MOSCOW — The stories about vengeance at the Bolshoi go back centuries: the rival who hid an alarm clock in the audience, timed to go off during Giselle’s mad scene, or one who threw a dead cat onto the stage at curtain in lieu of flowers. There are whispers of needles inserted in costumes, to be discovered in midpirouette, or — the worst — broken glass nestled in the tip of a toe shoe.
But the ballet-loving city of Moscow awoke Friday to a special horror: A masked man had flung acid into the face of Sergei Filin, artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet, leaving third-degree burns and severely damaging his eyes. Video from the hospital showed Filin’s head covered entirely in bandages, with openings for his eyes and mouth, his eyelids grossly swollen.
Though police officials said they were exploring motives, including disputes over money, his colleagues at the Bolshoi said they suspected professional jealousy. In recent weeks, Filin’s tires had been slashed, his car scratched, his two cellphones disabled, his personal email account hacked and private correspondence published, according to Bolshoi officials. On the day of the acid attack, Filin met with the Bolshoi’s general director, Anatoly Iksanov, and confided that he was beginning to worry about his children’s safety.
“Sergei told me that he had the feeling that he was on the front line,” Iksanov said Friday.
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The ballet’s leadership has experienced poisonous infighting recently as a string of artistic directors struggled to put their stamp on a deeply traditional company. Two years ago, the company’s director, Gennady Yanin, resigned after a message with a link showing sexually explicit pictures of someone who resembled him was sent to email addresses in Russia and elsewhere.
Gedeminas Taranda, who was a principal dancer at the Bolshoi during the Soviet era, said there were always rival camps within the company, but the attack on Filin had a viciousness that he and his contemporaries could not have imagined. “Nothing like that happened in our times,” he said on Channel One.
Old and new have been colliding at the Bolshoi since the late 1980s, when upstart dancers rose up against the longtime artistic director, Yuri Grigorovich, and the rigid Soviet classicism he represented. He resigned in 1995, but his successors have not had an easy time of it.
Filin, 42, signed a five-year contract as artistic director in 2011. After the scandal of Yanin’s departure, he was seen as “the political and cultural bridge that the Bolshoi needs,” combining the pedigree of a Bolshoi dancer and a record as an innovator at Moscow’s second-tier company, the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Ballet, wrote Judith Mackrell, a dance critic for the British newspaper The Guardian.
Among his first big decisions was to hire David Hallberg of American Ballet Theatre as a principal dancer, the first American to hold that coveted status, which has typically gone to Russian-trained dancers.
Filin’s leadership has not stood out as especially controversial, though he suffered a blow in 2011 when two of his stars, Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev, left the Bolshoi for a lesser-known company in St. Petersburg, the Mikhailovsky Theater.
One simmering conflict has involved Nikolai Tsiskaridze, a popular principal dancer who last year harshly criticized the reconstruction of the Bolshoi Theater and has publicly clashed with the company’s leadership since. A group of his supporters petitioned President Vladimir Putin in November, requesting that Tsiskaridze be appointed director of the Bolshoi.
Filin returned to his home from a gala after 11 p.m. Thursday, and was fiddling with the gate to his building’s courtyard when he was approached by a man in a mask. From his hospital room, he told Ren-TV that he feared the man would shoot him and turned to run away. The man caught up with him, he said, and threw the liquid at his face.
Filin was expected to be flown to Belgium for further treatment at a military hospital for burn victims. Doctors earlier said his recovery may take as long as six months. While his injuries included severe burns on his eyes, the Bolshoi said late Friday that Filin was not in danger of fully losing his eyesight.