By Timothy Heritage
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Principal dancer Artem Ovcharenko seems to defy gravity as he glides through the air, then lands silently with a flourish of his arm during a rehearsal at Russia's revered Bolshoi Theater.
Other dancers spin through the air behind him, a few warm up at the side and two ballerinas walk on their toes while Viktor Barykin, the repetiteur or dance coach, barks instructions.
"One, two, three. One, two, three - up! That's not bad," Barykin shouts into a microphone from a seat perched on the front of the stage, taking a male dancer through his steps.
On the surface, it is business as usual at one of the world's great theaters as the dancers prepare for a performance of Yuri Possokhov's contemporary ballet "Classical Symphony".
But dance has also, for some, become a way to escape a drama behind the scenes that has had more twists than many an on-stage plot in the month since a masked attacker threw acid in the face of Sergei Filin, the Bolshoi Ballet's artistic director.
Intrigue and misfortune are nothing new to an institution whose name translates at The Grand Theatre: it has burnt down three times since being built in 1776 under Catherine the Great and was also bombed in World War Two.
But the dancers are now struggling to come to terms with the brutality of the January 17 attack, which has left Filin fighting for his sight and the Bolshoi battling to mend a reputation tarnished by rumors of rivalries, resentments and intrigues.
"It affects some people more, the ones who are more emotional, but on stage you forget everything, you cut yourself off. That's what I do because I can't let it affect me," Ovcharenko, 26, said during a break in the rehearsal.
Ovcharenko, a rising star at the Bolshoi since joining in 2007, embodies the motto that the show must go on.
He says the rigors of a work day that often lasts from 10 a.m. until 10 p.m. leave dancers little time to dwell on the attack. With more roles available than in the past because the Bolshoi now performs more often, there is less reason for envy.
But although he says morale has not been affected, the troupe has clearly been shaken by the attack and by a public row it provoked between the Bolshoi's general director, Anatoly Iksanov, and Nikolai Tsiskaridze, a veteran lead dancer.
"Some people came up with hypotheses, some started suspecting people ... I say 'Forget it, and get back to work'," Ovcharenko said. "I just want peace at the theatre."
But these are not peaceful times at the Bolshoi. It is hard for dancers to put the attack out of their minds when police are milling around at rehearsals, asking questions, and now treat some of the troupe as suspects.
"Having all these people backstage and in our classes is a bit different," said Joy Womack, the first American to graduate from the Bolshoi Ballet's main training program. Her words are not without a touch of understatement.
She does not conceal that competition for roles and for influence over productions is intense at the Bolshoi and says people with different artistic visions "will butt heads"; but, in that, she sees it as not unusual in the ballet world.
"The Bolshoi is certainly filled with histories and little skeletons packed away in the cupboard," the Californian added. "But every organization is like that."
Like Ovcharenko, she is trying to forget the attack through her dancing, including as a swan in Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake". But if her personal drive and ambition are anything to go by, it is no surprise that the Bolshoi is as competitive as it is.
"I have crazy goals. That's how I got here in the first place," she said, promising to show she can achieve what others had said was impossible. "It's just a matter of how much you want it and how much time you are prepared to put into it."
Scandal has long been endemic behind the cream-colored, eight-columned facade close to Red Square which reopened to great fanfare in 2011 after a $700-million, six-year renovation that restored the theatre's opulent tsarist beginnings, doused its interior in gold-leaf and introduced cutting-edge acoustics.
The theatre's history is laced with tales of tricks to put off rivals: needles left in costumes; crushed glass in ballet shoes; an alarm clock timed to go off during a particularly intense dance sequence; even a dead cat thrown on stage.
Management of the theatre has also seen controversy: in 1995, the departure of the artistic director sparked a wildcat strike by dancers, in turn prompting jeering and foot-stamping from an angry audience that had paid to see "Romeo and Juliet".
In 2003, world media had a field day when Bolshoi bosses tried to fire ballerina Anastasia Volochkova for being too heavy. And in 2011, deputy ballet director Gennady Yanin - then seen as a candidate for the artistic director post - quit after pornographic images of him appeared on the Internet.
Dirty tricks are far from unheard of throughout public life in post-Soviet Russia. But never before has a member of the Bolshoi Theatre had sulfuric acid thrown in his face.
Filin, 42, says he thinks he knows who was behind the attack and that it may be linked to his work as artistic director, but he has named no names in public and police have made no arrest.
One of his predecessors, Alexei Ratmansky, said it was no coincidence that Filin had been attacked and described an atmosphere of intrigue and passion, ticket speculators and half-crazed fans ready to cut the throats of an idol's rivals.
Events since the attack have unfolded like a page-turning whodunit, with the motives still a subject of speculation and no shortage of theories and possible clues.
Complicating matters is the fact that Filin says he had his car tires slashed and emails hacked in the two weeks before the attack, and had received repeated nuisance calls from someone who stayed silent when he answered.
Was it artistic rivalry? Filin is at odds with some of his colleagues over the direction the ballet is heading in, and his role gives him the power to make or break dancers' careers.
Could it be connected to power struggles behind the scenes? Filin's job is much coveted and he has seen off rivals for his position, which he secured in 2011. Such is its importance that a group of cultural figures wrote to President Vladimir Putin last November demanding Filin be replaced by Tsiskaridze.
Was it a nasty twist to a love affair? Some sources close to the Bolshoi have sought to suggest in the media that the attack was a personal matter and nothing to do with his work.
Could there be commercial reasons? The Bolshoi has been criticized over the profusion of touts who sell tickets at vastly inflated prices. The company's policy has long been to sell some tickets cheaply so that not only the wealthy attend - but some fall into the wrong hands for resale.
While some scalpers are small-time, the prices and prestige of the renovated Bolshoi, favored by Muscovites keen to flaunt their new-found wealth, may well be attracting organized crime.
Since the attack, a production of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" has been cancelled due to Filin's absence; a ballerina has said she is afraid to return to Russia from Canada because of a blackmailer; and the long-running row between dancer Tsiskaridze, 39, and veteran manager Iksanov, 60, has worsened.
The two gave interviews to a Russian magazine, Snob, in which they traded blame for the bad atmosphere at the Bolshoi and drew attention to the bitterness behind the scenes. Tsiskaridze then called on the management to resign.
"There is one person in the Bolshoi company who is constantly dissatisfied with whatever the Bolshoi management is doing for the past 12 years," said Bolshoi spokeswoman Katya Novikova. Tsiskaridze criticized the renovation of the Bolshoi under Iksanov, who has denied it was tainted by corruption.
Novikova said Iksanov and Tsiskaridze were not on speaking terms and that lawyers were looking carefully at the allegations Tsiskaridze had made. She doubted they would ever make up because they had been rivals for the general manager role.
Tsiskaridze declined an interview with Reuters but says he is the victim of a witch-hunt and describes the atmosphere as like "back in the days of Josef Stalin", the Soviet dictator who sent millions of opponents to their death or to labor camps.
Tsiskaridze has condemned the acid attack on Filin, a fellow dancer with whom he worked for many years and sometimes shared a dressing room. For all his battles with management, many in the troupe speak highly of the Georgian-born Tsiskaridze and Womack smiled as she described his "jokes and wonderful sarcasm".
Doctors say Filin is likely to recover his sight and work again. The Bolshoi, a symbol of Russian culture that has come through difficult times before in both Soviet and tsarist eras, is also sure to recover - but damage has been done.
"There have long been power struggles but never before was there such criminality and harm done," said Tatiana Kuznetsova, a ballet critic for Kommersant newspaper. "The image is fading."
For the dancers, the overwhelming response is to focus on their dancing to show their appreciation of Filin, whose daily instructions are passed on by Galina Stepanenko, a former principal dancer who has become the acting artistic director.
"When you fall you can only go up. There is nowhere lower to go," Ovcharenko said before going back to finish his rehearsal. "For us, the artists, this is the best way to support our boss, to be on stage and perform well, so that we don't upset him."
(Editing by Alastair Macdonald)