MOSCOW: More than 300 members of Russia's Bolshoi Theatre rose Tuesday to the defence of a top dancer who was charged with masterminding a sulphuric acid attack against the ballet's artistic director.
The police detained Bolshoi soloist Pavel Dmitrichenko last week along with the suspected perpetrator and getaway driver in the plot against Sergei Filin that left him with eye damage and facial disfigurement.
Dmitrichenko admitted to organising the attack in footage aired on Russian state television before changing his testimony and saying that he never intended for acid to be used.
The theatre's crew -- including dancers but also the choir and orchestra members as well as stage staff -- said in a letter to President Vladimir Putin and the government that the confession seemed forced.
"For everyone who knows Dmitrichenko, the very idea that he could have thought of and ordered this crime -- committed in such a brutal manner -- is absurd," said a copy of the letter published on the website of Moscow Echo radio.
"The conclusion made by the investigation seems premature to us, the evidence unconvincing and Pavel's confession itself, which was later changed, the result of strong pressure."
Moscow Echo said that the signatories included star male dancer Nikolai Tsiskaridze whom theatre management accused of creating the atmosphere that led to the attack and who is reportedly a friend of Dmitrichenko.
Also singing the document was Anzhelina Vorontsova -- Dmitrichenko's girlfriend who Filin had allegedly passed over for top roles.
Much-loved ballerina Maria Alexandrova signed the document but it appeared that the Bolshoi's best known dancer -- prima ballerina Svetlana Zakharova -- had not.
It was not clear if the letter had universal support among the huge workforce.
Filin's lawyer Tatyana Stukalova said the letter played into the interests of those unidentified forces for whom Dmitrichenko was acting as cover.
Bolshoi Theatre Director Anatoly Iksanov said his position precluded him from signing the letter but that he agreed with those who did.
Moscow's police department responded to the letter by noting that it had "great respect" for the Bolshoi and would deliver all its findings from the investigation to its cast as soon as they became available.
The remarkable case has highlighted the rivalries and politics that have poisoned relations in the Bolshoi -- formed in 1776 and the cultural ace of the Soviet Union and Russia.
Dmitrichenko was not the Bolshoi's top dancers but had still been assigned several prominent roles. He became especially known for playing antagonists such as the feared tsar in the ballet "Ivan the Terrible" ballet.
His attorney said Tuesday that his client was ready to cooperate with the investigation but not to assume the blame for the use of acid.
"Both he and I have a firm position stating that he never asked anyone to douse anyone with acid, causing severe injury," lawyer Alexander Barkanov was quoted as saying by the RAPSI legal news agency.
Filin had said he had received telephone threats and had the tyre of his cars slashed before being doused in the face with sulphuric acid on his way home on January 17.
In an interview with Russian television from his rehabilitation in Germany, Filin said Dmitrichenko belonged to a "narrow circle" of people who wished him ill but also hinted higher forces could have been involved.
"Every moment, every meeting I had with Pavel Dmitrichenko involved another threat or another demonstration of his dislike for me, and I do not intend to hide this now," Filin.
"I had no ill feelings toward Pavel Dmitrichenko," said Filin. "But it seems that someone was working especially hard and pushing" Dmitrichenko toward an eventual attack.
Filin appeared in the interview with his head wrapped in a thick black scarf and his eye hidden by large dark glasses.