American Ballerina Quits Bolshoi, Accuses Theater of Extortion

Joy Womack's claim that a director demanded $10,000 in exchange for a lead role is one of many scandals to plague the famous theater

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The Bolshoi Theatre broke a lot of Joy Womack’s illusions. In 2009, at the age of 15, she became the first American ever accepted into the Russian ballet company, the most storied in the world, where she had aspired to dance since childhood. When we met three years later, she was a full-fledged member of the troupe, and had lost all of her naive notions about what life at the Bolshoi would be like. She spoke casually of the theater’s cruelty, its corruption, the sexual “skeletons in its closet,” and admitted that she been hardened by her experiences there. She quit the company this week, slamming the door with a startling claim of extortion.

It is not the first scandal to rock the theater, and it is not likely to be the last. When we spoke in January, hardly a week had passed since the theater’s artistic director, Sergei Filin, had acid thrown in his face, allegedly by a rival dancer who is now on trial. “He did right by me,” Womack told me at the time, referring to the director who had given her a chance. “And I can do right by supporting him. Not necessarily that I owe that to him, but I definitely feel like you don’t bite the hand that’s feeding you.” They seemed like the words of a cunning survivor, but not of the delicate creatures she often portrayed on stage.

At some point in the nine months that followed, Womack’s patience with the theater ran out. She announced in an interview published on Wednesday that she was abandoning her beloved troupe. One of the directors, whom she declined to name, had demanded $10,000 from her, she said, in exchange for a solo part in a performance. The extortion allegedly took place after Filin returned to the theater in September – having undergone numerous surgeries to repair the acid damage to his eyes and face – and refused Womack the role she wanted. In an interview with Russia‘s Izvestiya daily, she recalled a director telling her afterward: “Joy, you don’t have a sponsor. You need to have some kind of sponsor who can somehow sort of speak for you… There is no other way to do things in our theater now.”

In a reply distributed to the press, the general director of the Bolshoi, Vladimir Urin, told Womack to take her claims to the police. “If these facts are confirmed by legal means, the guilty parties will have to face the appropriate punishment,” Urin said in the statement. Reached by TIME on Wednesday, the theater’s spokeswoman, Katerina Novikova, declined to comment further.

Last week, in an emotional speech to a courtroom full of journalists, Filin addressed other claims about his leadership – such as allegations that he exchanged choice roles for sex – when he appeared to give testimony in the trial of his attacker. That was the first time he had confronted the Bolshoi soloist, Pavel Dmitrichenko, who faces 12 years in prison if convicted of organizing the attack. “The accusation that dancers passed through my bed is not as offensive to me as it is to the ballerinas that allegedly had affairs with me,” Filin said from the witness stand, where he sat with dark glasses covering his damaged eyes. “It is a lie,” he added.

But the claims of sex-driven favoritism at the Bolshoi, as well as the unofficial “sponsorship” of ballerinas, have haunted the theater for years. In 2011, the troupe’s former prima ballerina, Anastasia Volochkova, told me that the directors push dancers to sleep with wealthy patrons of the arts as part of the Bolshoi’s formal banquets. “If you don’t go for the whole banquet and do all that is expected afterward, you won’t go on the next tour,” she told me, describing what she claimed to be the informal rules of the company. “It was all done with this kind of arm-twisting. This included intimate relations, sex and so on. This was all openly said, which was incredible to me.”

When I put these accusations to Anatoly Iksanov, who was then the theater’s general director, he denied ever encouraging the ballerinas to sleep with patrons of the theater. Some ballerinas, however, seek out these sponsors for themselves, he said. “There are certain individuals, whose names I’d rather not discuss, who looked for their own personal sponsors. Then [they] come all covered from head to toe in jewels,” he told me.

In some ways this harks back to the traditions of the Bolshoi Theater, which was founded in 1776 and, for many generations afterward, served as a playground for the Russian aristocracy. Such customs persevered in Soviet times, as many bosses of the Communist Party, including Josef Stalin, were widely thought to take lovers from the troupe.

After the Soviet Union collapsed, the theater was forced for the first time in its history to adapt to the laws of capitalism, and the state hired Iksanov in 2000 partly to create the Bolshoi’s first board of private patrons. In order to please them, he often had to coral ballerinas into attending the fundraising galas. “I have to convince them, ‘Please, come along for a little while,’” he told me. “’These are our sponsors, they give us money.’”

When combined with the dismal salaries that Bolshoi ballerinas usually receive, this practice seems to have facilitated relationships, platonic or otherwise, between the theater’s young dancers and its patrons. While studying life inside the troupe after the acid attack earlier this year, I visited one ballerina’s apartment in central Moscow – one of the most expensive cities in the world – which she said a wealthy sponsor was renting for her. Before she met him, she was living with roommates in a tiny studio on the outskirts of town – which was all her meager paycheck would allow.

Womack talked about this practice openly when we met in January at a cafe up the street from the Bolshoi. She said she had been “given an opportunity” which she described as, “I want you to be my lover, and I will support you.” Deeply insulted by the offer, Womack says she refused. “My work and my personal life are separate, completely,” she told me. “But here [at the Bolshoi] those lines are very blurred, very blurred.”

Many of the dancers hoped that this might start to change after the acid attack, which led to a major shake-up of the theater’s ranks. Iksanov, who had run the theater for nearly 13 years, was fired in July and replaced by Urin, the experienced head of a second-tier theater in Moscow. Iksanov’s sworn enemy at the theater, the star dancer Nikolai Tsiskaridze, was also forced out. But the trial against Dmitrichenko only seemed to fuel the tensions and rivalries at the Bolshoi. In March, 300 of the theater’s dancers and staff signed a letter to President Vladimir Putin pleading for Dmitrichenko to be freed. The Kremlin ignored the appeal.

During the trial, prosecutors alleged that Dmitrichenko organized the attack as revenge against Filin for stifling the career of his common-law wife, the gifted Bolshoi ballerina Angelina Vorontsova, who has also left the troupe. In her only interview since the attack, Vorontsova told me in January that Filin refused to let her dance the roles she wanted. She also complained of miserly pay, which forced her to moonlight with other theaters in order to make ends meet. “You have no idea how long I’ve been asking to dance Swan Lake,” she said. “And they refuse.”

Womack, who called Vorontsova a “dear friend” when we spoke earlier this year, voiced similar complaints. Upon returning to the theater, Filin had denied Womack the solo role that she said she was promised. “This girl needs to stay in the corps de ballet,” Womack recalled being told in her interview with Izvestiya. The day the interview was published, Womack did not answer calls to her mobile phone. But the newspaper reported that she had taken a job at another company, the Kremlin Ballet Theater. Though not nearly as prestigious, that troupe may offer her the leading roles she craves, and at the very least, it will not be weighed down by the endless scandals that continue to haunt the Bolshoi.