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The Arts Desk

Dancer in the Dark

An American ballerina makes headlines when she says the Bolshoi Ballet wanted a bribe to let her perform. The company denies her accusation. But a small library in Virginia knew about it first.

Credit: "Joy Womack of the Bolshoi Ballet," 2013, Pedro Villarrubia.

The rumors about corruption and prostitution rampant in Russia’s scandal-ridden Bolshoi Ballet are old news. The departure of a young American ballerina who idolized the company for its illustrious history and long tradition of pedagogical mentoring, is not.

I knew this last month when Joy Womack confided in me about the pressures she was under to keep her job as a soloist at the renowned dance company. And I knew this 10 days ago, when, just minutes before she was scheduled to make an appearance before an audience of about 50 people via Skype, she told me that she was being threatened to keep quiet.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” I asked.

“Absolutely,” she said.

I introduced my special guest to the young dancers, middle-aged readers, and elderly library patrons who had come to hear me talk about my novel about a fictional Russian ballerina. For 40 minutes Joy paid tribute to the ballet that I had already, by way of introduction, painted as a hot mess of intrigue. She talked about the company’s prestige and its perils without personalizing its current string of scandals. She was frank but hedging. She spoke of a “dark time” and her “decision to go a new direction.”

I carefully filled in the back-story, supplying some choice details about the company’s rocky year. I hinted at Joy’s role in the story, congratulating her on her new position with a smaller, less volatile ballet. But I withheld the punch line: Joy Womack, the first American to ever join the Bolshoi Ballet is also the first American to ever quit the Bolshoi Ballet. I was waiting for her to weigh the consequences of candor and caution.

When she went public last week with her accusation of extortion by her former employer, a small quorum in Lexington, Va., read the news with dawning recognition: Joy’s story, now the subject of international headlines, had been quietly broken at their local library five days earlier.

 

When I first met Joy Womack last September, she was already skeptical about her future with the Bolshoi Ballet. To secure a place with the company, Womack had traveled solo to Moscow at age 15, learned Russian, and, three years later, graduated from the rigorous Bolshoi Academy. When she was offered a contract to dance with the ballet, she made a further investment: she got married, convinced that a Russian spouse would simplify the bureaucracy, guarantee a visa, even pave the path towards citizenship as a potential end goal. Her parents strongly disapproved, but she married a fellow dancer. It was a purely business arrangement.

Now she was having second thoughts. She told me she was concerned about her reputation as a role model for young dancers. She felt that, at age 19 and entering her fifth year in the Theatre’s walls, she had “grown up.”

When the implications became personal, she agonized over whether to slip away quietly. She had much to lose as a whistle-blower. Moreover, she said, “I don’t have proof. I’m a dancer, not a spy. I wasn’t wearing a wire.”

“I just want to be a ballet dancer. A lot of girls look up to me and I would be ashamed if I didn’t show that you don’t have to compromise.”

As for the impact divorce might have on her employment status with the Bolshoi, Womack said she was determined. Any insistence that she stay married would be “a deal-breaker.” But it never came to that. Within weeks, she was confronted with bigger deal breakers, and her divorce became the least of her concerns.

The upshot, as she told a reporter from the Russian daily Izvestia last week, was that if she wanted to dance on the Bolshoi stage she would have to come up with $10,000 or a wealthy patron to front her career. The theatre’s administration denies the gist and the specifics of her accusation. Many of its artists are also crying foul. Others, bravely, have acknowledged, “some get parts and positions in one way, some in another.”

Joy’s fairy-tale role as the first American to dance with the renowned Bolshoi had become a cautionary tale for those same young dancers she had hoped to inspire.

 

Enmity between the artistic and administrative floors of the Bolshoi Theatre has been regular tabloid fodder for a decade. The tension, a slow burn fueled by inflated ticket prices, stagnant salaries, and a perception of managerial caprice and corruption, turned violent last January, when a masked assailant threw acid in the face of Sergei Filin, the ballet’s artistic director. Since then, the ballet has lost four principal dancers, including a leading soloist who is currently on trial for organizing the attack against Filin. In July, with the scandal still smoldering, the Minister of Culture sacked the Theatre’s general director of 13 years.

Joy Womack was not eager to enter the fray. Throughout the annus horribilis, she did what most other dancers did. She kept her head down and her mouth shut. She attended all her classes, stayed late at rehearsals, and started an online fundraiser for a teacher with medical bills. Even as late as September she defended Filin and the company—noting that graft and scandal were common to every major ballet company, but that the Bolshoi was “just more up front.” When the implications became personal, she agonized over whether to slip away quietly. She had much to lose as a whistle-blower. Moreover, she said, “I don’t have proof. I’m a dancer, not a spy. I wasn’t wearing a wire.”

“I really believed in the Bolshoi and I gave it my whole heart. It was miraculous that I was able to do so much. But I will only do as much as I can with the Lord’s help. And not with my body or my money.”

Womack’s departure has gotten a mixed reception. She is not a star like Nikolai Tsiskaridze or Anastasia Volochkova, both of whom have leveled very serious accusations at the Bolshoi administration. Nor is she personally involved with the acid attack, the trial of which is ongoing and has featured allegations of sexual harassment by the artistic director, Filin, toward another major star, Olga Smirnova. She has said she does not want to testify against Filin in court in defense of his alleged attacker, the dancer Pavel Dmitrichenko. Nor does she want to file her own complaint. “I was sort of forced into it,” she said about the Izvestia interview. “If I didn’t come forward, someone else was going to.”

For every outraged observer who sees Womack’s accusations as more fodder against Filin, there is a critic who characterizes her as an impatient diva unwilling to learn the ropes. And an American one at that. (There is no shortage of nationalist sentiment in the ballet.) Even Womack’s instructor, who Womack told me made many pleas on her behalf for roles, has now made a public declaration that her young student had “struggled with the large repertoire.” Other dancers in the company have dismissed Joy as “a corps dancer with some potential.” Vladimir Urin, the newly appointed Director General of the Theatre, has instructed her to file a case with law-authorities.

 

Here’s where I stand. I witnessed a young dancer (Joy is still a teenager) agonize over the loss of a dream and the onset of a nightmare. I heard her story, with its occasional contradictions, and did not find that it (as the clinical Russian characterization goes) “failed to correspond to reality.” On the contrary, it is sadly believable that the Bolshoi—despite its generous budget, its global reputation, its ranks of talent—harbors elements for whom no personal gain is too small a conquest.

Before she joined my modest author talk, some days before going public, Joy told me that she had just attended a performance at the Bolshoi Theatre. She said she had been approached by two highly influential people with a warning that if she spoke about her reasons for leaving she would regret it.

But I’ve learned that she doesn’t easily regret. When Joy told my audience (which included about two-dozen teenaged ballerinas) that she still loved the Bolshoi Theatre, I recognized the sincerity of her confusion. I had heard it many times as she wrestled with a difficult decision.

“I really believed in the Bolshoi and I gave it my whole heart,” she said. “It was miraculous that I was able to do so much. But I will only do as much as I can with the Lord’s help. And not with my body or my money.”

You couldn’t ask for a more straightforward message. I hope the dancers of Lexington, Va., heard it.

biopic

TMN Contributing Writer Elizabeth Kiem is the author of Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy. More by Elizabeth Kiem