The trial of Pavel Dmitrichenko, the Bolshoi dancer accused of attacking his boss, Sergei Filin, is continuing in Moscow, with fierce accusations being traded in the courtroom.

Dmitrichenko and his many supporters within the theatre deny that he arranged for a jar of acid to be thrown over Filin in January. Between recent court hearings, Dmitrichenko also says he was severely beaten by police, a charge that the police deny. 

Whoever was behind the attack on Filin, doctors are still struggling to save his eyesight. Filin has undergone 23 operations on his eyes so far and is expected to endure many more. 

Vaganova management changes

In St Petersburg, many are concerned about the change of management at the famous Vaganova academy, Russia’s first professional ballet school, the training ground for many of Russia’s most talented dancers – Rudolf NureyevMikhail BaryshnikovAnna PavlovaNatalia Dudinskaya and others. 

Many Vaganova graduates go on to dance at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg and tour with them worldwide. 

Nikolai Tsiskaridze, the former Bolshoi star who has been highly critical of the way the Moscow theatre is run, was appointed acting head of the school at the end of October. 

The school’s academic council is expected to hold a vote for the leadership of the school in early 2014, but it is unclear whether the Bolshoi dancer is likely to be replaced by a different candidate. 

Unusual expressions of unhappiness

Tsiskaridze’s appointment has triggered an unprecedented reaction among Russian ballet dancers and teachers, who normally maintain a polite reserve in public. 

Dancers who would never normally express unhappiness at their management outside the closed world of classical ballet have kicked into action online.

One of the key causes of their concern is the speed in which the decision seemed to be made. 

Dancers talk to us

“The main thing is how this change in leadership happened,” Yevgenia Obraztsova, a Bolshoi dancer who was with the Mariinsky Theatre until last year, told me in an interview by telephone from Moscow. “This is what upset everyone. This is the key thing,” she explained. 

Obraztsova, who sounded strained, said that such a major change in a ballet school should have happened more slowly. 

Those making the decisions should have invited the school’s teachers - some of the world’s most experienced and sought-after ballet coaches - to become involved, she said. 

The changes at the Vaganova school have also caused upset because ballet in Russia is simply more important than in the UK. 

Top dancers are more like famous actors or much-loved writers here, and so a new appointment at a leading dance academy is a bit like a change in management at the National Theatre or the British Museum. 

Obraztsova points to the long history of the Vaganova, which was founded in 1738. 

“It’s very easy to lose artists and to lose a good [ballet] school through ill-thought-out actions,” she says. “To create something that’s taken centuries to build is very difficult, and to destroy it in one go is utterly unwise.” 

For many, the problem is not Tsiskaridze’s obvious talent or standing within the ballet world.

“As for Nikolai Maximovich Tsiskaridze, he really is an exceptional dancer,” Obraztsova explains. “If he was to lead a ballet company at a theatre this would probably not provoke so much gossip, comment and debate. 

“It’s one thing to be in charge of tough [adult] artists, and it’s another to be in charge of children. You need experience for this. 

“To teach children, you need to have a particular psychological approach, as well as knowledge of how to teach them, and how to organise the educational process within the academy.”

Obraztsova said she was finding it difficult to work due to anxiety about the changes. 

“I have felt tense and worried for quite a few days now, and it is hard for me to concentrate on my own work because I am worried about my [old] school,” said the ballerina. 

“I’m concerned about my teachers who I am so close to, who taught me. I feel very sorry for them because I see how they worry. It’s psychologically traumatising, not only for the children [at the Vaganova school] but for us adults as well,” she said. 

Mariinsky ballet soloist Ilya Kuznetsov, who also runs his own children’s ballet school, is understood to be one of the candidates being considered for the post of academy head when the school’s academic council takes a vote next year. 

Kuznetsov, who is widely respected within the Mariinsky, said dancers and teachers with years of experience feel their views have been ignored. They fear Tsiskaridze will change the Vaganova for the worse, and not preserve the traditions that have made it great. 

The renowned Mariinsky ballerina Diana Vishneva also spoke against the change, saying there was no reason to replace the head of the Vaganova school. 

But not everyone agrees.

Some sources within the Russian theatrical world say that the Vaganova is not under any serious threat. 

They argue that Tsiskaridze is more than capable of running the school and that the dangers to the Vaganova are exaggerated. 

Tsiskaridze himself has said that he is perfectly qualified to teach children. 

He is deeply sceptical of those who oppose his appointment. 

“First of all, I’m in a very enviable position,” he said in a telephone interview from St Petersburg. 

“I presume these people want to occupy it themselves, judging by their behaviour. Judging by how they advertise themselves, they are fighting for this position. 

“The people who are against my appointment are those who want to be appointed to this position themselves.”

Tsiskaridze speaks out

Tsiskaridze also expressed frustration with the explosive reactions to his appointment. 

“One thing I would like to say is that people should stop gossiping and should allow us to do our work. It’s impossible to deal with.” 

Tsiskaridze said he had been in St Petersburg for just three weeks - so it was premature to talk of his plans for the Vaganova. 

“At the moment I am meeting everybody, spending time with them, and introducing myself to how things are run. 

“It’s very early to talk about plans, because at the moment I am focusing on things at hand. I have many ideas, but I need to understand things first.” 

He also stressed his attachment to the school. “All the teachers who ever taught me were taught at this school. I have a deep admiration for the school which educated my teachers, who are all very dear to me,” he said. 

Tsiskaridze said he did not communicate often with Valery Gergiev, the artistic director of the Mariinsky, because Gergiev travels so often, but asserted that it was he who was in charge of the Vaganova school. 

“It’s all in my hands. It’s a completely different organisation. Of course he cares about what’s happening here, but he has no influence. 

“Of course he can always express his opinion and I will always listen, because I have a lot of respect for him,” Tsiskaridze said. 

Tsiskaridze said Gergiev has not told him that things should change at the Vaganova. Gergiev also told Tsiskaridze that he would try to meet with the school’s teachers to discuss matters. 

Vaganova, Mariinsky merger

Meanwhile a proposed merger between the Vaganova and the Mariinsky Theatre seems to have been shelved for the time being. 

Earlier this year, Gergiev floated an ambitious plan to merge the Vaganova, the Mariinsky, the St Petersburg Conservatoire and the Russian Institute of Art History. 

Gergiev said the culture ministry was behind the scheme, and that it was needed in order to boost the ballet school. 

He said that there were concerns that not everything was being done in order to ensure the school retained its place as one of the world’s best, and that he had discussed the matter with dancers such as Mikhail Baryshnikov. 

“I use every opportunity I have to be in contact with those people who are proud of the Russian ballet tradition,” he said recently. “These artists are too big to do something against their convictions, not taking into consideration their colossal artistic, human, and life experience.” 

Critics, however, say the Mariinsky has lost dancers to the Bolshoi in past years for other reasons, and that the merger would bring no benefits. 

Tsiskaridze said the Vaganova and Mariinsky would definitely not be merging into one organisation. 

“It won’t happen. People have been over it many times. Anybody who says otherwise… I’m tired of it.” 

“[Gergiev] talked about this a very long time ago. The government has made the decision that it won’t happen. At least nobody has discussed anything like this with me,” he said. 

Russia’s culture minister, Vladimir Medinsky, previously said that Tsiskaridze’s appointment might enable the Moscow and St Petersburg schools of ballet to join forces. 

One reason would be that the Bolshoi is better at producing male dancers, and the Mariinsky is the opposite, said the minister. 

Predictably, Medinsky’s words elicited sharp responses in the ballet world – since the two schools are markedly different and each city is proud of its own tradition. 

But it was unclear from the minister’s words whether he meant merging, or just sharing ideas. I asked Tsiskaridze whether a merger was on the cards. 

“No. You shouldn’t read stupid things on various websites. People who write them are not very good people, and are unqualified [to comment],” he said. 

Meanwhile, the ballet carries on despite the controversy. 

The latest Russian dancer to visit London, Yevgenia Obraztsova, received outstanding notices from reviewers and outpourings of delight from ballet fans after her performance in Romeo and Juliet at Covent Garden this month. 

And in December the Bolshoi’s sparky Natalia Osipova, who has joined the Royal Ballet as a principal dancer, will perform there in George Balanchine’s Jewels.

(Voice of Russia)