MOSCOW (AP) -- 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 theater 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 theater 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 favor. 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 signaled 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 theater since 2000. "I don't think so, because beyond scandalousness and fame other qualities are needed."
Infighting has raged at the theater 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.
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