After the Acid Attack, Is the Bolshoi Doomed?

Moscow's ballet company was once the pride of the Soviet Union. But amid chronic mismanagement and waning political status, it faces a bleak future.

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A ballet dancer warms-up during the International Ballet Competition at Bolshoi Theater in Moscow, on June 18, 2009. (Denis Sinyakov/Reuters)

When David Hallberg, a principal dancer at New York's American Ballet Theatre appeared on the Colbert Report in 2011, Colbert immediately assaulted him with faux belligerence about his move to dance in Moscow: "Americans don't defect to go to the Bolshoi. The Ruskies defect to come here... Why are you trying to lose us the Cold War?" he asked. "Stephen," Hallberg replied, "the Cold War is over."

Ironically, that's the memo the company Hallberg left to join, the Bolshoi Ballet, wishes had not been issued. Though the Bolshoi and the Mariinsky Ballet in St. Petersburg were the two troupes of Imperial Russia, the Bolshoi today owes its prominence to the Soviet legacy: It was the Bolsheviks who moved the capital from Petersburg to Moscow, Stalin who insisted on building up the company, and under Brezhnev that Yuri Grigorovich -- the man who would run the troupe for three decades, defining Soviet ballet -- choreographed Spartacus, the embodiment of the Bolshoi's grand style.

In modern Russia, however, the Bolshoi brings all the political baggage, but much less of the political importance, to the regime that now funds it. The Bolshoi Ballet feels like a white elephant that the Putin's Ministry of Culture must be finding particularly troublesome recently. The horrific acid attack on the company's artistic director Sergei Filin in January made headlines throughout the world. But just as the state announced its investigation complete, the perpetrators caught, confession video-taped, and motives neatly assigned , Filin, his dancers, and the theatre's general manager Anatoly Iksanov have all demanded a re-probe in one form or another. Several hundred dancers have signed a letter to Putin calling into question the legitimacy of dancer Pavel Dmitrichenko's admission of guilt. Filin and Iksanov have both expressed their belief that Dmitrichenko was an agent of something greater, and that the mastermind has not been caught .

But from the state's point of view, the Bolshoi has become a Soviet agent that has largely outlived its usefulness -- it's still important within the Russian cultural landscape, and a fine place to take visiting dignitaries, but the Cold War prerogative to showcase it as high cultural achievement is gone. The scandal has highlighted how the ballet operates: with a mentality partly stuck in the past and partly changing with the times. This burdensomeness might be a thorn in the side of Putin's government ministries, but is a far worse thing for the Bolshoi itself.

History and lingering popular sentiments tether the institution to the state more than any other cultural venue, even if ideologically speaking, neither is much use to the other. Though Putin's own insistence on machismo makes clear his disinterest in cultivating the ballet, it is a subject impossible for his government to ignore.

"It's a petrol economy now, but oil isn't something that brings people together," Tim Scholl, a scholar of Russian ballet at Oberlin College, told me. "If you ride a cab in Moscow, the cab drivers are still talking to you about ballet."

It was not so long ago that the Bolshoi Ballet was Russia's cultural gem, and ambassadorial face to the West. Muscovites haven't forgotten, so the politically powerful have remained intimately attached to it, even post-perestroika. On the Bolshoi's Board of Trustees -- set up by the Ministry of Culture and the Moscow government in 2001 -- sits a mix of oligarchs and various apparatchiks . The state poured huge sums of money into renovating the theatre (with its the decadence, corruption, and exorbitant price tag all well reported ). Annual government monies allocated to running the theatre have ballooned to $120 million a year , an opulent expression of the state's burgeoning wealth.

The government has also long had a hand in arranging the Bolshoi's administration. When the ballet adopted its current system of competitive contracts for paying its dancers, under then-general director Vladmir Kokonin in 1994, it was imparted via a decree signed by the Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, tacked onto the theatre's notice board. When Kokonin was later fired, the directive came from Boris Yeltsin. The current general director Iksanov was appointed to the post in 2000, through state mechanisms that also brought in McKinsey & Co., the consultancy.

More recent appeals for presidential intervention have gone unanswered. A petition to Putin last November to replace Filin with the shadowy but charismatic dancer Nikolai Tsiskardize -- a protégé of Grigorivich and self-proclaimed last inheritor of the true Bolshoi tradition -- went nowhere. With respect to the company dancers' current petition in support of the indicted Dmitrichenko, the president's spokesman has said that Putin will not get involved.

"There are very few cases in Russia when important people are involved that you wouldn't get a letter like this," Sergei Glebov, a Russia expert at Smith College told me.

He doubts that there is a satisfactory resolution to be had here, but politically speaking, there aren't many repercussions for those at the top.

"What the administration has traditionally paid attention to is the polls. This isn't going to change how the polls look" because though the attack was shocking, the shady legalism of its aftermath is "the norm in Russia...people are used to it and see it as further evidence of a general air of decay," not an 'earth-shattering' revelation. If anything, Glebov says, it's more a "sign of confidence" the government has in itself that such a scandal could happen and they can get away with it -- which also goes to show just how far the Bolshoi has fallen out of political importance since its golden age in the sixties.

Those in government directly involved in running the theatre, however, are bound to feel a bit of ire from the presidential office through which the Bolshoi leadership has ties. "I suspect that their first reaction will be to distance themselves from the Bolshoi institution," Scholl, the Oberlin ballet scholar, said.

That leaves the Bolshoi ballet without much of an ally, for the first time without the kind of support from the state -- the source of patronage and purpose -- it has enjoyed throughout its existence. No wonder many within the theatre (including Tsiskaridze), nostalgic for bygone days, apply pressure against modernizing the aesthetic, and clamor for emphasis on preserving the Soviet Bolshoi style as a path to return to former glories.

Despite how important ballet remains in Russia, the Bolshoi itself isn't guaranteed to be. It stands directionless after this acid attack, threatened by artistic irrelevance, operating with old-fashioned Byzantine machinations while also flashing, as David Remnick described, the contemporary streak of bespredel, lawlessness. Many have taken the violence as a sign of general degradation in Russian society, reflected in one of its storied institutions. The expression of disbelief in government jurisprudence is certainly also in keeping with the times, but it leaves the Bolshoi ever further bereft of options. For the current government, all this might make the Bolshoi Ballet feel all the time more like it is turning into a tiresome liability, one it will never be able to off-load. But the fate of the company in that case will be far worse than the nuisance it brings on the state. Without the government's good graces, there will be diminished incentive for upkeep, money and care for ensuring the Bolshoi ballet's prominence.

Even now, the Bolshoi's marquee names -- Svetlana Zakharova, Evgenia Obratzova, David Hallberg -- are outside talents brought in on favorable artistic arrangements (Zakharova and Obratzova were both poached from the Mariinsky Ballet). Meanwhile, the Bolshoi's own top stars, Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev, jumped ship to join another theatre.

"And who would want to dance there [at the Bolshoi] after this attack? If Filin can't return, who's going to want to take that job, and run that company after this?" Scholl asks.

If the answer proves to be "no one," then there won't be a much of a company to speak of.

"There is no happiness in our past," the Soviet Bolshoi ballet star-cum-company impresario Vladimir Vasiliev once said. "And there will be none in our future."