Russian ballet star breaks ranks over switch at top school

MOSCOW (AFP) - One of Russia's most adored ballerinas spoke out vehemently on Wednesday against the appointment of outspoken dancer Nikolai Tsiskaridze to head its top ballet school, in a controversy that could spiral into a major scandal.

Ms Diana Vishneva, a star dancer with the Mariinsky Ballet in Saint Petersburg, became the first high-profile figure to publicly criticise the appointment of Mr Tsiskaridze to head the Vaganova Ballet Academy in Saint Petersburg.

Mr Tsiskaridze was dismissed by Moscow's Bolshoi Theatre in June after giving highly critical interviews over the January acid attack on the troupe's artistic director Sergei Filin. The appointment of such a controversial figure to head the legendary Vaganova Academy sent a shockwave through the Russian ballet world.

"I very much hope that this is not the end of a great school," Ms Vishneva, a People's Artist of Russia, the country's highest artistic award, told the RIA Novosti news agency. "There was no real reason for the change in leadership, and there was no discussion with anyone from the Saint Petersburg ballet world."

"The rector of the Vaganova Academy needs to be a person who has the necessary education for this. It should not be forgotten that this is a school for children and its leader should be morally irreproachable," she said.

Ms Vishneva, herself a graduate of the Vaganova who like many of its students rose to world fame, said she was indignant over the "unceremonious nature" of the change in leadership of the academy. Her stance was backed by another high-profile Mariinsky soloist, the character dancer Ilya Kuznetsov who said people "were in shock but no one can do anything".

Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky presented Mr Tsiskaridze as the new Vaganova head on Monday and also named celebrated Mariinsky ballerina Ulyana Lopatkina as its artistic director, even though she has yet to retire from the stage.

The change meant the ousting of the previous rector Vera Dorofeyeva and artistic director Altynai Asylmuratova, a Kazakh-born dancer who was the greatest ballerina of the late Soviet era.

By removing Ms Dorofeyeva and Ms Asylmuratova, "the bureaucrats have ripped out the heart and soul of the academy", Ms Kuznetsov told the Rosbalt news agency.

The appointment of the Moscow-based Mr Tsiskaridze is also hard to stomach for the Saint Petersburg ballet elite, who pride themselves on the differences in style between the Mariinsky and Bolshoi.