Ballet director returns to Russia's Bolshoi after acid attack

By Gabriela Baczynska

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Wearing dark glasses over his damaged eyes, artistic director Sergei Filin returned to the Bolshoi Ballet on Tuesday to guide its troupe through a new season, eight months after he was nearly blinded in an acid attack.

The attack on Filin, who returned to Russia at the weekend after seven months of treatment at a clinic in Germany, exposed bitter rivalries at Russia's premier cultural institution, where Filin had the power to make or break careers.

Blinking through dark glasses under the theatre's bright lights in the gold-encrusted main hall, the 42-year-old thanked his fans for their support.

"I feel good and my condition is stable enough to be here at the opening of the season and to take on work," he said, his eyelids visibly swollen.

"I am very glad to see you," he told the crowd just hours ahead of the theatre's first performance of the new season.

Bolshoi spokeswoman Katerina Novikova said Filin had undergone at least 22 operations on his eyes and face since the attack, and he said more were in the pipeline in Germany.

Filin also thanked his deputy, Galina Stepanenko, for filling in for him "in this difficult time during my absence".

Novikova said it remained to be seen how many duties Filin could carry out with more operations planned.

DISGRUNTLED DANCER

A disgruntled top dancer Pavel Dmitrichenko, who earned a reputation for playing villains on the theatre's stage, confessed to ordering an attack on Filin, and is on trial along with two alleged accomplices.

Dmitrichenko said he did not want acid to be used. All three men face up to 12 years in prison for the attack which left Filin writhing in agony in the snow late in the evening on January 17 before he eventually managed to get help.

The Russian government appointed experienced theatre manager Vladimir Urin as director to rebuild the theatre's tarnished reputation, after veteran director Anatoly Iksanov was ousted earlier this year in the wake of the attack.

Before his departure, Iksanov suggested that another top ballet dancer, Nikolai Tsiskaridze, might have played a role in inciting the attack ordered by his protege Dmitrichenko.

Tsiskaridze has denied playing any part, and when his contract was not renewed in June, he said the management was conducting a witch-hunt against him to hound him out of the theatre.

Novikova also said she hoped Filin's return would mean the world's gaze would turn back to the Bolshoi's artistic output rather than the drama going on behind the scenes.

"This horrible event shifted attention from art to the criminal aspect. Sergei Filin is back now and he is not blind. I hope it ends here, especially as we have really interesting things going on," she said.

The Bolshoi's new 2013/2014 season will include premieres of Richard Wagner's opera "The Flying Dutchman" and ballet "Lady of the Camellias".

(Reporting by Gabriela Baczynska, writing by Thomas Grove; Editing by Mike Collett-White)