In Putin's Russia, Ballet Is a Crime of Passion

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"Things are so different here," said Joy Womack in "An American at the Bolshoi," a 2010 New York Times video. "Russia is the best because there is this demand for excellence that there isn't in any other part of the world," the young ballet dancer explained in an accompanying article.

Back then, Womack's notoriety derived from leaving her family at 15 to move to Moscow and enter the Bolshoi ballet academy, officially known as the Moscow State Academy of Choreography. Her gall paid off: After graduating from the school in 2012, she became the first American woman to join the Bolshoi Ballet.

Womack is no longer an American at the Bolshoi. The 18-year-old quit the company last week and unloaded -- first in an interview with Russian news site Izvestia -- on the legendary troupe on her way out. She claimed that performance opportunities were being withheld from her and that the casting process was corrupt. An official allegedly informed her that the price tag for a solo part would be $10,000. "That was a starting bargaining point," she told the New York Times. "It's not a secret that there are many dancers who have given presents."

In light of the Bolshoi's recent history, Womack's allegations are anything but shocking. In January, a man confronted the company's artistic director, Sergei Filin, outside his home and threw sulfuric acid in his face. In March, police announced that Pavel Dmitrichenko, a leading soloist at the Bolshoi, admitted to having organized the attack. More than 300 members of the Bolshoi staff signed an open letter defending Dmitrichenko and suggesting his initial confession was forced.

The trial is under way. Dmitrichenko has pleaded not guilty and now insists he did not mastermind the crime. Last week, a crucial witness said that law enforcement officers had threatened him; he retracted part of the statement he previously had signed (and apparently never read). Accusations that Filin accepted bribes and engaged in extramarital affairs with dancers also surfaced in court; the artistic director, his injured eyes hidden behind dark glasses, denied such charges.

All hasn't been tranquil outside the courtroom, either. The company stated in June that it wouldn't renew the contract of star Nikolai Tsiskaridze, known for butting heads with management. That same month, Dmitrichenko's common law wife, also a dancer in the company, resigned; some suggest anger over her not receiving choice roles may have helped precipitate the acid attack. Company manager Ruslan Pronin also lost his job, and in July, the Bolshoi's general director, Anatoly Iksanov was removed.

Stories that predate the attack have gained new currency, including perhaps apocryphal tales of glass placed in rivals' pointe shoes and allegations that directors urged ballerinas to have sex with rich patrons. Soon after the acid attack, Womack told Time's Simon Shuster that she had declined financial support in exchange for sex. A company manager resigned in 2011 after hundreds of e-mail addresses received a link to a site with erotic images -- some of them homosexual, not a minor detail in Russia -- seemingly of the manager. (He was apparently in the running for a promotion -- go figure.)

I've never been to Russia, but I lived in the pre-professional ballet world until I was Womack's age. From her personal website, I see we've taken classes from some of the same teachers. It's possible we've danced in the same studio. To me, the ingredients in the Bolshoi drama are two parts Russia, one part ballet.

The Bolshoi has long been inextricably tied to Russian society and government (the school and theater are government institutions), neither of which exude propriety these days. David Remnick explained the connection most clearly in a New Yorker piece after the acid attack: "Since the nineteenth century, the country's two principal stages -- the Mariinsky, in St. Petersburg, and the Bolshoi, in Moscow -- have acted as microcosms of imperial Russia, Soviet Russia, and, now, Vladimir Putin's Russia."

Putin, of course, seems more interested in riding horses shirtless than critiquing pirouettes. He did accompany his wife to a ballet at the Grand Kremlin Palace in June. On their way out after the first act, the couple told a TV reporter they were divorcing. The whole evening seemed more staged than that night's performance of "La Esmeralda."

"The Bolshoi is a ten-minute walk from the Kremlin. Historically, it might as well have been an annex," Remnick wrote. Star ballerina Svetlana Zakharova is a member of Parliament. American David Hallberg once spoke of receiving his invitation to join the company over lunch with Filin. Already a star in the U.S. (he's still a member of the American Ballet Theatre), Hallberg said he asked many questions, "Like, 'Do you really mean this?' They said, 'We have gotten approval from the Kremlin.'"

You don't see New York City Ballet dancers moonlighting in Congress, and I don't think the White House is consulted about Russian imports to the American Ballet Theatre. Of course, American ballet itself is more or less a Russian import. As the New York Times put it: "The ballet pipeline used to run mainly in one direction. Russians -- Baryshnikov and Balanchine, Godunov and Nureyev -- went (or defected) to the West. But now a handful of young Americans are venturing the other way."

Traveling the other direction still seems a bit like trying to mount the down escalator. Foreigners such as Womack pay $18,000 a year to train with the Russian dancers at the Bolshoi academy; the Russians study free. Womack complained that she had trouble getting a work visa and received short-term contracts rather than the "state" contract Russian dancers typically get.

Of course, there's another potential factor in Womack's unseemly accusations: resentment. The transition from being the star of a premier ballet school to shuffling along in the back row of swans in a renowned company is notoriously humbling. It's uncommon, at least in the U.S., for young ballet dancers to receive many flashy roles early in their careers. As the AFP pointed out, while Womack's webpage says she signed a soloist contract in 2012, the Bolshoi's official website listed her as a member of the corps de ballet. Some at the Bolshoi suggest she simply was not skilled enough to dance the roles she wanted.

The opaque nature of the ballet world makes it all but impossible to know. The art requires youthful training, so maturity and societal awareness are filtered through studio walls. If you pursue ballet at the highest level, you necessarily push school and normal teenage life aside. Being a dancer is a job that asks unreasonable feats of the human body, all the while encouraging the most gifted to reach new heights of physical exuberance. It differs from sports not in the physical exertion it requires but in the subjectivity it enshrines. One person's judgment can determine the course of a career.

Intense relationships flourish, on and off stage, as the result of such insularity, physicality and the sometimes unquenchable thirst to succeed. Once boundaries blur, it becomes hard to ascertain whether impeccable turnout or bribery -- emotional or otherwise -- won the lead role, and whether sickled feet or sex lost it.

At the Bolshoi, boundaries seem to have altogether disappeared. Unless, of course, they were never there in the first place.

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To contact the author on this story:
Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net