By Jim Maceda, Correspondent, NBC News
You don't get a sense of just how big the Bolshoi Theater actually is until you stand backstage. Prior to the opening act of Swan Lake, David Hallberg, the first American to be named a Bolshoi principal dancer, was warming up at the far end of the cavernous stage. It looked as though he was half a football field away. As Hallberg leaped and spun, another dancer loosened up by jogging around Hallberg, using the edge of the stage floor like laps on a track.
It’s a stage built for the biggest corps de ballet on the planet -- some 230 dancers, who now seem to be in sync after a nightmare year that was capped off by a sulfuric acid attack on the company’s 42-year-old artistic director, former dance star Sergei Filin.
Not only was Filin disfigured and partially blinded, but the attack appeared to be an inside job: a top Bolshoi dancer, Pavel Dmitrichenko, confessed to masterminding the crime.
Hallberg, who was personally hired by Filin, summed up the shock and revulsion that rocked the historic theater: "Every leader has a vision, and some people agree with it and some don’t,’" he told NBC News between rehearsals. "But you should never take it to the level it was taken to. And especially when a house such as the Bolshoi is trying to create art to serve as escapism for the public, which it has done for hundreds of years.’’
As difficult as it may be for foreigners to grasp, in a country like Russia, where ballet is sacred, the rivalries and jealousy between Bolshoi dancers and management had reached breaking point. Part of the underlying problem was money. A carryover from Soviet days, Bolshoi dancers are paid a meager monthly salary but can earn large bonuses for successful solo performances. Filin, as artistic director, could make or break a dancer’s career. Every choice for leading roles reverberated throughout the small village that is the Bolshoi. And it was known that Filin rankled Dmitrichenko by passing over his girlfriend for several of those lucrative, leading roles.
"It had a lot to do with this system of payment and casting performances on the basis of who you like and who you don’t like," said veteran music critic Raymond Stults, a New York native who has covered the Bolshoi in Moscow for decades. Surprisingly, Stults says, the Bolshoi dancers don’t blame Dmitrichenko for the brazen attack as much as they blame the Russian system.
"They tell me it’s the political system here," he said. "The way Russia is run. The kind of life that has arisen here over the last 13 years."
When asked if he was referring to the time period after Putin came to power, he would not say -- but Stults did add this: "There’s a lot of brutality in the system, for instance, a lot of journalists have been murdered. I think that’s what the dancers are talking about."
But after eight months and 22 operations to save his eyesight, Filin is back at his old job, and the Bolshoi -- which means "big" in Russian -- seems to be turning a new leaf. One top dancer, Nikolai Tsiskaridze, was let go in June. His disputes with management and unfiltered ambition to become the Bolshoi’s next boss are thought to have stoked tension -- and sapped energy -- within the dance company. The managing director, Filin’s boss, was also fired, and replaced by a veteran manager with a reputation for compromise and soothing nerves.
It all seems to be paying off. The Bolshoi has just come off a magic three-week run in London’s Covent Garden, and rave reviews for Swan Lake, the Bolshoi’s season opener, marked a clear return to a classical repertory that Hallberg believes will put the company back on track.
Hallberg, who spends half his time dancing at the American Ballet Theater, said the Bolshoi dancers "are like dancers anywhere else in the world. They want to dance successfully in a company, as best they can. Nothing’s changed, really, it’s just, post-[acid attack], I think the [Bolshoi] dancers are much more ready to move on and dance the repertoire they’re dancing and tour the world.’’
In doing so, the Bolshoi is getting back to the basics, seeking to rebuild its image and become -- not just the biggest -- but the best, once again.
Jim Maceda is a veteran NBC News foreign correspondent (and classical music junkie) based in London. He was recently on assignment in Moscow.