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Booted Bolshoi Ballerina Threatens Suit


By VLADIMIR ISACHENKOV : Associated Press Writer
Sep 18, 2003 : 9:17 pm ET

MOSCOW -- A top ballerina is going toe-to-toe with the Bolshoi Theater, threatening Thursday to sue its managers over her firing and accusing them of spreading lies that her dance partners found her too heavy to lift.

Anastasia Volochkova alleged the Bolshoi violated Russian labor law by announcing this week that her dismissal was retroactive to June 30. She said that her lawyers were preparing a suit.

"I believe that the Bolshoi Theater's action was illegal," Volochkova, draped head-to-foot in a greenish shawl, told a news conference.

Bolshoi director Anatoly Iksanov said Tuesday he fired Volochkova after she had refused to sign a new contract offered by the theater after her previous contract expired in June, and that she made excessive demands. Iksanov said the theater couldn't find partners for Volochkova because male dancers complained she was too tall and heavy.

Volochkova, 27, called the claim "nonsense."

"It's a myth that partners refuse to dance with me," she said. "In fact, the managers are trying to discourage them from dancing with me."

She dismissed the allegations that she was too heavy, saying her numerous partners had never complained. She said she weighs about 110 pounds and was 5 feet 6, which she said is not as tall as the Bolshoi was claiming.

"They were discrediting me as a ballerina, smearing my image here and abroad," Volochkova said. "All this has brought me a lot of pain and trauma."

Volochkova said the Bolshoi offered a contract through December, instead of a customary one-year deal, and refused to promise her parts in already scheduled performances.

"I only wanted a contract on equal conditions with others," she said. "The contract they offered to me amounted to a gradual dismissal."

In a debate on a live-audience NTV television program broadcast late Thursday with Alexander Gafin, identified as the executive director of the Bolshoi Theater Foundation, Volochkova called the contract she was offered "a sentence on my departure from the theater."

The Bolshoi has said it wants to give a free hand to a new ballet director who takes over in January, when the contract would have expired.

The controversy between Volochkova and the Bolshoi spilled into the open earlier this month. Volochkova dances in heavily promoted performances outside the Bolshoi, and many Russians see her more as a pop icon or show biz celebrity than a classical ballerina.

Volochkova, who made a successful Bolshoi debut in "Swan Lake" three years ago, countered that perception, saying she was only trying to "refresh" classical traditions with modern elements to appeal to a broader public.

"I'm trying to preserve classical traditions and enrich them with new forms in order to attract young people," she said.

Volochkova said that by firing her the Bolshoi apparently wanted to clear the way for other ballerinas, but gave no names. "They said I was standing in someone's way," she said.

In the spirit of the dispute, which has been waged in the media with a major dose of mudslinging, Volochkova's opposite in the televised debate delivered a backhanded compliment referring to her image as a pop icon. "I really love her photographs, her (magazine) covers," Gafin said. "You have such a high opinion of yourself," he told Volochkova.

Volochkova, meanwhile, shed tears and said she was the victim of a "plot."

But the program ended with a faint suggestion that Volochkova could return to the Bolshoi. Prompted by the host, Volochkova said she would agree to a contract through year's end provided the conditions are the same as for the theater's other top dancers, while Gafin said "a compromise, of course, is possible."

The show included a four-judge panel -- split down the middle -- and invited viewers to phone in and vote in favor of Volochkova or Gafin. The ballerina won, 20,670 to 8,945.