Bolshoi's Sergei Filin, unbowed by attack, is determined to innovate

Russian troupe's artistic director hails emerging talent but insists Bolshoi has no 'star system', and remains committed to new work in spite of critics

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 25 March, 2015, 6:04am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 March, 2015, 12:10pm

Bolshoi Ballet artistic director Sergei Filin made headlines worldwide for all the wrong reasons when he was attacked by a hired thug who flung acid in his face in January 2013.

While Filin fought for his sight in hospital, one of his dancers, Pavel Dimitrichenko, was arrested for ordering the attack, plunging the Bolshoi into a maelstrom of scandal. Today Dimitrichenko is serving a six-year prison sentence, major figures from both the pro- and anti-Filin camps have quit the Bolshoi and an uneasy peace has descended on the 239-year-old Moscow theatre.

The company appears in the Hong Kong Arts Festival this week, and Filin talked exclusively to the South China Morning Post about the two highly contrasting ballets they’re presenting and the dancers performing in Hong Kong.

“Alexei Ratmansky’s Flames of Paris is a narrative ballet which will showcase the outstanding dramatic and emotional power of our dancers.” As for George Balanchine’s abstract Jewels, Filin says simply, “It’s just very, very beautiful.”

Around 100 of the troupe’s 220 dancers are in Hong Kong. Among those in leading roles are the dazzling young principals Ekaterina Krysanova and Vladislav Lantratov, the exquisite Nina Kapstova and the elegant Semyon Chudin.  Rising stars to watch out for include Anastasia Stashkevich and Vyacheslav Lopatin.

However, Filin, says proudly that the company’s greatest strength is that it’s an ensemble. “There’s no star system – the fantastic thing about our dancers is how they all work together, they’re all equally committed to creating something exceptional on stage.”

A slim, upright figure in an elegant black suit, Filin looks younger than his 44 years – and no one could be less like a victim.  The only clue to what happened two years ago are the wrap-around dark glasses he must wear to protect his eyes.

After 30-plus operations his eyes are stable and although there is no sight at all in his right eye, some 50 per cent of that in the left has been saved.  Will more surgery be needed?  Probably, he says.  “But I’m taking a break for now. I’m tired.”

Filin has been back at work full-time for less than a year following the attack.  How does someone with such limited sight work in a visual medium like ballet?  “I don’t see the dancers quite as well, but I hear them better,” he says with a laugh.

Remarkably, he is as able as ever to judge performances, tell how the dancers are moving and make corrections if needed.

It’s no secret that there’s a powerful conservative faction at the Bolshoi bitterly opposed to Filin’s policy of creating a more modern, international repertoire.  When asked how he feels about those people, he replies, deadpan: “I love them.”

Innovation is the lifeblood of any art form, he points out - and he won’t be deterred from bringing in new work. “Look, if you live in a house and the neighbour doesn’t like you - maybe you’re too modern, too rich, you have a better car than he does - what do you do?  Move out?  The only thing you can do is… Love your neighbour.”