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Sergei Filin, a former leading dancer at the Bolshoi who has been in the high-pressure job at the heart of Russian culture for nearly two years, was attacked outside his Moscow apartment building as he returned from an outing on Thursday night (local time).
Such is the prestige of Filin's post in Russian life, and its power inside the theatre, that stunned current and former colleagues suggested the motive could have been envy, rivalry or even competition for roles.
His face covered in bandages with holes for the mouth and eyes, Filin sounded relieved to have survived the attack.
"I was scared, I thought he was going to shoot me, honestly ... and I turned to run but he chased me down," Filin told Russia's REN TV.
"He turned and his face was completely covered, either a scarf or some bandage like a mask, only eyes (to be seen)."
The theatre's director, Anatoly Iksanov, had no doubt the attack was aimed at sowing discord in an institution that has rarely been at peace in a history stretching back to the era of Catherine the Great.
Filin, 42, had reported having his car tyres slashed and his emails hacked in recent weeks, as well as receiving repeated nuisance calls from someone who stayed silent when he answered.
"This two-week campaign has ended tragically and despicably," Iksanov said, adding that the culprit "should be sought among those for whom it was beneficial to compromise the theatre leadership".
WAR FOR ROLES?
Bolshoi spokeswoman Katerina Novikova had been out with Filin at another theatre on Thursday evening and parted with him shortly before the attack.
"We just never thought that the war for roles - not for real estate, not for oil - could reach such a criminal level," she said.
Relatives, dancers and theatre administrators flocked overnight to the hospital where Filin was being treated, and later gathered at the theatre.
Some suggested that making enemies, or at least generating resentment, was a hazard that came with the post.
"This person was doing his job," Bolshoi soloist Anastasia Meskova said, choking back tears. "Of course, it's clear that there may have been people who were dissatisfied, but I can't even imagine what would have been the reason (for the attack)."
Russian media said Filin had suffered third-degree burns and that doctors believed it would take him at least six months to recover. Channel One television said doctors were "trying to save his eyesight".
Filin told Iksanov he believed he had been followed home, and that the attacker had called his name before throwing acid on his face.
"There are very serious burns on his face, in his ears, his forehead, his mouth, and of course there are serious concerns about his eyesight," Iksanov said.
Filin was to be flown to a burns centre in Brussels on Friday after an urgent operation, Novikova said.
The Bolshoi, which has both ballet and opera troupes, reopened last February after a six-year renovation to its landmark colonnaded building, close to Red Square in the very centre of Moscow.
As a near-mythical icon of Russian culture, it is a magnet for both locals and foreign tourists, and has seen power struggles among both dancers and directors throughout its more than 200 years of history.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, many of those conflicts, whether driven by egos or artistic convictions, have been played out in public.
In 2003 Iksanov dismissed ballerina Anastasia Volochkova after reportedly saying she was too heavy for male dancers to lift, and in 2011 a senior ballet manager resigned after a scandal over sexually explicit photographs.
After the tightly controlled three-decade tenure of Yuri Grigorovich ended in 1995, the Bolshoi Ballet went through five artistic directors before the appointment in March 2011 of Filin, who joined the Bolshoi's ballet troupe in 1988.
Filin's predecessor Alexei Ratmansky, who is now an artist in residence at the American Ballet Theater, said the attack was "no coincidence".
In a Facebook posting, he called the Bolshoi a "revolting sewer" plagued by hangers-on, ticket scalpers and "half-crazed fans ready to chew through the throats of their idols' rivals".
He used the familiar version of Filin's name to end his posting with the words: "Seryozha - the swiftest recovery, and courage!"
Filin's mother, Natalya, said he had been threatened but that she did not know who could have been behind the attack, according to the RIA news agency.
"What's important to me now is the health of my son, that he does not lose his eyesight," she said.
Joy Womack, an American dancer at the Bolshoi, urged "friends, fans and family" on Facebook to "stop what you are doing and pray for Sergei".
"He was attacked by evil people," she wrote. "Pray that the attackers would be apprehended and dealt with in the severity of the law."