MOSCOW – An acid attack on the artistic director of the Bolshoi ballet has shone the spotlight on the fierce "Black Swan"-like competition for starring roles at the famed Russian dance company.
The attack on Sergei Filin could be in retaliation for his selection of certain dancers over others for the prized roles, his colleagues said Friday. They expressed fears that Filin, a 42-year-old former Bolshoi star, could be left partially blind after a masked assailant threw acid in his face as he returned home in Moscow late Thursday.
Filin suffered third-degree burns on his face and underwent eye surgery Friday evening to try to save his sight, Bolshoi spokeswoman Katerina Novikova said. Doctors said his right eye was badly burned and it would not be clear for days whether the operation was a success.
The Bolshoi Theater is one of Russia's premier cultural institutions, best known for "Swan Lake" and the other grand classical ballets that grace its Moscow stage. But backstage, the ballet company has been troubled by deep intrigue and infighting that have led to the departure of several artistic directors over the last few years.
The Bolshoi's general director, Anatoly Iksanov, said he believes the attack was linked to Filin's work.
"He is a man of principle and never compromised," Iksanov said on Channel One state television. "If he believed that this or that dancer was not ready or was unable to perform this or that part, he would turn them down."
The fierce competition for roles in classical ballet was highlighted in the 2010 Oscar-winning film "Black Swan." In the psychological thriller, dancers played by Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis vie to prove to the artistic director that only they should be chosen to perform as the sensual Black Swan.
Anastasia Volochkova, a former Bolshoi ballerina who danced with Filin, described a "terrible, wild fight" for roles at the Bolshoi.
"The cruelty of the ballet world is astoundingly pathological," Volochkova said in an interview on Ekho Moskvy radio.
She said Filin had done nothing to deserve such an attack. "Of course, this position is sweet," the former ballerina said. "The director of the ballet decides everything: the amount of grants given to every artist, or perhaps not given, who will dance which roles and who will not dance them."
Novikova, the Bolshoi spokeswoman, also appeared to confirm that a disagreement over dancing roles may have played a part in the attack.
"We never imagined that a war for roles – not for real estate or for oil – could reach this level of crime," Novikova said on Channel One.
Filin knew that someone was threatening him or trying to undermine his position, Iksanov said, explaining that Filin's car tires had been slashed this week and he was targeted earlier this month by hackers who had posted his professional correspondence online.
"He said, 'I have a feeling that I am on the front lines,'" Iksanov quoted Filin as telling him Thursday before the attack.
Filin, speaking from a hospital bed, said he was unable to recognize his attacker, who wore a hood and either a mask or a scarf so that only his eyes were visible.
"I got scared and I thought he was going to shoot me," Filin, his face and head covered with white bandages, told REN TV. "I turned around to run, but he raced ahead of me."
The attacker then fled the scene. Police, who spoke with Filin in the hospital, said they were working to determine the attacker's identity. Blurry video of the attack from a closed-circuit camera was shown on state television.
The attack left Bolshoi management jittery. Iksanov later Friday backed away from the suggestion that it was linked to Filin's casting decisions, and Channel One deleted his statement from its reports.
Filin, who danced for the Bolshoi from 1989 until 2007, was appointed artistic director of the Bolshoi's ballet company in March 2011. Before that, he served as artistic director at the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Theater, Moscow's second ballet company.
He is the sixth artistic director at the Bolshoi since Yuri Grigorovich, who led the dance company for three decades, resigned in 1995 after losing a protracted dispute with theater management. Successive artistic directors have been unable to overcome the resistance from dancers and teachers still loyal to Grigorovich as they tried to inject new life into the company. But Filin was seen as capable of bridging that gap, since he was a Bolshoi veteran who later brought modern works to Moscow's second ballet company.
Yet several stars at the Bolshoi, including celebrated dancer Nikolai Tsiskaridze, have complained about what they called Filin's unfair treatment of dancers at the theater.
In a newspaper interview Friday, Tsiskaridze said the attack on Filin was most likely related to either his love life or his control over the lavish government funds allocated to the theater.
Alexei Ratmansky, the Bolshoi ballet's artistic director from 2004 until 2008, described an atmosphere of intrigue at the dance company.
"What happened with Sergei Filin was not accidental," Ratmansky, now an artist-in-residence at the American Ballet Theater, posted on his Facebook page. "The Bolshoi has many ills. It's a disgusting cesspool, of those developing friendships with the artists, the speculators and scalpers, the half-crazy fans ready to bite the throats of the rivals of their favorites, the cynical hackers, the lies in the press and the scandalous interviews of staff.
"This is all one snowball caused by the lack of any ethics at the theater."
But Bolshoi dancers Svetlana Zakharova and Yan Godovsky downplayed the tensions at the company, saying there were disagreements but not "on this scale." Zakharova, a prima ballerina, teared up when speaking about Filin.
"We've just realized that the job of a Bolshoi Theater director is a very dangerous one," she said.
Shortly after Filin's appointment, two soloists left the theater in protest. Also around that time, ballet company manager Gennady Yanin quit after erotic photographs of him were posted online in what appeared to be an effort to push him aside.
"The Bolshoi Theater is no isolated island," theater critic Alla Gerber, a cultural adviser to the Kremlin, said on a television talk show devoted to the attack. "It has absorbed all of the horrors happening in Russia."
Mansur Mirovalev contributed to this report.