Exclusive Interview: Did this Bolshoi Ballerina Inspire an Acid Attack?

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Yuri Kozyrev / NOOR for TIME

Angelina Vorontsova, a prize-winning ballerina of the Bolshoi Ballet company in Moscow, rehearses for a performance on the upper stage of the Bolshoi Theatre on Feb. 6, 2013.

On the evening of Feb. 6, the Russian ballerina Anzhelina Vorontsova had to take another trip abroad — this time to Italy — for some performances she wished she had been able to decline. Winsome as a porcelain doll and sublime on the stage, the 21-year-old had little desire to take time away from her work at the Bolshoi Ballet, the legendary Moscow company where she has been a soloist since 2009. But her Bolshoi salary is “miserly,” she says, and moonlighting abroad is her only way to make a decent living. “They don’t let me dance here,” she told me that day during a Bolshoi rehearsal, which she was squeezing in before the flight. “You have no idea how long I’ve been asking to dance Swan Lake, and they refuse.”

It is a gripe that comes up endlessly among the troupe, usually aimed at the theater’s artistic director, Sergei Filin, who has the final say in handing out the leading roles. It even came up as one of the possible motives when Filin was attacked on Jan. 17. That night, a masked man walked up behind him outside his apartment building and
splashed a jar of acid into his face, causing severe burns and damage to his eyes. From his hospital bed, Filin told reporters that the attack was linked to his work, to jealousy or vengefulness inside the theater. It was hard to imagine that a crime so nasty could have such petty motives, and even with the Bolshoi’s history of sabotage — broken glass placed into ballet slippers, cats thrown onto the stage during performances, homoerotic photos leaked online — sulfuric acid in the face seemed too depraved. There had to be more to it than a casting dispute.

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But according to police, it seems there wasn’t. On March 5, they arrested Vorontsova’s common-law husband, Pavel Dmitrichenko, who is also a star dancer at the Bolshoi. Speaking to the Russian press, police sources said Dmitrichenko, 29, may have been taking revenge on Filin for obstructing his wife’s career. The following morning, a Russian TV news channel aired footage of him looking haggard but calm at a police station. “I ordered the attack,” Dmitrichenko said into the camera. Two accomplices — a driver and an ex-convict who allegedly threw the acid — also signed confessions, according to the Moscow police department, which issued a self-congratulatory statement saying the case was closed. “The motive was personal animosity linked to their professional work,” the statement said.

Yet there is much more to that animosity than this statement lets on, and even if Dmitrichenko’s confession leads to a conviction, it is not clear whether the underlying tensions at the theater will be resolved.

At the rehearsal on Feb. 6, exactly a month before her husband’s apparent confession, Vorontsova explained that the roots of those tensions trace back to a feud between her teacher and the Bolshoi’s management. Nikolai Tsiskaridze, a star dancer and TV celebrity, took Vorontsova under his wing soon after she came to the Bolshoi in 2009. She had studied ballet in the provincial city of Voronezh, her home town, and even though her talent was hard to deny, she says it was not easy fitting in amid the Bolshoi’s culture of snobbery and cutthroat competitiveness. “Nobody had any use for me except Kolya,” she says, using a pet name for Tsiskaridze. “He saw something in the way I

But for a ballerina hoping to win the Bolshoi’s most prestigious roles, Tsiskaridze is not the ideal mentor. He and most of the theater’s management have not been on speaking terms for years. In the press and on television, Tsiskaridze has attacked the management for soiling the Bolshoi’s repertoire of classics with contemporary works
from abroad, for shoddy work during a recent renovation, for favoritism and bad taste. As a result of his endless criticism, Tsiskaridze claims he and his students are denied roles, docked pay and prevented from advancing their careers. At the rehearsal last month, when Vorontsova had finished an immaculate solo, he turned
around in his director’s chair and said to me, “You see that? These are the dancers the Bolshoi pays humiliating wages and doesn’t allow to dance.”

Still struggling to catch her breath, Vorontsova nodded so hard in agreement that her tutu began to bounce. Her dream, she says, is to dance the lead role of Odette, the Swan Princess, in the classic production of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. But what ballerina doesn’t have that dream? And why would Filin have felt obliged to give it to her
when she asked for it back in December? The Bolshoi’s press secretary, Katerina Novikova, says Filin merely told her she is not ready. “He suggested she try rehearsing with another instructor, a woman, because it is a distinctly feminine role,” says Novikova.

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Vorontsova and her teacher remember it differently. In December, they claim, Filin offered to let her dance the Swan Princess if she agreed to abandon Tsiskaridze’s mentorship. Out of loyalty, she says she refused. “He is a living genius,” she said of her teacher after their rehearsal last month. “I am prepared to suffer a lot for the honor of working with him.”

But whatever Filin’s reason for denying her that role, he began to face a campaign of harassment soon after. In late December, he started getting prank calls at all hours of the night. His email account was hacked and, on the eve of the acid attack, the tires of his car were slashed. The picture emerging from the investigation this week is that Dmitrichenko may have been taking revenge on behalf of his wife. It is not clear whether he was acting alone — whether he had told Vorontsova or Tsiskaridze of his alleged plans — but both of them deny having anything to do with the attack. Since her husband’s arrest, Vorontsova has been impossible to reach. On March 6, the day Dmitrichenko made his televised confession, she danced as one of the Diamonds in the Bolshoi’s productions of the Ballet Jewels, but the theater’s press secretary said afterward that the ballerina will not be giving interviews, and declines to comment on her emotional condition. At this point, though, her chances of moving on to the role of the Swan Princess do not look any better off.