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Filin in court: ‘I can’t forgive’
Arts fight threat of state censorship
12 MAY 14 Sergei Filin has described how his family’s life was ripped in half by the acid attack that he suffered. Dividing life into ‘before’ and ‘after’, he has spoken to the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda about how he lives with what he calls a ‘continuous round of hopes and disappointments’ as treatment continues on his eyesight.
He said that Alexei Ratmansky has rebuffed his attempts to lure Russia’s finest living choreographer to come back and work with the Bolshoi, but says there are tentative plans for a Ratmansky festival in Moscow where his ballets for other companies around the world could be given their Russian premieres.
Filin discusses the salary of Bolshoi dancers. Rejecting claims of low wages which were alleged to be a factor in the attack on him, he states that the earnings of corps de ballet dancers in the busy month of March was between £3,500 and £5,000.
And he laments the extreme conservatism of Bolshoi audiences, whose preferences for a small number of classics have penned the great company into a restricted repertoire, whether at home or on tour abroad.
Many issues raised in the astonishingly vicious trial of Filin’s attackers were not discussed in this interview: Filin’s contract renewal in 2016 may well be in peril due to the 35% impairment of his working ability which the criminal case formally established. He also suffered a heavy onslaught on his character during the trial, and no comment is sought here from him on the changes in theatre personnel, including the dismissals of both the general director who appointed Filin, Anatoly Iksanov, and his rival Nikolai Tsiskaridze. The latter is now head of Russia’s legendary ballet school, the Vaganova Academy, from which some see him as well-placed to return to the Bolshoi in a leadership capacity the moment he gets the chance.
I also append part of an interview Filin gave Rossiyskaya Gazeta when he was in Ekaterinburg last week judging a children’s ballet competition - in it he gave more rein to his emotions.
Here’s a translation of the Komsomolskaya Pravda interview, followed at the bottom by the Rossiyskaya Gazeta one.
Filin: ‘I can’t drive my sons to football any more’
The ballet season at the Bolshoi Theatre ends in July, but ahead there is still an important premiere: the French choreographer Jean-Christophe Maillot’s new creation at the New Theatre, The Taming of the Shrew. In an exclusive interview with Komsomolskaya Pravda, Bolshoi Ballet artistic director Sergei Filin announced the first results of the season and spoke about how he lives and works after the brutal attack on him in January last year, when he was splashed with acid in his face. He received serious burns to the eyes.
The organiser behind the crime turned out to be a leading Bolshoi soloist, Pavel Dmitrichenko. While the case was investigated, German doctors worked little by little to recover Filin’s vision. And by something like a miracle, one eye was saved. Last autumn Sergei returned to Moscow and resumed work. The Bolshoi Theatre have given the premieres that he planned a few years back. There are plans made for coming productions. It is as if everything is back on track.
But still, Filin’s life is now divided into ‘before’ and ‘after’.
KOMSOMOLSKAYA PRAVDA: Sergei Yurievich, has your extended absence affected the company’s output? Did you manage to put on all you had planned?
SERGEI FILIN: Everything that was scheduled took place. [IB: This means the current season. In fact last spring’s intended Wayne McGregor creation, The Rite of Spring, was cancelled.] We ended last season with the premiere of John Cranko’s Onegin. This season the ballet Marco Spada, in Pierre Lacotte’s production, was put on. This is a large classical ballet with a cascade of lovely dances and complex choreography. Practically the whole troupe were involved in it. Recently we had the premiere of the dramatic ballet La dame aux caméllias, by one of the most interesting contemporary choreographers John Neumeier. For classical artists this was a breakthrough. Many critics described Svetlana Zakharova’s performance as Marguerite Gaultier a major event. Svetlana is a recognized star of world ballet, but this role uncovered a gifted dramatic actress.
On 4 July there’s the premiere of Taming of the Shrew, in which many of our young soloists are involved. Each of these productions would embellish any company repertoire. We have preparations for current shows in both the Main and New Theatres going on simultaneously. And all of this is being fitted in with foreign tours.
In January we showed Paris Alexei Ratmansky’s ballet Lost Illusions. And while this ballet is not such a well-known hit as Swan Lake, the French audiences received it with interest. While some artists prepared for the Paris tour, others were dancing 22 performanes of The Nutcracker in Moscow. All of that is as well as all the technical difficulties of dealing with all the different productions.
Ratmansky says no
It's great that the Bolshoi has John Neumeier, Pierre Lacotte, Jean-Christophe Maillot working there, but where are our young Grigoroviches? Why doesn’t Alexei Ratmansky come back to the Bolshoi?
I’d also like Alexei Ratmansky to work at the Bolshoi. Alas, so far the desire is only on our side, without being reciprocated. Ratmansky left the theatre because of the conflicts inside the company, and because of the administrative commitments of his work. Perhaps it’s that the negative impressions are too strong in his memory, so he doesn’t yet want to come back here. A gifted choreographer needs a creative atmosphere. But it’s not been ruled out that the Bolshoi might do a festival of Ratmansky, where his new ballets would be shown, works he has made in other theatres around the world. For the Russian audience they would be premieres.
You shouldn’t be worried that we’re working with foreign choreographers. Our own directors stage plays in the West. There’s another Russian choreographer like Ratmansky, Yuri Possokhov, who is working now at the San Francisco Ballet. And by the way, Possokhov in his time created an interesting ballet for the Bolshoi, Cinderella. I hope this cooperation will continue. There are other fine choreographers: Yuri Smekalov, who put on for us a remarkable production for family viewing, Moidodyr. At the Perm opera house the chief balletmaster Alexei Miroshnichenko is doing interesting work, and also there is Vyacheslav Samodurov in Ekaterinburg. We will be only too pleased if the right time and wish come together for them to do some work at the Bolshoi Theatre.
Personally I am all for creative projects, festivals and workshops for contemporary choreography. Our artists are absolutely physically and creatively up for any experiments. But... the audience who buy tickets for the Bolshoi want to see productions like Spartacus, Swan Lake, Don Quixote, Bayadère, Giselle, in the Yuri Grigorovich stagings. These productions are the core of our repertoire. So there seems to be a contradiction. New, innovative ballets that we do in order to develop as a company don’t earn the theatre any money. Selling tickets for them is tough. To take them on tour is pretty much unthinkable. Not one Western impresario, not one producer will book the Bolshoi Ballet for the kind of work that can be found in other theatres of the world. Foreigners want from us that same classic choice: Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, Bayadère.
Nowadays you are constantly seen in the theatre. Is the treatment over? Has your vision been restored?
I can’t say my sight has come back. But the left eye was saved, so I can work, read, see my children. This is the great work of the doctors and a partial miracle. People with similar injuries to myself have in the past been doomed to blindness. The position with the right eye is significantly worse, the doctors will not yet give a prognosis. The treatment goes on, although I’ve already had 27 operations, there is another one to transplant tissue in the right eye.
During the trial of your attackers, many people said that one of the reasons for grievance was that Bolshoi Theatre dancers were poorly paid. Is it a secret what the average pay is for a ballet dancer?
The salary of a corps de ballet dancer in March, for example, ranged between 200,000 and 300,000 rubles [£3,400-5,000]. In my opinion, this isn’t that low a wage. Of course it doesn’t happen like this every month. In March we were putting on La dame aux caméllias, performing the current repertoire, there were rehearsals with orchestra, plus the quarterly bonus. But in any case, the average salary of artists who are working hard starts from 80,000 rubles [£1,300]. And when someone says Bolshoi dancers get around 30,000 [£500] a month, it's a lie. Only someone who never performed and never came to rehearsal would get that kind of money.
There are various situations - injury, maternity leave, the dancer is out of form - where the artist is not dancing but is still listed in the company. At the Bolshoi, we take the human factor into account. But those who are in demand, who are busy in the repertoire, are getting quite high salaries. Anyway, there aren’t any aggrieved ones among them.
Are you intending to get your sons into ballet?
My oldest son Daniel will soon be 18, he didn’t go into ballet. My youngest, Sergei, is only 5. My middle son Alexander is busy in the Neposedy ensemble. He sings very well, he is very much at ease being on stage. He also has another passion - he turns cartoons into Russian. Sasha is a creative boy. He felt it particularly when I was attacked. Although he tries not to show it, for him it’s still a difficult thing.
Life 'before' and 'after'
My family’s life is completely divided into ‘before’ and ‘after’. All that was ‘before’ was normal life. Everything ‘after’ - a constant round of hopes and disappointments. It’s like it was not just my sight I lost. They took much more than that, not just from me but from my family too.
A few months after the attack my wife Masha came with the children to visit me in the hospital at Aachen. By that time they’d already done several complicated operations. My eyelids were sewn shut, the eyes were covered with special membranes. The doctors promised that when they took out the stitches I would be able to see. And we were all waiting for this moment, especially the children. And so the doctors took out the stitches, and I opened my eyes - and I saw absolutely nothing. The children ran up to me and I couldn’t see them. This shocked us all. From that moment my sons became my defenders, as if we had switched roles. They led me by the hand to help me walk, they came in with me when I had some of the procedures.
On the one hand this was so touching, but on the other… Before it, I was the one helping us all. Now, all my nearest and dearest are helping me to live. And while we are trying to take the view that everything is ok, and we hardly talk about what’s gone on, our life has actually dramatically altered. I can’t drive, even though I would love to. My relatives always have to be around, so as to help me bathe my eyes regularly. Even simple pleasures like taking the boys to football have become extremely difficult. When something like this happens, you understand how great life used to be. What I used to think of as a problem, actually, was no problem at all. And things I used to love or value have become either unnecessary or not interesting.
You stopped dancing when you were 38, still young and in your full dancing prime. Did you find that the desire to go on stage resurfaced?
Yes, I did feel the urge to perform, but not as a classical dancer, more like character performing. Perhaps at that time I could have danced Onegin in John Cranko’s ballet. And I once wanted to do the role of Armand in La dame aux caméllias. But at that time we didn’t have those ballets in our repertoire. The role of Armand came too late for me. But once as a joke I said to John Neumeier that I would perform the role of Monsieur Duval. And if it were not for this tragedy that happened to me, maybe he would have let me do it.
"There's no such thing as a theatre without intrigue"
RG: Has what happened begun to become the past for you? Now that the case has been investigated, the guilty men punished - have you turned the page?
FILIN: Of course not. For what reason did they carry out this attack on me? I have not, for myself, had an answer. For sure, it was done to achieve some sort of result, but in the end if you put all the bits onto the map, no one won anything. Everything came out minus! Of course it hurts, that in the 21st century such a thing could happen, when really today all conflicts get discussed, everything gets resolved.
After the fateful attack in January 2013, what day was the best for you?
I did have a really important day, which seemed to be the beginning of a new period. The Bolshoi Theatre general director Anatoly Iksanov sent a delegation to me, with a TV film crew, led by the Bolshoi’s press secretary Katerina Novikova. I felt this as as such a bond for me from my home, my native theatre, though I could see hardly anything of their arrival, I had about 15% vision in one eye.
We met, Katya was full of positive energy, we were all laughing a lot, joking, even discussing theatre news and gossip. All my worries, my fear, my inner doubts, it all disappeared at once. I realised that the theatre was doing everything to make sure our plans happened. And you wouldn’t believe, in two days, literally on the third, my eye began to see, and gradually, the further, the better.
This tragic thing that happened to you led back to the fact that you left one theatre and returned to another. Now much has changed there. So how are you working with the new general director Vladimir Urin? You of course already worked together at the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Musical Theatre…
I went back to my ballet company, and it seemed to me that people had rallied and joined together. The company was in good working order. And talking about the new leadership - yes, we worked together at the Stanislavsky, under rules that Urin established. Most of our achievements and triumphs at that theatre happened thanks to him, his particular vision.
Has he changed much in the Bolshoi?
Not that much, I would say, but it is certainly changing. The most important change is that Vladimir Georgievich [Urin] is himself so present in literally everything, in all the details of theatrical process, in all the areas. This seems pretty healthy to me.
Would you say you and he are likeminded?
That is very rare, generally. It’s not obligatory to see identically - the chief thing is to be looking in the same direction! I have my views, my ideas, fantasies and dreams. My vision is the development of ballet and its prospects. Vladimir Gergievich has his own preferences. With the power of his very great experience, he can win on all points with substantial arguments. But today it’s too early to assess the results of our working together. The theatre is a living organism, we listen to each other, we are in dialogue - this the main thing.
In one of his interviews with our newspaper, Urin agreed that the stabilising of a healthy atmosphere was essential, in order that the Bolshoi Ballet should not only be associated with scandal.
Urin is actually quite lucky as the ballet company he succeeded to had already undergone significant changes. The people who were ready to make waves, to whip up tsunamis and go on the attack against the Bolshoi Theatre - we don’t have those people now in the company. This alone makes a more positive momentum.
But comparing theatres would be impossible anyway. It was Urin who, together with the troupe, established the atmosphere of today of a home-like theatre, cosy, warm. The Bolshoi Theatre today is an enormous number of unique talents, and - it follows - of ambitious personal interests too. The theatre has always had alternating calm and storm, but there’s no such thing as a theatre without intrigue.