Pale and haggard after hours of questioning, a leading Bolshoi dancer told a Moscow court that he gave his blessing to an attack on the ballet's artistic director but never imagined that the assailant would go as far as to throw acid in his face.
The arrest and confessions of Pavel Dmitrichenko, who danced the parts of both heroes and villains in the Bolshoi's famed classical ballets, has dealt a painful blow to the theater's reputation and left many members of the company bewildered and incredulous.
Sergei Filin, 42, suffered severe burns to his face and eyes in the Jan. 17 attack. He has undergone a series of operations aimed at saving his sight.
The 29-year-old Dmitrichenko said his conflict with Filin was focused on the distribution of salaries and other financial issues, but speculation was rife about other possible reasons for the attack. Some claimed that the dancer wanted to take revenge for his ballerina girlfriend after she was turned down for a major role, while others pondered arcane conspiracy theories alleging the involvement of other top figures in the theater.
Facing the judge on Thursday, Dmitrichenko said he had told the suspected perpetrator of the attack about his grievances concerning the Bolshoi and his arguments with Filin.
"I told Yuri Zarutsky about the policies of the Bolshoi Theater, about the bad things going on, the corruption. When he said: 'OK, let me beat him up, hit him upside the head,' I agreed, but that is all that I admit to doing," Dmitrichenko said in court. "It's not true that I ordered him to throw acid at Filin."
The burly, grim-faced Zarutsky, who served seven years in a maximum security prison for beating up someone who later died, tried to cover his face from TV cameras with his tattooed hand when he was led into the courtroom. He made an indecent gesture and uttered an obscene comment to reporters who shouted out questions about his part in the crime.
Moscow police said Thursday that Dmitrichenko had paid 50,000 rubles (about $1,600) to Zarutsky, who they said had purchased acid at an auto shop and then heated it to make it more concentrated. The third defendant, Andrei Lipatov, drove the getaway car, but insisted that he did not know the purpose of his mission.
The judge rejected all three men's pleas for release and ordered them held until at least April 18 while the investigation continues. If convicted, they face up to 12 years in prison.
Several members of the ballet company who attended the hearing said they couldn't believe that Dmitrichenko had masterminded the attack, even after they heard his confessions.
"None of the people I met in the theater, starting from costume designers and make-up artists and ending with soloists, believes in that," said Bolshoi dancer Andrei Bolotin, who said that Dmitrichenko might have confessed under duress. "The man we saw is half the man we knew."
Dmitrichenko's lawyer, Alexander Barkanov, said he and his client have had little chance to sleep since police first knocked on the dancer's door in an apartment building a block away from the Kremlin in the pre-dawn hours of Wednesday. While Dmitrichenko was formally detained late Wednesday, he in fact had been in police custody since early that day, Barkanov said.
The lawyer said that Zarutsky might have deliberately gone further than Dmitrichenko expected, in hopes of blackmailing the dancer afterward.
Several Bolshoi company members described Dmitrichenko as a man with a fiery temperament, but one who is incapable of staging such a crime in cold blood.
"He's a temperamental man, a born leader eager to fight for his views, who may explode at times," said Alexandra Durseneva, a soprano in the Bolshoi opera. "But he isn't one to plan such a plot to take revenge."
Dmitrichenko's long, ghostlike face with heavy eyelids helped him make a lasting impression playing the villain in "Swan Lake" and the title role in "Ivan the Terrible."
He said in an interview published a few years ago that even though he came from a family of dancers he never dreamed of becoming a Bolshoi star and thought of becoming a hockey player when he was a boy.
Some reports have claimed that the attack could have been triggered by Filin's refusal to cast Dmitrichenko's girlfriend, Anzhelina Vorontsova, in the main role in "Swan Lake." Filin was the patron and coach of a teenaged Vorontsova, but they reportedly later had a falling-out. The daily Izvestia claimed that Filin told Vorontsova in December she was not slender enough for the "Swan Lake" part, angering Dmitrichenko.
Bolotin and other company members were skeptical of this theory, saying that bad blood between Filin and Vorontsova was exaggerated and the ballerina has continued to take prominent parts, including one in "The Nutckracker," one of the theater's most revered ballets. "There was no reason for her to feel hurt," Bolotin said.Filin's lawyer and wife both cautioned against focusing too much attention on the ballerina and said the circle of people involved in the attack was wider than the three men detained this week.
The Bolshoi's general director, Anatoly Iksanov, has accused veteran principal dancer Nikolai Tsiskaridze of inspiring the attack. Tsiskaridze, a long-time fierce critic of Iksanov who is reported to aspire to his job, has denied the allegation. Tsiskaridze hasn't commented on Dmitrichenko's arrest.
Dmitrichenko told reporters in the courtroom that the Bolshoi might have floated the theory of him taking revenge for Vorontsova in order to get rid of Tsiskaridze, who coaches the ballerina.
Anastasia Volochkova, a former Bolshoi ballerina who was fired by Iksanov, urged the government to reshuffle the management. "I don't know what else should happen in the Bolshoi for the country's leadership to intervene. A murder, a shooting , a war or what?" she said on Ekho Moskvy radio.
Dmitrichenko and Tsiskaridze are both followers of legendary choreographer Yuri Grigorovich, who led the Bolshoi dance company for three decades. He was forced out in 1995, but remains on the Bolshoi staff.
A string of successive artistic directors tried to bring new energy and a more modern repertoire to the Moscow theater, only to face opposition from dancers and teachers who remained devoted to Grigorovich and his ballets.
Filin, who took up his post in March 2011, was seen as capable of bridging the gap. He was a veteran of the Bolshoi, where he danced from 1989 until 2007, and later served as artistic director of the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich Theater, Moscow's second ballet company.
Bolotin said that Filin was popular with Bolshoi dancers even though he couldn't please all of them. "Some people were unhappy, but it's only natural. Artists are emotional, and all of them want to dance, but it's impossible to engage all 250 of them at once," he said, adding that the troupe has been in deep shock over the attack.
"It has stained Bolshoi and cast shame on it," said Roman Denisov, a Bolshoi violinist.
AP writer Lynn Berry contributed to this report.