MOSCOW -- The Bolshoi Theater's longtime general director was fired Tuesday in a surprise move a year before his contract was set to expire.
Anatoly Iksanov, 61, had managed the nation’s most celebrated ballet company since 2000. His tenure was marked by remarkable changes -- primarily the grandiose restoration of the Bolshoi's historic building in downtown Moscow –- and multiple scandals. Under Iksanov's watch, the theater endured artistic conflicts and investigations into embezzlement and violent crime.
Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky praised Iksanov for his work, but implied that there was a need for change, saying the move "was not a spontaneous decision."
“[Iksanov] has done a lot, completing the reconstruction and opening the new stage,” Medinsky said at a news conference at the Bolshoi. “But everyone understands that human resources have their limits: The complicated situation is asking for change the theater needs.”
At the news conference, Medinsky introduced a new general director, Vladimir Urin, who until Tuesday led Moscow's second-biggest opera and ballet company –- Moscow Stanislavsky and the Nemirovich-Danchenko Musical Theater.
Dance lovers and the public will remember Iksanov’s term at the helm of the Bolshoi for the theater's physical restoration and his attempts to introduce modern trends into the company’s rich and largely classical repertoire. Iksanov's leadership attracted international stars such as Alexei Ratmansky, artist-in-residence of the American Ballet Theater, and ABT's principal dancer, David Hallberg.
Iksanov is just as likely, however, to be remembered for the company's ugly scandals, including an alleged multimillion-dollar embezzlement scam, a sex controversy, lawsuits with fired stars and a violent attack on its artistic director.
In January, Sergei Filin was attacked near his house by a masked man who threw acid into his face. He underwent numerous surgeries and is now recuperating in a German clinic. Dancer Pavel Dmitrichenko and two alleged accomplices are in custody and under investigation in connection with the attack.
The theater's physical restoration, which started in 2005 and was initially scheduled to be finished in 2008, dragged on into 2011 and saw its budget inflated by 16 times the original amount -- a cost of more than $1 billion.
An investigation into alleged embezzlement in connection with the project is underway.
In March 2011, ballet company administrator Gennady Yanin retired after explicit images of him having sex with other men were posted on the Internet.
In another blow to the ballet under Iksanov, stars Ivan Vasilyev and Natalia Osipova quit the company in November 2011 to join the Mikhailovsky Theater in St. Petersburg. Experts say the move was connected to the invitation to ABT's Hallberg, the first American to join the Bolshoi in such a capacity.
Last month, the company’s leading dancer, Nikolay Tsiskaridze, was fired after he openly challenged the Bolshoi leadership and Iksanov personally for what he claimed was sloppy work and poor taste. In response, Tsiskaridze has filed a lawsuit against the company.
Earlier this year, a group of artistic celebrities, including some Bolshoi stars, wrote an open letter to President Vladimir Putin asking that Tsiskaridze replace Iksanov.On Tuesday, Iksanov thanked the company and said that “all 13 years we have worked as a unified team and a unified collective.”
Medinsky offered Iskanov an advisor’s job in the Culture Ministry, but the outgoing Bolshoi chief has not yet accepted, according to Rossiya-24, a Russian television news network.
Several Bolshoi members said they were pleased with the change and optimistic about the theater’s prospects.
The leading tenor of the Bolshoi's opera company, Maxim Paster, said the change took him by surprise but that he welcomed it as an indication that things would change for the better.
“Only a deaf and dumb person wouldn’t speak about the scandals that accompanied the Bolshoi in recent years, but I wouldn’t go as far as saying that Iksanov should be accused of everything,” Paster said in an interview with The Times. “I hope that from now on journalists will stop writing about us as a pit of snakes, and start writing about our productions and artistic accomplishments.”
The singer expressed hope that the new director will return Tsiskaridze to his job.
If the new director runs the Bolshoi as he ran his previous companies, then the Bolshoi is in for good times, he added.
Urin, 66, has led Moscow Stanislavsky and the Nemirovich-Danchenko Musical Theater since 1995. He also struggled with some problems during his term.
The theater was almost completely destroyed by fires in 2003 and 2005. In 2004, its ballet artistic director, Dmitry Bryantsev, disappeared under suspicious circumstances. His body was discovered the next year in Prague, the capital of Czech Republic. The theater’s 2012 premier of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" was marred by public accusations of propaganda of pedophilia and drug use. However, no charges were brought, and the production got a prestigious award the same year.
“I am not planning any revolutions as I perfectly understand that in this theater as in any other, one man can accomplish nothing,” Urin said at a news conference accepting the job. “I very much hope that a majority of people working in this theater -- talented, remarkable people -- will be my allies and only together we will be able to resolve the problems of today.”
He called the transfer “civilized” and said Iksanov had promised to help him get his bearings in the new job.