The man in the dark glasses sat quietly on the Bolshoi‘s stage, unintroduced for over half an hour. In a formal, businesslike ceremony inside the theatre’s lavish auditorium, Vladimir Urin, the Bolshoi’s new director, officially opened the new season by rattling off a list of planned premieres and tours.
It was almost as if there were nothing unusual about the upcoming season, the theatre’s 238th. But the world’s media, interspersed among the hundreds of singers, dancers, musicians and support staff who work for the company, were not here to hear the finer details of upcoming operatic stagings: they were here to see the man in the dark glasses, back for the first time since one of the most horrific episodes in the theatre’s long history, in January.
Sergei Filin, the artistic director of the Bolshoi’s ballet troupe, was attacked with sulphuric acid eight months ago and has spent the past half a year recovering in a German clinic. Doctors have performed more than a dozen operations to recover his sight, and he now has 80% vision in one eye, although the other is still almost blind.
“There is no need to hide that it was not an easy season for the Bolshoi last year,” Urin said, employing considerable understatement in his only reference to the events. Eventually, after several other people had spoken, Filin was given the floor, to prolonged applause from the gathered masses.
“I want to say to you hello, and that I am very glad to see you,” he said, with a wry smile. He did not mention the attack, and immediately launched into plans for new ballet premieres this season. Filin will now be based in Moscow, and renew his work at the theatre, with periodic travel to Germany for further operations on his eyes.
Filin was attacked outside his Moscow apartment on a snowy evening in January. The hooded assailant flung a jar of liquid, which turned out to be sulphuric acid, into his face.
One of the Bolshoi’s leading male dancers, Pavel Dmitrichenko, is facing trial for ordering the attack. He has admitted to hiring an accomplice to beat up Filin, whose leadership he disliked, but he denies wanting him splashed with acid. Dmitrichenko and the two people who carried out the attack could face 12 years in jail if convicted.
Many in the Moscow theatre world also linked the attack to Nikolai Tsiskaridze, the Bolshoi’s premier dancer, who had long been in conflict with Filin and the theatre management, keen on taking top job for himself. Tsiskaridze denied involvement but initially refused to condemn the attack, later accusing Filin of having staged it himself for effect.
The theatre chose not to extend Tsiskaridze’s contract this summer.
The Russian government also fired the Bolshoi’s longtime general director, Anatoly Iksanov, who oversaw years of discord and scandal. The attack on Filin was the violent climax of a long controversy over corruption during the theatre’s expensive and lengthy renovations, and infighting among the artists. Urin, the experienced director of a rival theatre, was appointed in his place, promising to clean up the theatre “without revolutions”.
The hope at the theatre now is that the departures of Iksanov and Tsiskaridze will finally allow the focus to return to the stage.
“It’s difficult when the focus is on these tragic and criminal events, and taken away from the artistic side of things,” Katerina Novikova, the Bolshoi’s head of press, told the Guardian. “We showed in our recent tour to London that this is one of the most professional ballet companies in the world, and we hope that the focus can now return to that.”
Urin appeared visibly shocked by the level of media attention at the opening. He begged the assembled press not to spread false rumours about the theatre, saying since he had taken over there had been a swirl of lies and misinformation about his plans to end the era of infighting.
As the ceremony drew to a close, Filin was almost knocked off his feet in a media scrum, with security guards shoving back overzealous cameramen.
Dressed in a sharp suit and tie, Filin bore the only visible signs of the attack in his dark glasses and a small patch of burnt skin on his jaw.
“My psychological state is good, and I also feel well,” he said, though he refused to comment in more detail about his ordeal and treatment. “Today is about something different: it’s about the artistic side of things.”
The Bolshoi’s new season began with a performance of Tchaikovsky’s opera The Queen of Spades on the theatre’s second stage.