Continuing with Anna Gordeeva’s review of the International Competition of Ballet and Choreography, which just concluded its 13th run in Moscow last week. But today I have to take a little sidebar to go through Joy Womak’s interview with the Russian press, which is linked here, That interview and the backstory are needed to put into context Gordeeva’s review of Joy’s frantic dance moves at the competition. The story of Joy’s rise and downfall helps to put in perspective some things that went terribly wrong at the Bolshoi during that time when Joy was coming of age as a principal.
Izvestia reporter Dmitry Evstifeev interviewed Joy on 13 November 2013, when the story was still very hot.
Born in California and raised in Texas, Joy’s dream since little girl-hood was to study Russian ballet and dance at the Bolshoi. Life opportunities present themselves only to those who work hard and prepare themselves for good fortune: One summer when the Bolshoi dancers were on tour in the U.S., Joy was able to meet with Marina Leonova, the Rektor (=Dean) of the Bolshoi Ballet Academy. Joy participated in a summer workshop, was noticed, and the 15-year-old was invited to Moscow in 2009. Joy became the first America ballerina ever to graduate from the Bolshoi Academy, and the first American woman to subsequently (in 2012) sign a contract with the Bolshoi Theater.
So what went wrong? In a word: Sergei Filin. Or rather, in several words: Joy Womak learned the truth of the American expression, “You can’t fight city hall.”
Sergei Yuryevich Filin currently works as the Director of the Young Artists Ballet Program at the Bolshoi Theater. A Moscow native, born in 1970, Sergei’s entire life has been intertwined with the Bolshoi. He joined the Corps de Ballet in 1988, became a Principal two years later, continued to dance dance dance; in 2011, after he couldn’t really dance any more, due to an injury, he was appointed Artistic Director. In Russian this title is художественный руководитель, usually abbreviated as худрук (“Hood-Rook”), although nowadays, what with the manic Anglicization of Russian vocabulary, Russians are starting to say Арт-директор (“Art-Director”). However one pronounces it, the title itself is extremely prestigious, much more so in Russia than in, say the U.S. The “Hood-Rook” of a Russian theater is basically a god in his own domain. He (it’s usually a “he”) is the one who makes most of the decisions as to who gets which roles in the big show. For the rest of Filin’s story I take the lazy way out and just quote from the wiki. And in truth, I can’t tell his story any better than this:
On January 17, 2013, Filin was attacked with acid by an unknown assailant, who cornered him outside of his home in Moscow. He suffered third-degree burns to his face and neck. While it was initially reported that he was in danger of losing his eyesight, his physicians stated on January 21, 2013, that he would retain eyesight in one eye.
A confession to the attack was made by a man named Yury Zarutsky on March 5, 2013. He stated that Bolshoi Ballet Company dancer Pavel Dmitrichenko had hired both him and another man called Andrei Lipatov to attack Filin. According to Zarutsky, Lipatov drove him to Filin’s home where he threw the acid in Filin’s face. Following the confession, a spokesman from the Russian Interior Ministry stated that investigators considered the case closed. By March 7, all three men confessed to the crime. Dmitrichenko confessed to arranging the attack, but maintained that he had not instructed the two men to use acid.
The attack came after a lengthy period of infighting and rows within the Bolshoi Ballet Company. Various motives have been presented by Russian police officials, primarily focusing on “personal hostile relations linked to their professional activities”. Russia’s television news and tabloid journalists surmised that Dmitrichenko was angry when Filin chose another dancer rather than Dmitrichenko’s girlfriend, ballerina Anzhelina Vorontsovato portray Princess Odette, also known as the Swan Queen in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.
Dmitrichenko stated during a bail hearing that he was frustrated with the inequitable and “unjust” allocation of funds distributed to dancers in the company. When he voiced his frustration, Zarutsky suggested that they “beat up” Filin. In the courtroom, the judge questioned Dmitrichenko whether or not he would like to apologize to Filin. Dmitrichenko defiantly responded with “For what?” At that point, the judge denied bail, which resulted in incarceration for six weeks, while investigators and attorneys prepared for the trial. The three men who confessed to the crime faced a maximum sentence of 12 years. Dmitrichenko was sentenced to six years in prison, but he was released early for good behavior in May 2016. In October 2016, Dmitrichenko was granted a building pass to the Bolshoi Theater, and returned for morning exercises.
In other words, everything is back to normal at the Bolshoi: A violent Dmitrichenko is back at the barre, warming up his rond de jambes while a half-blind Filin extorts money from recruits youthful talent.
As Leo Tolstoy once said, “God sees the truth, but waits….”
In this situation, the role of God being played, most likely, by Nikolai Tsiskaridze. A handsome, benevolent, and not-so-mysterious god who suffered the indignity of being called as a witness at Dmitrichenko’s trial. As if he had anything to do with this bit of nastiness. See, everyone who comes into contact with Filin walks away a little bit stained. There are just people like that in the world. And since I am quoting wikis, might as well bring in this paragraph about Nikolai’s ordeal during that same “Time of Troubles”:
Following months of legal disputes and scandals, Tsiskaridze left the Bolshoi when his contracts (as a premier dancer and as a ballet teacher) expired on 30 June 2013 and the theater’s management decided not to prolong any of them. His relationship with the directors of the theater was rocky long time ago – he openly criticized the theater’s management for soiling the Bolshoi’s repertoire of classics with contemporary works from abroad, for shoddy work during a recent renovation, for favoritism and bad taste. As a result of his endless criticism, Tsiskaridze claimed he and his students were denied roles, docked pay and prevented from advancing their careers.
But What Does Any Of This Have To Do With Joy Womak?
Well, not much. At least, not the acid attack. Joy had her own issues with Filin, similar to those of Dmitrichenko (financial), Tsiskaridze (issues of favoritism), and Vorontsova (not getting the roles she wanted), but she never would have resorted to such despicable criminal behavior. Instead, like Tsiskaridze, she crafted her own escape from the madhouse that was the Bolshoi.
As Joy narrated her story to the Izvestia reporter, it wasn’t just about Filin. That came later. Well, maybe Joy had unreasonable expectations at first. Because her contract specificed solo roles, she maybe expected to be a star her first time out. Instead, the theater management (and this is before Filin returned as Hood-Rook) made it clear to her that she was just an ordinary dancer and had to rise through the ranks like everybody else.
Like any American worth her salt, she KVETCHED. Management punished her: The time came when they wouldn’t allow her onto the stage even as a backup dancer in the Corps de Ballet. Citing her negative attitude. “One must be a team player, wot?” Joy got even by winning the Grand Priz in Hongkong, Management was underimpressed. They praised her success, patted her on the head, then hinted broadly that she needed a “protector” or “sponsor”, if she wished to step out onto the stage of the Bolshoi: “They said Atta-girl, Joy, just wait Sergei Yuryevich is coming back soon, and he will decide what to do with you. And when Sergei Yuryevich returned, he said, No, this girl must remain in the corps. They told me: Joy, you don’t have a sponsor, you need a sponsor, there has to be somebody here who can … er… you know… That’s how it is in our theater. In other words, I needed somebody who was interested in me. One of my coaches almost started crying, she said that she had never seen before how such a talented girl was not allowed to dance. She advised me to join a different troupe, rather than stay and torture myself.”
That was good advice. Anybody who has experienced conflicts with management in the workplace knows the general rule: Management always wins. Workers are helpless. If they are unhappy, they should find another job and leave. Sorry, but this is just the way it is.
Joy believes that she was discriminated against as an American girl. People assumed that, as an American, she had lots of money. Therefore she should pay protection or find herself a sponsor. A certain man offered to be her sponsor, Joy alleges. If she were willing to pay him $10,000 American dollars. And that was just the price for a solo role in a single show! Joy would not state the man’s name “because he is somebody that I sincerely respect.”
Joy approached Filin and begged him to watch her dance at least once. She would prove to him what she was capable of. Filin didn’t even want to see her face: “You don’t understand. I already know all about you. I don’t care where you studied. You need to be more clever.”
Next thing you know (according to Womak), the management were performing strange manipulations with her salary. Womak specifically accuses Filin’s henchperson Dilyara Timergazina. “For some reason she got involved with my personal affairs, my visa, etc. She worked out my final contract covering 17 September 2013 through 14 March 2014. I was to receive 198,000 (rubles), of which 30% go to pay taxes. And later I come to find out that she had not created an ИНН for me [Russian equivalent of Social-Security card], even though they were deducting taxes from my salary.”
To prove her point, Womak provided Izvestia with a copy of her final contract with the Bolshoi, which does, indeed, specify solo roles. The contract was signed on the management side by Vladimir Urin, General Director of the Bolshoi Theater.
According to Womak, the theater did not pay her anything for certain performances; a clear violation of labor laws: “There were times when part of the troupe was called out for unofficial touring shows. For example, I went to Voronezh in March of this year . They didn’t even pay me for that, they told me that this could help my career. And I was happy just to be allowed onto the stage.” Womak fingers Filin’s crony Ruslan Pronin in this unfair manipulation: “It was Pronin who thought up this system. I worked for several months even without a contract. (…) When I told him that I don’t want to participate in this, he said, Well okay, Joy, you always know what’s best, after all.”
In the end, Joy was either fired or quit. When asked by the Izvestia reporter if she ever thought of going to the police or a judge, she demurred: “I just want to forget all of this, like a bad dream.”
Doing their due diligence, Izvestia attempted to contact Filin to get his side of the story. But at the time he was in Germany for another procedure to fix his eyeballs after the acid attack. Filin’s wife Maria Prorvich would not pick up the phone; and Filin’s sister Elena refused to comment to the press: “Please address all your questions to Sergei.” Pronin was also unavailable for comments.
Like all whistleblowers, Joy found little support among her former fellow-workers. Even her private coach Marina Kondratieva turned against her: “Joy was an excellent student at the Academy, but all the same she came from a different culture, with different traditions. The tutors all noticed the same thing, and I noticed it too. She didn’t have a good memory for the steps, it took her a long time to learn them. And as for performing a large repertoire, it didn’t come to her easily.” Kondratieva noted that Joy dreamed of solo roles; and yet in a theater such as the Bolshoi, every beginning artist must pass through the corps de ballet. The rules are the same for everyone.
So, what is one to make of this, and whom is one to believe? My personal take on it, for what it’s worth (not much): I believe both sides. I believe that Joy was a bit of a prima donna who expected too much too soon. In this, the theater management and Hood-Rook had the right to keep her in her place and tampen down her ego.
But I also believe Joy’s allegations about the financial extortions, the corruption, the favoritism, and the manipulations with her salary. All of which is criminal. Unless she is outright lying, she was the victim of workplace harassment. It didn’t have to go down that way. Also makes one wonder why the performing artists don’t have trade unions to protect their rights as laborers.
Having put in my two-kopecks in that regard, it is time to return to Gordeeva’s review of Womak’s performance at the Moscow competition. Now that we have all that backstory under our belts….
[to be continued]