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MOSCOW - The foes make a striking contrast — a bald, stolid general director versus an extravagant dancer with an opulent mane of dark hair.
And the stakes could hardly be higher: control over the storied Bolshoi Theater in a battle that has gone into overdrive since the January acid attack on the artistic director that exposed rivalries reminiscent of the Hollywood movie "Black Swan."
In a surprising twist, principal dancer Nikolai Tsiskaridze may be gaining the upper hand against General Director Anatoly Iksanov, who has been in the top job for 13 years.
Both are believed to have backing from senior government officials and Kremlin-connected business tycoons eager to extend their influence over a state theatre that has been a symbol of national pride for centuries, and even features on the 100-ruble bill. The Bolshoi's annual budget also is not too shabby: $120 million, up from $12 million only 10 years ago.
Iksanov accuses Tsiskaridze of creating an atmosphere of intrigue that set the scene for the Jan. 17 acid attack on the Bolshoi's artistic director. Tsiskaridze rejects the claims and in turn points to the attack as evidence that the theatre has descended into crime and violence under Iksanov's watch.
After weeks of increasingly venomous attacks from both sides, Tsiskaridze's star was seen as rising when he grabbed a high-profile platform for his case on state-run television. The exposure came even as Tsiskaridze has endorsed the grievances of the Bolshoi dancer accused of staging the attack on artistic director Sergei Filin, and defended the dancer in public. Tsiskaridze himself has not been accused of any involvement in the attack.
On Sunday, the 39-year-old dancer appeared on a live talk show on state-controlled NTV television, a channel that the Kremlin has used to attack its opponents or those who have fallen out of favour. Dressed all in black and with an air of sad rebuke, Tsiskaridze poured scorn on Iksanov, accusing him of botching the Bolshoi's reconstruction, ruining its repertoire and treating dancers like slaves.
Asked bluntly whether he was ready to take the general director's job, Tsiskaridze answered with a proud: "I am absolutely ready."
More than anything else, the NTV show signalled that Iksanov's job could be in jeopardy. The station has often been used to broadcast documentary-style films about Kremlin foes, which often served as precursors for criminal investigations. A biting attack on the general director would not have been possible without a blessing from the top ranks of the government.
Tsiskaridze was joined on the program by an equally sharp-tongued former Bolshoi prima ballerina, who alleged that Iksanov oversaw a practice of ballerinas being used essentially as high-class prostitutes for members of the Bolshoi board and other influential people.
Some Russian media have reported that Tsiskaridze's patrons include Sergei Chemezov, a former KGB officer close to President Vladimir Putin who now serves as the CEO of Russian Technologies, a state-controlled industrial conglomerate.
Iksanov looked tired and tense on Tuesday at a news conference called to promote a big ballet festival this spring. He said he would not comment on "the nonsense and dirt" aired on the television show and shrugged off Tsiskaridze's ambitions.
"It's up to him to think that he's capable of taking charge of the Bolshoi," said Iksanov, who has led the theatre since 2000. "I don't think so, because beyond scandalousness and fame other qualities are needed."
Infighting has raged at the theatre for years, but the two sides dropped all decorum after the Jan. 17 acid attack on Filin.
The barbs began to fly even faster after police arrested Bolshoi soloist Pavel Dmitrichenko on March 5. Facing a Moscow court, Dmitrichenko admitted that he had agreed to an offer from a thuggish acquaintance to rough up Filin, but he insisted that the man had used acid on his own initiative.
Despite Dmitrichenko's confession, many in the ballet company have stood by him, saying they do not believe him capable of staging such a crime. About 300 dancers and staff, led by Tsiskaridze, signed an open letter claiming that Dmitrichenko had slandered himself under police pressure. Encouraged by the outpouring of sympathy, Dmitrichenko then passed a note from prison to his ballerina girlfriend saying that he had not ordered the acid attack and had been "forced to accept many things."
Dmitrichenko has been popular with dancers for his eagerness to defy management in support of other dancers. Last week the Bolshoi's 250 dancers elected him the head of their union, even though he remains in jail.
At the time of his arrest, Russian state television suggested that Dmitrichenko had been driven by a desire to avenge his girlfriend, 21-year-old soloist Anzhelina Vorontsova, who felt that Filin had unfairly denied her the lead in "Swan Lake." Tsiskaridze, who coaches the ballerina, said that Filin had advised her to change teachers.
Iksanov has sought to ease tensions in the ranks, promising last week that Dmitrichenko would keep his job pending the outcome of the criminal case. The reclusive, moon-faced director has been on the defensive ever since.
In an interview with the online Snob magazine last month, Iksanov said that his foes include people in the top echelons of government and business, along with their jet-setting wives who want to turn the Bolshoi into their playground.
Iksanov's patron, former culture minister Mikhail Shvydkoi, who is now serving as the Kremlin envoy for international cultural relations, acknowledged in an interview published last month that some of the country's most influential people are behind Tsiskaridze, but insisted that Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev were staying above the fray.
Ever since the Bolshoi reopened in 2011 after a six-year reconstruction that cost more than $1 billion, Tsiskaridze has aired accusations of mismanagement and corruption, alleging that the renovation destroyed historical interiors and replaced them with low-quality replicas. The NTV show featured photos of cheap and already crumbling interior decor to illustrate his claims.
Iksanov and his backers have dismissed the criticism, saying that the Bolshoi has been restored to all of its past glory.
Raising the heat on Iksanov, former Bolshoi prima ballerina Anastasia Volochkova alleged on the NTV show that Iksanov oversaw a practice of ballerinas being used as escorts.
"An administrator would call them to say they are going to a party and a dinner ending in bed," she said. "When the girls asked the administrator what would happen if they refuse, the answer was: You will have problems in the Bolshoi then."
Volochkova acknowledged that she herself enjoyed the protection of a billionaire businessman and was fired in 2003 after they separated. She described the Bolshoi as a "tangle of snakes" and a "big brothel."
Tsiskaridze and Dmitrichenko have also criticized what they describe as Filin's unfair distribution of pay to the Bolshoi dancers.
Valeria Uralskaya, editor of Ballet magazine, said that the huge amount of money involved has made smouldering conflicts worse.
"When money gets involved in the arts, conflicts become more likely," she said. "A lot of commercial issues have come to be part of our lives — and in the arts, too. Twenty years ago less money went around, there were fewer foreign tours then and people would spend more time training for their parts."
Permission for dancers to go on foreign tours has been a point of conflict and has served as an instrument of control over the troupe.
"I hear a lot about grudges about this," said Anna Gordeyeva, a ballet critic at the Moskovskie Novosti daily. "Many dancers tell me that they cannot understand why somebody gets a leave of absence and somebody else doesn't."
Rivalries over top parts also have continued to fuel conflicts. "There are a lot of questions about how Filin picked the dancers he wanted to promote," Gordeyeva said.
Filin's assistant, Dilyara Timergazina, joined Iksanov in pointing to Tsiskaridze as "a key source of the tensions." She said that Tsiskaridze's students "extort parts" and "are always unhappy with everything."
On the television show, Tsiskaridze expressed indignation over the criticism.
"For 21 years. I have honestly served not only the Bolshoi but the country's image," he said. "I have represented the country on the stages of all the world's leading theatres. I don't know why I should bear these insults."
AP writers Nataliya Vasilyeva and Lynn Berry contributed to this story.