MOSCOW -- At 7 p.m. Sunday, the vast and intricate machine that is the Bolshoi Ballet swung into motion. A fan switched on, sending the sacred flame that is the centerpiece of Act I flickering upward; the ropy vines of a primeval forest were pulled down taut with weights. Dancers peeled off layers of wool and took their positions with fixed professional smiles, rib cages pumping the air, as if everything were normal.
As if the Bolshoi were not, in fact, the focus of a criminal investigation.
Detectives have been working their way through the ranks of the Bolshoi Ballet for 10 days now, ever since a masked assailant threw a jar of acid into the face of Sergei Filin, its artistic director. Among their tasks is to peer into the dark side of the ballet company: old rivalries and professional grudges that Bolshoi officials believe may have motivated the attack.
But the show goes on. From his hospital room in Moscow, with his head swathed in bandages, Filin, 42, delivered notes for a production of "La Bayadere," which opened last Thursday and was performed again over the weekend. In the middle of all this, dancer Nikolai Tsiskaridze, whose sharp criticism of the company's leadership has made him a figure in the investigation, rehearsed for this Sunday's performance of "Swan Lake."
A night backstage at the Bolshoi this week offered a glimpse of the discipline that has allowed the company to operate through three centuries of turbulence, to outlast the fall of the Russian empire and the fall of Communism.
Founded a few months before the signing of the American Declaration of Independence, this theater has burned down three times, once when Napoleon invaded Moscow. Its ballet company is the world's largest, allowing it to stage productions like "La Bayadere," which at one point in Act III fills the whole stage with identical white-clad dancers, to hypnotic effect.
"Captains change, but the ship keeps sailing on," said Ivan, a stagehand who would not give his last name, saying he was wary of angering management by commenting. "The theater is a huge system; several thousand people work in it. A huge mechanism is at work, and even if such an important person as Filin has dropped out of it, nevertheless the mechanism continues to work. Because it has a mission, and it cannot stop working."
The scandal at the Bolshoi has dominated Russia's popular press for more than a week now, and is almost impossible to avoid. A pulpy true-crime television show, "Russian Sensations," broadcast an update on the investigation 50 minutes before the curtain went up for Sunday night's performance.
Dancers gathered around a screen to catch the first few moments, said Joy Womack, an 18-year-old American who is dancing with the Bolshoi. Then, she said, they took their positions backstage and shut out other thoughts, as if flipping a switch.
"There is a certain time when the emotions stop, and the professionalism begins," Womack said.
Emotions have clearly been surging among the dancers, some of whom waited all night outside the burn unit where Filin was initially taken after the attack. He has spoken to them through the press, though he complained to a Moscow newspaper that he could not send text messages because, as he put it, "I can't see anything at all." Doctors have said he will not be blind, but a long recovery of six months or longer stretches out before him.
Ahead of the premiere of "La Bayadere," he delivered a pep talk to his dancers -- via Skype, transmitted on an iPad propped up in the middle of the stage. He said that he loved them endlessly and that they should forget about everything and "dance, dance, dance." Natalya Revich, who coaches the children, said the dancers seemed to collect themselves after that, to "take the responsibility on themselves, since they were without a leader."
Lidia Shcherbakova, a makeup artist who has worked at the Bolshoi for 47 years, said she had the feeling that the dancers were "trying harder, so that he won't be ashamed." Asked whom her co-workers suspected of attacking Filin, she shrugged and said, "There are a thousand theories."
The one that has received the most attention, at least in the press, involves Tsiskaridze, 39, a premier dancer, who has a passionate following and has clashed with the theater's leadership in recent years.
Tsiskaridze's conflict with the Bolshoi flared into public view in 2011, when he said that the theater's $760 million renovation left it looking like a Turkish resort hotel, and again last November, when a dozen influential figures petitioned President Vladimir Putin to make him head of the theater. Investigators questioned Tsiskaridze last week, and he responded by going public, saying that he believed someone close to the theater had tried to implicate him. He said he did not know who.
"Two people were questioned before me, and the rumor goes supposedly that someone has pointed the finger at three of us," Tsiskaridze said in an interview Friday. "When I asked why, they said they planned to question everyone in the company, but there are 250 people in the company. I told them, 'You have a strange alphabet, because the letter T comes at the end of the alphabet.'"
Asked whether he was worried about being prosecuted, he said he had "an iron alibi," having attended a gala event at the Moscow Art Theater on the night of the attack. Filin was there too, but left shortly after 11 p.m. and was attacked then. Tsiskaridze said he stayed at the event until 12:30 a.m., which he said could be confirmed by video surveillance.
Though he and Filin have not been on speaking terms for "a long time," he said he doubted the attack was planned by a rival. "There are so many theories, but I still don't believe this was about professional work," he said, "maybe because the well-known precedents, the analogous crimes in our country, they were always based on love affairs, on jealousy."
A police spokesman said Monday that investigators were planning to give several witnesses lie detector tests, but did not say who would be tested.
The theater's general director, Anatoly Iksanov, said last week that Tsiskaridze could not have carried out such an attack, though his "unpunished behavior led the theater to the point where someone else could take it farther, judging that everything is allowed, including throwing acid in a man's face."
Filin removed his bandages for the first time for a Sunday talk show, "Central Television." His head was shaved, and his eyes were closed, so it was unclear whether he could see. He said he wished his assailants "had thought to quiet their ambitions, or in some way extinguished this resentment in themselves."
He also said he had summoned a priest to his recovery room.
"I told him that I forgive everyone, and let God judge them, for man is weak," he said. "I forgive everyone who is involved in this. But if we're talking about the earthly world, then we have investigative bodies, undoubtedly we have excellent professionals, and quite soon I think we will have answers to the questions which you are asking me now."
As his words were broadcast, the corps de ballet was preparing for a cue backstage.
They would perform the diabolically difficult Kingdom of the Shades scene in the third act, when approximately 40 dancers descend four ramps in a slow procession meant to evoke an opium dream. The scene, one of classical ballet's most famous, requires extreme precision, with the corps de ballet moving on the same beat and breathing together, each dancer mirroring the arabesque of the dancer in front.
An engineer on break confided that every show was stressful -- any one of a hundred mechanisms could go wrong. Bruna Gaglianone, all in white for Act III, sat on a bench waiting for her moment.
"It's hard, but the main thing is the show," she said. "I don't know how else to explain it. This is what has to be done."