Russian doctors Friday were battling to save the eyesight of the Bolshoi ballet chief after a masked assailant threw acid on his face, in a gruesome attack the theatre linked to internal conflicts.
Sergei Filin, a former acclaimed dancer who was appointed artistic director in 2011, suffered third degree burns to the face, head and eyes late Thursday when the attacker cornered him near his house in central Moscow.
While his life was not in danger, Filin underwent an emergency operation Friday at a Moscow hospital to give him the best chance of preserving his eyesight.
The Ren-TV channel showed Filin, 42, speaking in a hospital room after the attack with his face almost totally bandaged.
"I got scared, I thought, he is going to shoot me," Filin said.
"I turned around to run, but he raced ahead of me," he said, adding that the attacker wore a mask and a hood.
The assailant fled the scene and no suspects have been identified so far, police said. However, both police and Filin's colleagues had little doubt that the ballet chief was targeted because of his professional work at the Moscow theatre.
"This is clearly tied to his professional activities," Bolshoi Theatre general director Anatoly Iksanov said.
"I really hope that the person who ordered (the attack) is found," Iksanov added. "This person is a monster," he told journalists at the theatre.
Following his eye surgery Friday. doctors would only be able to evaluate its success in five to seven days, Alexei Levchenko, an aide to Deputy Prime Minister Olga Golodets, told the RIA-Novosti news agency.
Even if Filin's sight is preserved, rehabilitation and plastic surgery to repair the disfigurement from third-degree burns could keep him away from work for many months, doctors said.
"Right now the main thing is saving his eyes," Bolshoi spokeswoman Katerina Novikova told AFP.
The Bolshoi had initially planned to send Filin to a Belgian military hospital for burn injuries but this was cancelled as it became clear saving his eyes was the priority, Novikova said.
The lifenews.ru website said that Filin was suffering from complete loss of vision and had received serious damage to both his corneas as the acid had been thrown directly into his open eyes.
-- 'Not a coincidence' --
Russia's Deputy Culture Minister Andrei Busygin called the crime an "attack on all Russian culture," and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev wished Filin a fast recovery, his spokeswoman Natalia Timakova said.
Filin took charge of the Bolshoi ballet in 2011 and is an integral part of the theatre's recent artistic remake, turning from classical repertoire more towards innovative and modern productions.
He has been a subject of harassment for some time -- his website and email were hacked, and somebody punctured the tires on his car, Iksanov added.
The latest attack shocked the ballet community and horrified the Bolshoi troupe, whose usual impeccably-controlled stars openly wept with emotion.
"We are shocked and shaken, this is hard to fathom," the Bolshoi's current best-known prima ballerina Svetlana Zakharova told journalist, her voice shaking.
One of Filin's predecessors, Alexei Ratmansky, who left the Bolshoi in 2008 and is now a choreographer at the American Ballet Theatre, said what led to the attack was the Bolshoi's "lack of theatre ethics."
"The tragedy with Sergei Filin is not a coincidence," he wrote on Facebook.
"What happened shocks everyone, but it doesn't surprise that many people," Russian ballet historian Vadim Gayevsky told AFP.
Even in Soviet times, Bolshoi dancers spiked each others' pointe shoes with crushed glass, while legendary Soviet prima ballerina Galina Ulanova received threatening letters, he said.
Filin is a popular figure said to be adored by the dancers but the Bolshoi ballet remains hugely influenced by its chief ballet master, the veteran Soviet choreographer Yuri Grigorovich, and apparently driven by internal conflict.
Male dancer Nikolai Tsiskaridze, one of the Bolshoi's most visible stars due to appearances on TV shows, had meanwhile bitterly complained of not being given enough chance to dance performances under Filin's tenure.
The biggest public scandal on Filin's Bolshoi watch was the late 2011 exit from the institution of its star real-life couple Ivan Vasiliev and Natalya Osipova, who left Moscow to dance at a lesser known theatre in Saint Petersburg.
In another sign of the internal troubles at the theatre, one of the dancers contending for Filin's current post was in 2011 targeted by a porn smear scandal that effectively ruined his chances.
A picture taken on October 10, 2007 shows Russian ballet dancer Sergei Filin performing a dress rehearsal of the "Lesson" ballet at the Bolshoi theatre in Moscow. Filin was Friday fighting to save his eyesight after a masked assailant threw acid on his face, in a gruesome attack the theatre linked to internal conflicts.