In the 18th century, French balletmaster Jean-Georges Noverre argued that for ballet to move forward it had to move away from “light and entertaining interludes” toward “dark and serious ballets about incest, murder, and betrayal.” The Russians, arguably, perfected this vision of ballet. The dark subject matter and universal language made it the official art of the Soviet state. The Communist Party, during the early-20th century, was highly invested in the ballet, controlling every aspect of production down to the costumes. Joseph Stalin was said to have spent a lot of time at the ballet and had his own private viewing box at the Bolshoi Theater, “a specially designed bulletproof enclave tucked into the corner of the house to the left of the stage” which “had a separate entrance from the street and an adjoining room stocked with vodka and equipped with a telephone,” according to Jennifer Homans’s “Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet.” Post-war, Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khruschev, claimed he saw “Swan Lake” so many times that it haunted his dreams.
As evidenced by recent events surrounding the legendary Bolshoi Ballet, Noverre’s view of a modern, contemporary ballet is still present. The only problem is it’s not happening on the stage, but in real life. In the past month, the troupe has been embroiled in a scandal involving backstage battles, deep betrayal, and malicious violence, stemming from a brutal attack on artistic director Sergei Filin. In the latest development, dancers are now suspects in the mysterious drama that surrounds them and threatens to tarnish the legacy of the ballet forever.
The Filin incident is of extreme proportions, and the proplems that have plagued the company in recent years seem to have foreshadowed the current state of the ballet troupe. In the fall of 2011, amid a reopening of the Bolshoi Theater after closing down for renovations in 2005, the ballet company – the largest in the world with over 200 dancers – found itself in the middle of a kerfuffle when Gennady Yanin, the deputy director of the company, was forced out after images of him in bed with other men were posted online. The leak of the photos, which were sent by email to many prominent figures in Russian society, was said to be retaliation for Yanin refusing to accept financial blackmail. At the same time, former dancers spoke to The Guardian about how the theater had become “a quasi-escort agency for wealthy donors” where girls were told that they would have a future within the company only if they went to parties organized for donors. The Bolshoi Ballet quickly denied these claims.
It was during this time that Filin was appointed artistic director of the ballet troupe. A former dancer with the Bolshoi Ballet, Filin was forced to retire in 2004 due to a hip injury. He has referred to his short time as the artistic director of the company as “the war,” and ongoing battle over “roles, money, and on-stage glory.” According to an article in The Daily Beast, there were small “revolts” among the dancers and different factions of the ballet’s administration. In the same Beast article, Filin admitted that his tires had been slashed after a disagreement and his personal email had been hacked on numerous occasions.
All this came to a head this year on January 18 when, after several weeks of threats and intimidation, a masked assailant threw sulfuric acid in the face of Filin outside his home in Moscow. Filin suffered third-degree burns and damage to his eyes. Immediately, people in the company believed it was an inside job. Many thought it had to do with how Filin assigned roles to dancers within the highly competitive company. According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, Filin reportedly said that long before he was with the company, dancers sometimes found crushed glass in their pointe shoes.
Although Filin has said that he never expected the strife within the company to lead to physical violence, this type of attack is not exactly new to the Bolshoi Ballet. In 2010, principal dancer Natalia Osipova, in New York as a guest artist of the American Ballet Theater, was mugged after leaving the Metropolitan Opera House. The two assailants struck her in the nose and, oddly, only stole her point shoes and a small hammer used to shape them, reported the New York Times.
So it’s no surprise now that reports over the weekend suggest the main suspects in the acid attack on Filin are dancers of the Bolshoi Ballet. Police have not arrested anyone over the attack, and it’s unclear which, or if all, the dancers are suspected. Filin has stated publically that he knows who committed the crime, and that it is certainly connected to his work, but will not name specific names due to the investigation. Prima ballerina Svetlana Lunkina, who was in Canada during the latest scandal, has said publically that she is afraid to return to Russia, while the Bolshoi Ballet has started reacting against the accusations against them, even threatening to sue one of their own principal dancers who has been uncommonly outspoken.
The blurring of art and life: where do the drama of the stage end and the tragedies of life begin? The scandal of the Bolshoi Ballet shines a light on the highly competitive world of ballet, a real life version of the Natalie Portman-starring psycho-ballet drama “Black Swan.” Even odder: What do you think the first production at Bolshoi Ballet, just over two weeks following the attack of Filin, was?
Of course it was “Swan Lake.”