Is Something Rotten at Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater?

With an acid attack and now allegations of prostitution, scandal is rocking the famous Bolshoi Theater. Anna Nemtsova speaks with the dancers.

Last January an assailant threw sulfuric acid into the face and eyes of the artistic director of the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow, and earlier this month one of the most popular dancers in the troupe was arrested for ordering that attack. As if that scandal was not enough for the Bolshoi in one season, there was more: now a former Bolshoi ballerina, Anastasia Volochkova, has appeared on state television to claim that the management of the Bolshoi Theater forced its ballerinas to act as escorts for the elites of Moscow and Paris, including politicians and business titans. The Bolshoi ballerinas, if they were keeping grievances bottled up before, are clearly angry and ready to speak of not just the acid attack, but other secrets of the world’s most famous ballet.

For over two years, dark scandals have rocked the theater. After Volochkova’s statement, thousands of articles with the sadly alliterative “Bolshoi Brothel” in their titles flooded the Internet. Meanwhile, the troupe of 220 ballet dancers, as a well-tuned machine, continued to perform. Every night almost transparently thin ballerinas floated over Russia’s most important stage in productions of La Bayadere, Le Corsaire, and Swan Lake. Meanwhile the backstage life oozed depression and panic. “Nobody has any right to spread dirty news about one of the few sacred places Russia has left, the Bolshoi, and we hear it from people [ballerinas] who once could not see their lives without this stage!” said a gloomy-looking Bolshoi ballerina, who spoke anonymously with The Daily Beast.

Enough trouble has come already, even after the arrest of the acid attacker. Earlier this month, 300 Bolshoi artists signed a letter in support of their friend, Pavel Dmitrichenko, who was accused of ordering the attack on their artistic director, Sergei Filin. Shortly after, police investigators arrived to convince the troupe that their colleague was in fact guilty. But that made the dancers even more furious. If before they felt sorry for Filin, because of his burnt face and eyes, they now feel sorry for Dmitrichenko, who is facing 8 years of prison; nearly unanimously, the artists disbelieve the police’s conclusions. They feel betrayed and abandoned. “Today Bolshoi’s artists represent Russians who lost their belief in their state management and in law enforcement agencies,” Yekaterina Novikova, Bolshoi’s press secretary, said.

And last week, a show aired on NTV, aiming to shed light on the most shocking details of the theatre’s backstage life: a darker, older tale of the role of ballerinas in Russia’s elite society. One of the show’s presenters, Tina Kandelaki, interviewed Volochkova (who is surely a ballerina with a grudge: the Bolshoi fired her for being “too fat” 10 years ago), about the intimate services: “An administrator would call them to say they are going to a party and a dinner, ending in bed,” Volochkova said, referring to “simple people,” ballerinas or dancers from the chorus line, performers with the lowest incomes for whom a party meant a lot.

Anonymously, in fear of ruining their careers, Bolshoi ballerinas admit that under the Bolshoi’s director of over 12 years, Anatoly Iksanov, there has been a practice of “assignments” to accompany important business and political figures to dinners and gala parties, as nothing decorates an elbow like a Bolshoi ballerina. The country’s richest and most powerful men enjoyed the company of famous dancers over drinks, but at the end of the night it was still up to each girl to make her own decision, these dancers said. The romantic attempts of some admirers—and ballerinas always have many—resulted in jokes to laugh at in dressing rooms. Ballerinas still giggle at a well-known oligarch, the owner of Siberian factories, who once flirted with more than one ballerina at once. He gave his graceful ballet girlfriends the same Chopard necklaces with snowflakes, and several of them compared the presents without much shame.

But Volochkova’s allegations are more serious. “Every time a ballerina comes out, as for instance the #32 swan in Swan Lake, she gets paid extra, but the management threatened to deprive them of that income and all international trips if they do not go to bed with party guests,” Volochkova said in an interview with The Daily Beast.

The former theater star also spoke out against the board of trustees, a new institution with wide but unclear powers. Today’s prima ballerinas do not fully understand the role of the board of trustees, a group of people close to the Kremlin, that includes a former minister of culture and a number of Russian billionaires. They have a right to influence many decisions concerning the theater’s life, including the repertoire.

The board was founded in 2001, and the Bolshoi’s website says it is “above all a circle of friends of the Theater, who have gathered together to render comprehensive help to the Bolshoi in solving its day-to-day problems and realizing its ambitious goals.” Occasionally, the influential friends help selective ballet dancers with money to rent and even buy apartments in Moscow, only contributing to the atmosphere of playing favorites in the troupe. Would the board consider addressing the issues making the Bolshoi’s artists unhappy? Most probably not, as the director of the Bolshoi, Anatoly Iksanov, is also one of the trustees.