MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian police detained one of the Bolshoi Ballet's top dancers on Tuesday over an acid attack that nearly blinded the troupe's artistic director and exposed fierce backstage rivalries at the famed theatre.
Russia's Interior Ministry said in a statement that Pavel Dmitrichenko, a Bolshoi soloist who is to dance in "Sleeping Beauty" this month, is suspected of plotting the attack that left Sergei Filin, 42, with severe burns after a masked assailant threw a jar of acid in his face.
Police also said they detained a man suspected of carrying out the attack and another thought to have driven him to the crime scene outside Filin's apartment on January 17.
The attack shocked a country used to violent settling of scores, shining the spotlight on infighting at one its top cultural institutions. The involvement of one of its star dancers is likely to deepen the sense of crisis at the Bolshoi.
A police source told the RIA news agency that investigators had evidence Dmitrichenko, who has played the evil villain in Swan Lake and lead in Sergei Prokofiev's Ivan The Terrible, had ordered the attack but that they were still seeking his motive.
Life News, a Russian website with close ties to the police, said the suspected attacker, Yury Zarutsky, and his driver, Andrei Lipatov, were found by tracking cell phone calls made from the crime scene.
The Bolshoi Theatre's spokeswoman, Katerina Novikova, could not be reached for comment on Dmitrichenko's detention but said earlier on Tuesday, after a search of his apartment, that she knew of no dispute between him and Filin.
She looked irritated and became defensive when addressing the possibility of divisions in the company, saying: "I think the Bolshoi Theatre troupe is waiting for Sergei's return, and loves him and wishes him a speedy recovery."
Filin was left writhing in agony in the snow for about 20 minutes after the attack. As artistic director of the theatre's ballet company, he had the power to make or break careers in the fiercely competitive world of ballet.
He said before heading to Germany last month for treatment that is expected to save his sight that he believed he knew who was behind the attack and hinted it might be connected to his work, but refused to give a name.
The daily Izvestia cited a friend of Filin's as saying that he and Dmitrichenko, who has been with the troupe since 2002, had quarrelled over his management decisions.
"The artistic director is entitled to his point of view in determining the repertoire and who dances in what ballet. If Sergei was influenced by all those who wanted to see their friends, loved ones, acquaintances, wives and girlfriends in one role or another, the Bolshoi would have ceased to exist," said Grigory Belkin, described by the paper as a close friend of Filin's.
"There were many cases when people tried to bribe him ... The conflict with Dmitrichenko was probably in this vein."
The theatre has been no stranger to intrigue since it was built under Empress Catherine the Great in 1776 and the ballet troupe has gone through five artistic directors since 1995.
In 2003, Bolshoi bosses were heavily criticised for trying to fire ballerina Anastasia Volochkova for being too heavy. In 2011, deputy ballet director Gennady Yanin, then seen as a candidate for the artistic director post, quit after pornographic images of him appeared on the Internet.
The theatre, near Moscow's Red Square, reopened to great fanfare in 2011 after a six-year, $700-million renovation that restored its tsarist opulence but was criticised for going far over budget.
It has frequently been under fire over its artistic programme since then.
Leading Russian cultural figures wrote to President Vladimir Putin last November calling for the dismissal of the Bolshoi's general manager, Anatoly Iksanov. Among his critics are veteran dancer Nikolai Tsiskaridze, who challenged him for his job.
The Bolshoi dismissed the criticism, saying it failed to take into account the troupe's latest performances.
Editing by Robin Pomeroy