MOSCOW (Reuters) - The Russian government dismissed the head of the revered but scandal-plagued Bolshoi Theatre on Tuesday, six months after a hit man hired by one of its dancers threw acid in the face of its ballet director.
Anatoly Iksanov was replaced by Vladimir Urin, an experienced theatre boss whose task is to rebuild the reputation of one of the world's great cultural institutions after a behind-the-scenes drama with more twists than an on-stage plot.
Iksanov's departure as general manager had been all but inevitable since a masked man with a jar of sulphuric acid almost blinded ballet maestro Sergei Filin and exposed bitter infighting and rivalries at the Bolshoi.
Theatre insiders said his removal may have been hastened by a new spat over the decision not to give a lead role in a new production to a prima ballerina admired by President Vladimir Putin.
"A difficult situation had developed at the theatre and in the troupe, and everything pointed to the need for renewal at the theatre," Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky told a news conference at the Bolshoi, whose cream-colored, eight-columned facade is close to Moscow's Red Square and the Kremlin.
Announcing Urin's appointment, he said: "He will be able to unite the troupe and continue the development of the best theatre in the country and one of the best in the world."
Iksanov, 61, sat beside the minister in an intended show of unity, but looked solemn and said little beyond thanking the company for his 13-year tenure. Although Medinsky and others showered him with praise, there was no doubt he had been forced out, with more than a year of his contract left to run.
The theatre has been in the news for all the wrong reasons since the January 17 attack on Filin, who was left writhing in agony in the snow outside his Moscow apartment late at night. He is now blind in one eye and hardly sees out of the other.
One of the top dancers, Pavel Dmitrichenko, who made his name playing villains in Swan Lake and Ivan the Terrible, later confessed to hiring two accomplices to attack Filin but said he had not expected acid to be thrown in his face.
Iksanov had already been under pressure over a lavish six-year renovation that restored the Bolshoi Theatre's opulent tsarist furnishings for a grand reopening in 2011 but came with a price tag of $700 million, much more than initially expected.
Urin, 66, will be under intense scrutiny over the unity of the company, the quality of productions and his ability to restore the reputation of a theatre that dates back to 1776.
"I do not plan any revolutions," said Urin, until now the boss at Moscow's respected Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Musical Theatre. "Only together can we solve the problems that, as in any theatre, exist today in the Bolshoi Theatre."
He faces a tough task after testimony in which Dmitrichenko said Filin had saved the best roles and salary-boosting grants for his favorites, pushing into the wings those opposed to his attempts to modernize traditional Russian ballet.
Top ballet dancer Nikolai Tsiskaridze, once a fierce critic of Filin and a former rival for Iksanov's post, was later thrown out of the company with no public explanation.
Members of the ballet company were surprised by the timing of the latest announcement, but were mostly anxious to get a permanent new artistic chief.
"All this constant publicity is making our job more difficult. No matter what you do, it's immediately criticized by everyone. The dancers are seriously fed up with that. I don't know Urin but I hope we will finally be able to start working normally again," ballerina Angelina Vlashinets told Reuters.
In the latest intrigue, sources at the theatre said prima ballerina Svetlana Zakharova had kicked up a fuss after not being handed a lead role in a new production of the ballet "Onegin", choreographed by South Africa-born John Cranko.
"The management offended Zakharova by not giving her a lead in Onegin, and she's close to Putin," said a Bolshoi musician.
One source suggested she might have complained to Putin, but the Kremlin has denied any role or say in the theatre.
Intrigue and misfortune are nothing new to an institution that has burnt down three times since being built under Catherine the Great and whose name translates as Grand Theatre.
Its history is laced with tales of tricks to put off artistic rivals - needles left in costumes, crushed glass put into ballet shoes, even an alarm clock timed to go off during a dance sequence.
Additional reporting by Steve Gutterman and Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Kevin Liffey