Bolshoi chief fights for eyesight after acid attack

The head of Russia's Bolshoi ballet Sergei Filin was Friday fighting to save his eyesight after a masked assailant threw acid on his face, in a gruesome attack the theatre linked to internal conflicts.

Sergei Filin speaks with reporters at the Bolshoi theatre in Moscow, on April 7, 2011. Filini -- the head of Russia's Bolshoi ballet -- has been hospitalised with severe burns after a masked assailant threw acid on his face, in an attack the theatre linked to internal conflicts.

Filin, a former acclaimed dancer who was appointed to the post of artistic director in 2011, suffered third degree burns to the face, head and eyes late Thursday when the attacker cornered him near his house in central Moscow.

Bolshoi Theatre general director Anatoly Iksanov said doctors are battling to save Filin's eyes, and eventually planning to fly him to a military burns hospital in Belgium for more treatment.

Russia's Deputy Culture Minister Andrei Busygin called the crime an "attack on all Russian culture," and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev wished Filin a fast recovery, his spokeswoman Natalia Timakova said.

The Ren-TV channel showed Filin, 42, speaking in a Moscow hospital room after the attack with his face almost totally bandaged.

"I got scared, I thought, he is going to shoot me," he said.

"I turned around to run, but he raced ahead of me," he said. The attacker had his face in a mask and wore a hood, Filin said. "Only his eyes (were visible)."

The assailant fled the scene and no suspects have been identified so far, police said. However both police and his colleagues had little doubt that Filin was targeted because of his professional work at the Moscow theatre.

"This is clearly tied to his professional activities," Iksanov said.

"I really hope that the person who ordered (the attack) is found," Iksanov added. "This person is a monster," he told journalists at the theatre.

Filin underwent eye surgery Friday but doctors would only be able to evaluate its success in five to seven days, an aide to Deputy Prime Minister Olga Golodets, Alexei Levchenko, told RIA-Novosti.

Even if Filin's sight is preserved, rehabilitation and plastic surgery to repair the disfigurement from third-degree burns could keep him away from work for many months, doctors said.

"Right now the main thing is saving his eyes," Bolshoi spokeswoman Katerina Novikova told AFP.

When asked whether the attack could be linked to professional rivalries over prominent roles, she said: "What else can it be linked to? Sergei does not deal with real estate or business."

Filin took charge of Bolshoi ballet in 2011 and is an integral part of the theatre's recent artistic remake, turning more away from classical repertoire toward innovative and modern productions.

He has been a subject of harassment for some time: his website and email were hacked, and somebody punctured the tires on his car, Iksanov added.

The latest attack shocked the ballet community and horrified the Bolshoi troupe, whose usually impeccably-controlled stars openly wept with emotion.

"We are shocked and shaken, this is hard to fathom," the Bolshoi's best known current prima ballerina Svetlana Zakharova told journalists.

"Sergei is a good director, he had everything under control," she said, her voice shaking.

One of Filin's predecessors, Alexei Ratmansky, who left Bolshoi in 2008 and is now a choreographer at the American Ballet Theatre, said what led to the attack was the Bolshoi's "lack of theatre ethics."

"The tragedy with Sergei Filin is not a coincidence," he wrote on Facebook, listing the "disgusting" practise of hiring people to applaud at performances, the theatre's unresolved issue of ticket scalpers, and scandalous press interviews by troupe members as some of the issues plaguing the establishment.

"What happened shocks everyone, but it doesn't surprise that many people," Russian ballet historian Vadim Gayevsky told AFP.

Even in Soviet times, Bolshoi dancers spiked each others' pointe shoes with crushed glass, while legendary Soviet prima ballerina Galina Ulanova received threatening letters, he said.

Filin is a popular figure said to be adored by the dancers but the Bolshoi ballet remains hugely influenced by its chief ballet master, the veteran Soviet choreographer Yuri Grigorovich, and apparently driven by internal conflict.

Male dancer Nikolai Tsiskaridze, one of the Bolshoi's most visible stars due to appearances on TV shows, had meanwhile bitterly complained of not being given enough chance to dance performances under Filin's tenure.

The biggest public scandal on Filin's Bolshoi watch was the late 2011 exit from the institution of its star real-life couple Ivan Vasiliev and Natalya Osipova, who left Moscow to dance at a lesser known theatre in Saint Petersburg.

In another sign of the internal troubles at the theatre, one of the dancers contending for Filin's current post was in 2011 targeted by a porn smear scandal that effectively ruined his chances.

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Writer: AFP
Position: News agency