More than a hundred Russian ballet fans rallied in Moscow on Saturday in support of a top dancer who says he is being chased out of the Bolshoi Theatre due to disputes in the wake of an acid attack on its artistic director earlier this year.
The attack on Sergei Filin in January stunned Russians and exposed the bitter rivalries and behind-the-scenes power struggles at the theatre, a symbol of Russian culture since the 18th century.
Bolshoi dancer Pavel Dmitrichenko has confessed to plotting the attack on Filin, which left him with severe burns to his eyes and face, but both Filin and Bolshoi director Anatoly Iksanov have said they think others were involved.
Nikolai Tsiskaridze, who has been told to leave at the end of June, had clashed with Iksanov even before the attack, but their relationship soured sharply after Iksanov said the 39-year-old dancer might have acted as an instigator.
This month Tsiskaridze said he was being "hounded" out of the theatre.
"There is no dancer in Russia like Kolya!" said Larissa Pukhalskaya, 45. She said she had fallen in love with ballet after watching Tsiskaridze on television five years ago.
Supporters say the rivalries in the theatre stem from a clash between traditions who want to defend centuries of tradition and innovators such as Filin.
Tsiskaridze was one of the loudest critics of a multi-million dollar renovation of the theatre that ended last year.
"No one outside of Russia could imagine the importance ballet holds for us. It's the one symbol of culture we have left from the Soviet Union, even the Russian Empire," said Olesya Nazarova, 54, who said she had danced ballet as a young girl.
"And now everyone managing the theatre wants to ruin this great tradition," she said within sight of the columned Classical building.
Protesters were signing a petition to the Culture Ministry asking for Tsiskaridze's contract to be extended.
The Bolshoi has seen its fair share of scandal recently. Its ballet troupe has had five artistic directors since 1995, and a candidate for the post quit in 2011 after pornographic images of him were posted on the Internet.
The theatre has said Tsiskaridze's contract will not be renewed when it expires at the end of June, but declined to give a reason.
Filin, who has been receiving medical treatment in Germany, has vowed to return to work as soon as possible.