American Ballerina Accuses Bolshoi Leadership of Extortion

November 14, 2013
Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin

The Bolshoi Ballet Company is one of the most renowned dance troupes in the world, but recently is has been rocked by one scandal after another.

In January, Bolshoi director Sergei Filin had acid thrown in his face, severely burning his face and neck, by a man who was hired by a former dancer to attack the director. The horrifying incident made world headlines, and garnered Filin international sympathy, but it was soon revealed that a significant amount of infighting characterized the Bolshoi (one of the witnesses says that he was threatened by police before he gave incriminating evidence).  

In March, a former soloist claimed that the female dancers were forced to prostitute themselves to wealthy patrons. Whether the allegations are true or not, it is clear that the competitive nature of the Bolshoi and a culture of corruption have contributed to a toxic environment inside the ballet.

Now, an American dancer claims that she was told she would have to pay $10,000 in order to receive solos. – Ed.

The return of Sergei Filin, artistic director of ballet at the Bolshoi Theater was marked by a scandal involving an American ballerina, Joy Womack, which ended with her departure from the Bolshoi. Womack told Izvestiya that she resigned from the Bolshoi because she was not allowed to perform without “protection,” paying a demand of $10,000 for appearance on the stage in solo roles, which were supposed to be given to her under her contract as a soloist. Moreover, Womack was not allowed on stage even during the corps de ballet, as she was said to have an “individual manner.” All those whom she has exposed deny the charges.

Joy Womack, an 18-year-old from Texas, was the first American ballerina who was offered a contract to study at the Moscow Academy of Choreography. This was thanks to a meeting Womack had with Marina Leonova, dean of the academy, while the Bolshoi was on tour in the US.

In 2012, Womack graduated from the academy. The Bolshoi signed a contract with her as a soloist, but Womack began to dance in the Bolshoi’s corps de ballet. Getting a breakthrough to the stage turned out to be harder than the young ballerina had expected. Womack says that the management constantly praised her for her successes (Womack won the Grand Prix in Hong Kong), but also hinted that she must get a sponsor or a protector.

“I was told: you’re great, Joy, now Sergei Yuryevich [Filin] will return and decide what to do with you next,” says Womack. “But when Sergei Yuryevich returned, he said, no, that girl should remain in the corps de ballet. I was told: Joy, you don’t have a sponsor, you need to have some sort of sponsor, someone who can somehow…speak up for you, which can’t be done any other way now in our theater. There has to be an interest in you. One of the teachers almost cried with me and said that she had never seen such a talented girl who wasn’t allowed to dance. She advised me to go to another troupe, so as not to torture myself.”

Womack describes how the attitude toward her at the Bolshoi was always like this — oh, she’s an American, she has money, most likely, why doesn’t she pay or why doesn’t she find herself a sponsor?

Right after the first conversation with Filin after he returned, Womack also learned the price of the “interest”.

“I learned that I must pay $10,000 for a variation [solo], in order to perform in one show, in order to do an act,” said Womack. “This sum was mentioned by a specific person, but I will not give his name. Because I really do respect him.”

Sergei Filin himself, according to Womack, didn’t even want to look at her.

“I approached Sergei Yuryevich this year; you should at least look at me one time, I said, and you’ll see that I am capable of a lot, that you can allow me on stage,” recounts Womack. “He replied, no, you understand that I know everything already. I don’t care that you studied at the Moscow Academy; you figure it out yourself, you must become more clever.”

Womack also described strange manipulations with her salary and the involvement in this of Dilyara Timergazina, an advisor to Filin.

“She would sort of take care of my affairs, my paperwork, and visa. She gave me the last contract for 17 September 2013 to 14 March 2014 for $198,000, and 30% of that had to go to pay taxes. And then I learned in the accounting office that they had not made a tax identification number for me, although they had been collecting taxes from my salary,” she said.

In this case, it was a question of Womack’s last contract which was signed by her and the Bolshoi on 15 October 2013 (Izvestiya has obtained a copy) – also for the position of soloist. The contract is signed by the new general director of the Bolshoi Theater, Vladimir Urin.

Womack says she was not paid for several performances at all.

“There were cases when some of the members of the troupe were called for unofficial tours,” she explains. “For example, I traveled to Voronezh in March of this year. I wasn’t even paid; they said that this could subsequently help me in establishing myself as a ballerina. But I was just glad to go out on stage.”

The ballerina says that Filin’s former deputy, Ruslan Pronin, was informed of all these issues.

“Pronin thought up this contract system,” says Womack. “I worked for several months, at first I was not even brought a contract. The contract was concluded after the fact. When I said that I didn’t want to take part in it, he replied, well, come on Joy, you’re a smart girl.”

In the end, Womack told Izvestiya that after her resignation she did not intend to keep trying to settle scores with the former management, or make a statement to police or file suit in court.

“I want to forget it all, like a nightmare,” says Joy.

Womack says that recently, she signed a contract with the Kremlin Ballet Theater.

Sergei Filin was unable to comment on Womack’s statements; Izvestiya learned that this week, the artist had once again flown to Germany for planned treatment of his eyes and his telephone was shut off. Filin’s wife, Mariya Prorvich, did not pick up the phone, and his sister Yelena refused to comment on the situation.

“Address all the questions to Sergei,” said Yelena Filina.

Ruslan Pronin, the ex-manager of the ballet troupe was also unavailable, along with Galina Stepanenko, the current manager of the ballet troupe.

However, according to Marina Kondratyeva, the ballet master and tutor of the Bolshoi Theater, who was Womack’s teacher, the American ballerina had objective difficulties with the work at the Bolshoi Theater.

“She finished the Academy very well, she passed the competition, and she was taken into the troupe,” recounts Kondratyeva. “However, even so, she came from another school and had different training. This is what the tutors said, and I clarified this issue myself. And she also very poorly memorizes movements, she would study them for a very long time. And since the repertoire was large, it was difficult for her.”

Kondratyeva noted that Joy Womack dreamed of solo parts, but the practice of the work at the Bolshoi Theater is such that beginning artists must pass through the corps de ballet. And there was no need to be offended at this; the rules were the same for everyone.