Sergei Filin (L), dances as Prince Siegfried, along with Dmitry Belogolovtsev (C), as Rothbart, and Galina Stepanenko (R), as Odette during a 2001 rehearsal of Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake
AFP PHOTO/Alexander Nemenov

By Stuart Williams

When I first arrived in Moscow for my posting, it was a bleak November with the days rapidly shortening and incessant rain pounding down on the streets. To lift my spirits, I took myself off to the ballet at the Bolshoi Theatre. As the gleaming ensemble took to the stage for Balanchine's radiant "Symphony in C" and the prima ballerina was hoisted to the heights by her male cohorts, I decided: Ballet was a beautiful thing in a sometimes ugly world.

In Russia, dancers are as in Soviet times more than just artists, they are national treasures and celebrities. They are interviewed on state news channels before premieres and given wild adulation by an adoring public who all have their own favourites. Whether your thing is Zakharova, Alexandrova or Osipova, the names and sometimes their real life dramas become familiar soon enough.

This is why the brutal attack against the artistic director of the Bolshoi ballet Sergei Filin -- he had acid flung into his eyes by an unknown, hooded perpetrator -- has stunned the country and become a national talking point. Filin, now 42, was the bright-eyed boy of Russian ballet, a brilliant former dancer whose meteoric rise in direction had taken him to the Bolshoi's top job with an emphasis on innovation.

The Bolshoi ballet's artistic director, Sergei Filin, sits between Russia's then president Dmitry Medvedev and his wife, Svetlana, on October 28, 2011. AFP PHOTO/RIA-NOVOSTI/POOL/Vladimir Rodionov.

Of course, everyone knew that something was not quite right with the theatre. Whenever I go near the place I’m swiftly accosted by a tout with a vast offering of tickets for any show. At a price, of course. Where these tickets come from is a mystery but most can guess they have not been bought at the ticket office. It's also no secret that individuals are paid in the audience to yell Bravo! at apt moments to yank up the atmosphere.

The dramas and rumours are no less vivid than in Soviet times when defections to the West and talk of love affairs with Soviet top brass captivated the world. Last year, the leading couple in Russian ballet, Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev, said thanks -- but we've had enough -- and decamped to the Mikhailovsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg whose stage is half the size of the Bolshoi and with a global profile even smaller than that.

The Filin drama did not end with the attack. Even as the dancer underwent operations to save his eyes and limit the disfigurements, the Bolshoi's never timid PR machine went into overdrive. A briefing was called and the accusation made that, yes, the attack was linked to internal conflict at the theatre and yes, we suspect who might be behind it (although we are not saying this in public). Astonishingly, one Russian channel managed to record comments by Filin from his hospital ward, his head wrapped up in bandages but talking clearly and revealing he had been harassed for months.The Bolshoi's biggest star, the prima ballerina Svetlana Zakharova, a national celebrity who even served as an MP, openly wept on television as she paid tribute to her director, former ballet partner and friend.

The barely disguised insinuations created a new media frenzy. Filin gave a long interview to Russia's biggest selling tabloid and revealed that he had been on the "front line" for months. Attention focused on the Bolshoi dancer Nikolai Tsiskaridze who had publicly fallen out with Filin in the last months. A regular on chat shows and a judge on Strictly Come Dancing-style talent performances (like the retired British ballerina Darcey Bussell), Tsiskaridze is one of Russia's most recognisable dancers and rarely shy of commenting. This time though it was to deny any involvement in the crime.

Bolshoi soloist Anastasia Meskova weeps at a news conference after the attack.

A breathless “investigative” report on pro-Kremlin NTV television managed to get inside the hospital and film Filin saying he forgave his attackers. But unsurprisingly, it failed to offer the slightest genuine insight into the background to the attack. Russia’s media -- well accustomed to avoid treading on too many toes -- are fascinated by the story but can’t be counted on to delve too deeply into the truth. How rapidly the investigation goes from here is not clear. It seems something very, very unpleasant has been festering within the Bolshoi for a long time, something powerful that few have had the courage to take on.

The attack on Filin, coincidentally, took place on the same day a top crime boss with the Hollywood-style nickname of Grandpa Hassan was gunned down in a typical act of Moscow Mafiosi score-settling. The killing took place in broad daylight on the street where I live. The assassination, of course, was true to everyone’s stereotypes about the blood-soaked Moscow crime world -- Grandpa Hassan was shot dead by a sniper from a neighbouring building after dining in his preferred restaurant in the centre of Moscow. One would have thought dance would have been spared this sort of thing but clearly not. Amid all this, amazingly, the show went on. Less than a week after the attack, Zakharova was back on stage to heroically dance the main role in the classic ballet "La Bayadere". This weekend's performance was broadcast on Russian television, not to mention cinemas across Europe.

Sergei Filin performing as Prince Siegfried in a February 2001 production of Swan Lake=
AFP PHOTO/Alexander Nemenov

Bolshoi simply means “big” in Russian and the show was a reminder of the expansive style that has been its calling card throughout the postwar era. Massive leaps that cut through the air, pulsating ensemble dances and heartbreaking lyricism, the show has it all. Of course, anyone who still thought ballet -- and the Bolshoi in particular – was an innocent refuge from the corruption of the modern world has had such ideas cruelly dashed. A few days after the Filin attack, it emerged that top Bolshoi ballerina Svetlana Lunkina – who had mysteriously been absent from the stage for months -- had fled Russia six months ago after receiving threats linked to the activities of her husband. It’s pretty hard for me now to watch those elegant arabesques and whirling fouettes without thinking of the Filin attack and the fact there is something rotten with the state of the Bolshoi. Yet the televised relay of “La Bayadere” seemed a defiant riposte by the Bolshoi’s dancers that their art form can still be sublime. In any case, the Bolshoi is not the only ballet in company in Russia and its eternal rival, the Mariinsky in Saint Petersburg, seems to have kept a lofty distance from whole saga.

The last years, I’ve been enthralled by performances not just at the magical Mariinsky but at the resurgent Mikhailovsky and Moscow’s Stanislavsky Theatre which scored the coup of 2012 by snaring the young megastar Sergei Polunin after he walked out of London’s Royal Ballet. Not to mention the ballet theatre of Perm, far out in the Urals but one of Russia’s great companies. Watching the Vasiliev-Osipova sensation push the limits of classical dance (How high he jumps! How fast she turns!) inside the cramped Mikhailovsky will remain one of my greatest experiences in Russia. Outside now it's minus 15 degrees Celsius while the hard -- and sometimes dangerous -- reality of daily life in Russia grinds on. But ballet can still be a beautiful thing in an ugly world.

Alexander Nemenov
AFP PHOTO/Alexander Nemenov