‘Ivan the Terrible’ dancer admits acid attack
Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet is revered the world over for its excellence. Now one of its stars has admitted to blinding its director. Is extreme dedication to art the enemy of sanity?
Dead cats have been thrown on stage, broken glass inserted into ballet pumps by jealous rivals and performers denounced to the secret police.
But until this week no one at Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet, the world’s largest ballet company and one of the most respected, has confessed to trying to maim a colleague for the rest of their life.
On January 17, in a Moscow back street, a masked man flung a jar of sulphuric acid into the face of Sergei Filin, director of the Bolshoi Ballet, while he was walking home. He is still fighting for his eyesight in a German clinic and his face will be permanently disfigured. (It may be coincidence, but a week later, leading ballerina Svetlana Lunkina fled the Bolshoi to live in Canada after death threats).
Now, in a dramatic twist, Moscow police said on Tuesday that 28-year-old leading dancer Pavel Dmitrichenko, who recently played the murderous Russian prince Ivan the Terrible at the Bolshoi Theatre, has confessed to ordering the acid attack.
Russian television said that Dmitrichenko’s girlfriend was ballerina Angelina Vorontsova, who has fallen out with Filin, while Dmitrichenko himself is a close ally of Nikolai Tsiskaridze, the flamboyant principal dancer who has been widely accused of trying to oust his director.
Some blame the love-hate artistic wars of the Bolshoi on the general state of seething corruption and favouritism in Russian public life. ‘It is just like the politics of the Kremlin’ said one commentator, ‘but with better costumes’. ‘A disgusting cesspool of … half-crazy fans ready to bite the throats of the rivals of their favourites,’ said another.
Others point to life imitating art: for instance the movie Black Swan, in which Natalie Portman plays a ballerina who stabs a rival dancer in a mirror with a shard of glass, only to discover that she has actually stabbed herself.
Or A Bullet in the Ballet, the 1937 novel by the critic Caryl Brahms about ‘The Ballet Stroganoff’, which opens with the immortal sentence: ‘Since it is probable that any book flying a bullet in its title is going to produce a corpse sooner or later – here it is.’
Crazy for art
Beneath the melodrama and histrionics, however, lurks an issue which many take more seriously: is there a link between artistic genius and mental disorders? Is there a path that links the catastrophic criminal deeds at the Bolshoi with the mental sufferings of Van Gogh, Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath?
Only in the minds of the seriously idiotic, say others. There is nothing glamorous about mental illness, there is nothing to be glorified. Certainly, being mentally ill is not something any artist should aspire to. In fact, most great artists are deeply sane and balanced.
- If offered the chance to dedicate 12 hours a day training for your favourite sport or hobby for the next five years, would you accept?
- Do you think artistic people have a single personality type?
- How hard is it to be a ballet dancer? Find out how much training they have to do and about common injuries and health problems they face.
- Make a list of five of your favourite artists. Write a short ‘mental health’ report on each of them, highlighting factors that might indicate whether they were happy and stable personalities – or not.
Some People Say...
“Without suffering, you can’t be a serious artist.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- I can’t imagine this happening outside Russia!
- Physical attacks on ballet directors, perhaps not. But you can be sure that any artistic institution such as a national theatre company or a major art school will have more than its fair share of in-fighting. Why? Take a bunch of gifted and sensitive people who spend months producing work that can be trashed by one hostile review and you are going to encounter abnormal levels of jealousy, fear and paranoia.
- So if i join a band, for example, will I become unstable?
- Hopefully not. But you may have to become hardened to rehearsing long hours without hope of pay and being widely neglected by the people that you hope will be your fans. Even the biggest stars have to go through tough beginnings. Just remember to eat well and get enough sleep.
- Bolshoi Ballet
- Founded in 1776, this is the biggest ballet company in the world with approximately 220 dancers. The name ‘bolshoi’ means ‘big’ or ‘grand’ in Russian. If you are a member you can be a senior dancer, ranked as a principal, or (descending in order of importance) a lead soloist, first soloist, soloist and finally member of the corps de ballet.
- Ivan the Terrible
- He was indeed a murderous Russian prince who ran Moscow in the first half of the 16th Century and then became the tsar of all Russia for around 40 years. He wasn’t all bad, being intelligent and cultured, but he was prone to mental illness and terrible rages (thus his nickname) during one of which he killed his chosen heir, Ivan Ivanovitch.
- Van Gogh, Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath
- All three were famous artists who suffered from mental illness. The painter Van Gogh famously cut off his own ear and ended his days in a mental asylum. The novelist Virginia Woolf drowned herself after a lifelong struggle with severe depression. The poet Sylvia Plath committed suicide by putting her head in a gas oven.