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Acid Attack on Bolshoi Artistic Director Rocks Ballet World

March 6, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
A Russian dance star confessed to masterminding an attack on the artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet. For more on different theories on the motivation for the attack, Gwen Ifill talks with The New York Times' Michael Schwirtz.
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GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight: the disturbing story of attacks on the chief of the Bolshoi Ballet.

Moscow police said today they arrested a Russian ballet star for organizing an acid attack on artistic director Sergei Filin in January. Filin, who was once a dancer himself at the Bolshoi, was badly burned after sulfuric acid was thrown at his face.

Police say the suspect, Pavel Dmitrichenko, who performed in well-known roles at the Bolshoi, confessed to masterminding the crime. Two others were arrested.

The Bolshoi is a renowned cultural institution, and the arrests are prompting more questions about what was behind the shocking attack.

Michael Schwirtz is following this for The New York Times.

Welcome.

So, how did this unfold? We know it was a typical crime story in some ways, but also very atypical.

MICHAEL SCHWIRTZ, The New York Times: Well, you have to understand that the competition inside the Bolshoi Theater is very, very intense.

And especially since the fall of the Soviet Union, there’s been a growing factionalism within the organization between traditionalists, who want to keep to the classics of ballet, and those who would like to see a more modernist interpretation than had been allowed in the past.

GWEN IFILL: And Sergei Filin was one of — was which one of those, Sergei Filin?

MICHAEL SCHWIRTZ: Sergei Filin was definitely, definitely more experimental in his approach to the ballet, which gained him a lot of praise from some in the ballet world, but also earned him some enemies.

And the prime suspect in this case, of course, Pavel Dmitrichenko, is known as a fierce defender of the classics. And this is — this has been one of the theories as to what brought all this about.

GWEN IFILL: I have to say it’s one thing to disagree about direction and disagree about doing it the old way and doing it the new way, but sulfuric acid in your face seems extreme. Is this kind of passion normally associated with dancing in Russia?

MICHAEL SCHWIRTZ: It certainly rocked the institution.

And in televised remarks today, when he confessed, Dmitrichenko, he admitted to orchestrating the attack, but he said that it had gone too far. It’s unclear what he meant by that. But, no, this goes above and beyond anything that I think anybody has ever seen.

Certainly, there have been competitions and rivalries in the past. There’s kind of always been whispers backstage and in the corridors of rivals putting pins into their rivals’ costumes or glass into their toe shoes, but nothing of this nature. Especially to throw acid in somebody’s face, potentially blinding and ending Sergei Filin’s career goes beyond what anybody thought was possible in the organization.

GWEN IFILL: Tell us a little bit about Sergei Filin. Was he a — is he a big figure in the field of dance?

MICHAEL SCHWIRTZ: Well, anybody who reaches the level of artistic director is going to be a huge figure in dance and is going to be extremely prominent.

And basically what his position allows him to do is cast the roles. There’s been rumors since Dmitrichenko’s arrest that he was romantically involved with another ballet dancer who was thought to be sidelined by Filin. So this is another thread to this whole conflict that seems to be emerging.

GWEN IFILL: And Dmitrichenko is considered to be just a member of the corps de ballet, or is he a rising star himself?

MICHAEL SCHWIRTZ: No, he’s — he’s a lead soloist.

And, in fact, Sergei Filin last year cast him in the role of Ivan the Terrible, lead role in that ballet. So one would think that, at least in his career, they were getting along well, though he’s criticized the management of the Bolshoi in the past for the low salaries, what he claims to be the low salaries of ballet dancers in the troupe.

He’s also known as something of a hooligan, according to his colleagues, quick to anger and throw a punch. And he’s got a large tattoo on his forearm that says, “Life is struggle.”

GWEN IFILL: Well, talk a little bit about the Bolshoi itself. How huge an institution is that, not only in the dance world, but also in Russia itself?

MICHAEL SCHWIRTZ: Well, in Russia, it’s not just a great cultural institution. It’s very much symbolic of the country’s history and its greatness. It’s been around for over 200 years and has weathered wars and the purges and the fall the Soviet Union, and has remained this icon of greatness that many Russians have really relied on when their country has been in its darkest days.

And to see this curtain pulled back and the type of conflict and serious, serious rivalries that are going on inside of it has somewhat tarnished this image of an institution that was always seen as somewhat above the petty infighting and violent rivalries that Russia has seen in other spheres of society.

GWEN IFILL: But, Michael, in this case, as bizarre as it may seem, has the lurid nature of this story in some ways given ballet a wider stage?

MICHAEL SCHWIRTZ: I mean, it’s definitely — Russians — Russians have become infatuated in with this story and it’s kind of Shakespearian drama.

And even the police, in their investigation, famously, have publicly spoken about their newfound respect for what the ballet does and what it brings to Russian society, and have even openly requested Sergei Filin to invite them to the ballet once he returns, so that they can also take part in it.

So, maybe — maybe it is having some sort of effect of widening the appeal by kind of spilling its guts out into society like this.

GWEN IFILL: And, finally, even though we have a confession, might there be more to this investigation that meets the eye yet?

MICHAEL SCHWIRTZ: Certainly.

In Russia, there’s always kind of a belief in all of these great scandals that there’s some bigger, darker, more influential individuals or groups behind the scenes controlling things. So who knows where this is headed.

GWEN IFILL: Michael Schwirtz of The New York Times, thanks so much.

MICHAEL SCHWIRTZ: Thank you.