Dancer's comments add layers of mystery to Bolshoi scandal
"Please don't make this story personal." That's the last thing Nikolai Tsiskaridze says before he's whisked away to catch a flight home.
The Tbilisi-born dancer, notorious for his flashy stage presence and his equally flashy head of hair (of which more later), had just finished a brief guest appearance at central London's Coliseum, his first major performance since he was sacked from the Bolshoi in June. And although the hour-long interview, conducted through a translator, is almost entirely focused on the dancer, the story is, as he says, far bigger.
Even before sulphuric acid was thrown in the face of artistic director Sergei Filin in January, the Bolshoi had been suffering some tumultuous years. There were stories of alleged financial corruption involving the renovation of the theatre building between 2005 and 2011; conspiracies with ticket touts; even rumours of preferential payments to certain dancers.
The brutal attack on Filin was allegedly ordered by a disgruntled dancer, Pavel Dmitrichenko, who was arrested and charged in March, but rumours persist of Tsiskaridze's role in fomenting discontent at the company. He dismissed the renovation as "tacky", and for several years lambasted general director Anatoly Iksanov for his "ignorant" meddling in artistic policy, while making it plain that he himself would be ready to replace him.
The scandal claimed them both: in early July, Iksanov was forced to resign; only weeks earlier, Tsiskaridze was told his contract would not be renewed.
Whatever else it may have done, the affair doesn't seem to have dented the dancer's self-confidence: when asked to describe his relationship with the company he joined in 1992, he says, quite naturally: "The Bolshoi is the best in classical dancing. And for years I have been the face of that company."
And when we discuss his hostility towards a previous director, Alexei Ratmansky, who ran the ballet between 2004 and 2008, it focused mainly on what Tsiskaridze saw as a "lack of respect" to senior ballerinas, and to himself. "The prime minister doesn't tell the queen what to do," he says patiently. "He can only offer polite advice."
Tsiskaridze claims that fears of reprisals among the dancers will make it impossible for the truth to come out, and cites several members of the company - including his proteges Angelina Vorontsova (Dmitrichenko's girlfriend) and Denis Rodkin - who've suffered as a result of staying loyal to him. "In the theatre, people in dark corners hugged me and said they were on my side, but they were too frightened to say so in public." His theory is that the whole affair has been exaggerated by the Bolshoi, describing it as "a witch hunt" to force him out of the company.
Despite his enormous ego, it's easy to see why Tsiskaridze has such a huge popular following in Russia. He has theatrically Georgian colouring, golden skin and a head of thick black hair so impressive that it deserves a dressing room to itself.
And his identification with the Bolshoi has been, in its own way, unflagging. He began coaching younger dancers when he was 29, and is still performing a full schedule. Asked about his hopes for the future, his first answer is that he "would like the festivity to return to the Bolshoi". But he shakes his head when asked if he will return, too; at least, he implies, not as a dancer.
Now 39, he has no desire to emulate Rudolf Nureyev, who "should have given up 15 years earlier".
When the Bolshoi arrives in London for its regular summer season this week, hoping to erase the horrors of recent headlines, Tsiskaridze says he'll be more than happy to be relaxing on his first holiday in ages.
"I have my dreams," he says enigmatically, "and I don't want to talk about them in case I destroy them."
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