshoi and Mariinsky. It is a world heritage site for the preservation and faithful continuation of classical ballet itself, the school that produced Nureyev, Baryshnikov and Nijinsky - though not Tsiskaridze himself, who was a Moscow student. 

In all the fevered comments about the announcement on Monday of Tsiskaridze as Vaganova Rector, certain key points have been made by various authoritative people - his predecessor, leading dancers and apparently well-informed culture commentators.

First, the appointment had been made with no discussion with the Vaganova school - whose staff are required by statute to formally "elect" their new Rector. Second, the Culture Minister fired the existing Rector simply to put Tsiskaridze in, without any of the grave grounds of malfeasance that are required for such sudden removals when the school year had already started. Third, Tsiskaridze's own character and behaviour during the recent Bolshoi events had proved him, in some eyes, completely unsuited to directing a school for children. Fourth, Tsiskaridze's own statements about the job showed he had no understanding what it was.

gergiev by christodoulouFifth - where it becomes more than just a local matter about a school appointment - it appeared as if Valery Gergiev, the Mariinsky Theatre's all-powerful chief (right, pictured by Chris Christodoulou), had been manoeuvring to get rid of an obstructive Vaganova Rector and also to get the Tsiskaridze camp, who had been bombarding him with instructions to take Tsiskaridze on as Mariinsky Ballet chief, off his back. The conductor has been pressing an ambitious (some say imperial) plan to unite St Petersburg's major arts organisations in a "national centre for arts" in the city, headed by himself; that was something the current Rector of the Vaganova was adamantly against.

Back in Moscow, Tsiskaridze's devotees - who include top-ranking wives of pro-Putin industrialists and politicians - had also come up against the intransigence of the new Bolshoi Theatre general director, Vladimir Urin, who had categorically refused to let Tsiskaridze back into the Bolshoi. The dancer's powerful friends had bent the ears of the Culture Minister, demanding that he be given a prestigious position commensurate with his status as national idol (as it were). The Culture Minister, caught in the crossfire of the Gergiev plan and not a man known for his love for ballet, tried to get Tsiskaridze the Mariinsky Ballet directorship (which has been on an "acting" basis for decades, under Gergiev), but Gergiev was unwilling. However, there could be advantages all round to installing Tsiskaridze in the Vaganova Academy, which Gergiev had been failing to get to agree to enter his own master-plan.

There is also the nasty factor of the gathering storm of anti-gay pressure, particularly in St Petersburg

Well, not to say it's all true, but it does add up somehow. And if this scenario is indeed true there would be reason to be appalled by the heedlessness and manipulability of the Ministry of Culture, putting powerplay before artistic understanding.

Yet there is also the nasty factor of the gathering storm of anti-gay repression orchestrated by politicians particularly in St Petersburg, where Tsiskaridze is to work. While he has never publicly revealed his sexual preference, he is a longtime celebrity icon for the gay media, and if his personal style may have helped him forge his TV showbiz profile, it can't be much help as conservative Russia tilts more and more against exhibitionists.

The amount of disclosure during the Dmitrichenko trial could be extremely uncomfortable for many of the participants. Verbal vitriol will very likely be thrown, on top of the actual variety that has so damaged Filin's bright future and made his prospects of continuing long as Bolshoi ballet director less than a betting prospect.

The custody term for the accused has been extended to next April, signalling expectations of a long trial. Fasten your seat belts. It is not just people likely to suffer in the witness box; landmark institutions of Russian arts are also facing a painful media cross-examination.

  • See much background via translations of Russian press coverage on my blog

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