Teachers at Russia's legendary Vaganova Ballet Academy on Tuesday published an open letter to President Vladimir Putin asking him to reconsider the appointment of a controversial dancer as its chief, in a scandal that has plunged Russian ballet into new turmoil.
The recent appointment by the Russian culture ministry of the outspoken Nikolai Tsiskaridze, a prominent male dancer who was dismissed by Moscow's Bolshoi Theatre in June, has caused an uproar with some warning it marked the death of the Academy.
Critics have accused Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky of ruthlessly firing the respected previous directors of the Saint Petersburg-based Academy in a scheme masterminded by the powerful pro-Putin chief of the Mariinsky Theatre Valery Gergiev.
The Vaganova is the main provider of newly-graduated dancers to Saint Petersburg's Mariinsky Theatre.
The letter said the move wreaks "irreversible damage on the Academy's artistic potential, breaks the continuity of tradition at the school and is an unacceptable, if not criminal decision."
It said that work at the Vaganova had been "paralysed" since the changes were announced last month, and the decision had caused huge damage to the reputation of the Academy and Russian culture as a whole.
"The decisions should be rapidly reviewed within the framework of the existing laws of the Russian Federation," added the letter, which was signed by professors and teachers at the Vaganova as well as ballet performers from the Mariinsky Theatre.
The culture ministry appointed Tsiskaridze, a celebrity dancer widely known through frequent appearances as a judge on TV talent shows, as the Vaganova's rector and the Mariinsky prima ballerina Ulyana Lopatkina as its artistic director.
Gergiev, who has backed the idea of merging the Vaganova and the Mariinsky, hailed a "virtuoso management decision".
Huge bitterness has also surrounded the ousting of the previous rector Vera Dorofeyeva and artistic director Altynai Asylmuratova, a Kazakh-born dancer who was the greatest ballerina of the late Soviet era.
In an apparent bid to douse the fury surrounding the situation of the adored Asylmuratova, Tsiskaridze on Tuesday announced that he had agreed with her to stay on at the school as a prorector.
His appointment had caused a public outcry from some of the most respected figures in Russian ballet, with the Mariinsky's prima ballerina Diana Vishneva making a highly unusual public statement to condemn the move.
Russia's leading modern choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, a former director of the Bolshoi ballet who now works abroad, said the appointment appeared aimed at finding work for Tsiskaridze and expressed disgust at how the culture ministry had taken its side.
Tsiskaridze was fired by the Bolshoi ballet after a public falling out with the theatre after comments seen by many as hugely tasteless following the acid attack on its director Sergei Filin.
It appears that Russian cultural officials were desperate to find a top new job for Tsiskaridze, who reportedly enjoys the patronage of the wife of a top businessman close to the Kremlin.
One of Russia's leading ballet reviewers on Tuesday published an article highly critical of Tsiskaridze, alleging he was a poor teacher and messy repetiteur whose pupils had suffered under his tuition.
"The ex-Bolshoi dancer and teacher's reputation is not quoted quite so high in the professional ballet world as his admirers and state officials and their wives would have you believe," Tatyana Kuznetsova wrote in Kommersant Vlast magazine.
Arguably the most legendary ballet school anywhere in the world, the Vaganova Academy traces its history back to 1738 and takes its current name from the great ballet teacher Agrippina Vaganova, who taught there in the 1920s.
It has produced scores of star dancers over the years, including iconic ballerinas like Anna Pavlova and Tamara Karsavina and male dancers the likes of Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov.