Sergei Filin acid attack: Trouble backstage at Bolshoi
At Moscow's Bolshoi Ballet this week they put on Giselle. It is a tale of jealousy, treachery and revenge. But that is nothing compared to the dramas raging backstage.
In a Moscow cafe, I meet one of the Bolshoi's biggest stars, principal dancer Nikolai Tsiskaridze. He has clashed before with his bosses. Now, he says the management of the ballet company is trying to force him out.
"It's like being back in the days of Josef Stalin," Tsiskaridze tells me. "They're organising meetings against me, they're trying to force staff to sign letters condemning me - they tried that last week. But all the ballet teachers in the Bolshoi refused to sign it."
After last month's acid attack on the Bolshoi's artistic director Sergei Filin, Tsiskaridze says the management began "dropping hints" that he was somehow involved.
"They decided to use this as an excuse for a witch hunt," he tells me, "to get rid of all the people they don't like.
"There is no way I can be linked to this crime. It's clear that the Bolshoi [general] director, Mr [Anatoly] Iksanov, is trying to settle scores with me. He wants to damage my reputation. But my reputation can't be damaged. I was - and I still am - the most famous dancer in the Bolshoi."'Against me'
This week Mr Iksanov said that the acid attack was the "natural result of the mayhem whipped up first and foremost by Nikolai Tsiskaridze" at the Bolshoi, through "mudslinging" and "constant intrigue".
Tsiskaridze denies it. But, along with other Bolshoi staff, he has been questioned by police.
"They asked me basic questions," Tsiskaridze reveals, "like when did I first meet Sergei Filin, what were relations like between us - and so on.
"I told them: 'I've got more than a cast-iron alibi, I have a cast-iron and concrete alibi.' At the time of the attack, I was at the Moscow Arts Theatre with thousands of other people."
Having seen Filin's unbandaged face on TV, Tsiskaridze casts doubt on the official version of events.
"God forbid, if that really was acid, you wouldn't be able to show your face for months," he says.
"I don't know what the substance was but it's clear that it wasn't what they claim it is. And if you look at all the specially commissioned TV shows which have been hinting at my involvement, it looks like a campaign - against me. This isn't against Sergei Filin. It's directed against me."
End Quote Nikolai Tsiskaridze
God forbid, if that really was acid, you wouldn't be able to show your face for months”
The Bolshoi is shocked by such controversial public statements by its principal dancer.
"Let God judge him for what he says," Bolshoi spokeswoman Katerina Novikova tells me.
"I'm speechless. I don't care what Tsiskaridze thinks about it. I just hope that Sergei will be healed as quickly as possible - his eyesight and his face - and that the Bolshoi will continue to work under his artistic directorship."
"Nikolai constantly complains to the Bolshoi management on all possible grounds," she adds. "He never loses a chance to do so, so in this sense he continues his regular line."'Sick of it'
Ms Novikova admits that "a year or two ago, there was a letter signed by a number of professors of the Bolshoi" on the subject of Nikolai Tsiskaridze. "This letter exists. I can't comment if a second attempt was done."
As well as dancing at the Bolshoi, Tsiskaridze also teaches there. He says that Filin tried to take away his students.
"In December Sergei Filin asked to see my pupil, Angelina Vorontsova," Tsiskaridze tells me.
"He told her: 'If you leave Tsiskaridze, I'll give you the part in Swan Lake.' Now, all ballerinas dream of dancing Swan Lake. But she refused. And I'm really grateful for her loyalty."
I ask Tsiskaridze if he challenged Filin about this.
"Yes, I did. We met in the lift. I told him I knew what he'd been doing. He replied: 'I didn't do anything of the kind.' I said: 'Come on. In the Bolshoi walls have ears. Everyone knows everything.'"
Ms Novikova, the Bolshoi spokeswoman, says there may have been a meeting between Filin and Tsiskaridze's student, but she believes the principal dancer is overreacting.
"What rumours are saying is that this girl, Angela Vorontsova, came to see Sergei asking for the big parts in the big ballets," she says.
"And that Sergei said to her he doesn't think she is ready yet for these parts, that if she wants to dance these parts it would be very wise for her to work with some female professors. So I don't think it's offending personally to Nikolai."
Tsiskaridze describes what is happening at the world's most famous ballet company as a "monstrous situation". He tells me: "the government should sack the entire management."
"And if you were offered the job of running the Bolshoi, would you take it?" I ask.
"Yes," Tsiskaridze replies, "because I know what to do, and I'm sick of everyone there being taken for a ride."