The opening of the excellent HBO documentary film Bolshoi Babylon, features the public image we expect of the Bolshoi: beautifully costumed and made-up ballerinas, bathed in blue light, performing Swan Lake.
But Nick Read’s gorgeously shot documentary has two more complex and darker stories to tell, away from the perfect make-up and costumes: one about what happened after the notorious acid attack on the company’s artistic director, Sergey Filin, in 2013, and the other about the tangled and fascinating history of the Bolshoi itself.
The attack, which left Filin severely burned and almost blind, was the culmination of long-running animosity with dancer Pavel Dmitrichenko, who had asked another man, Yury Zarutsky, to rough Filin up.
It was a shock to Dmitrichenko when he discovered, via TV news, that Filin had suffered acid thrown in his face.
Dmitirichenko told a court that Filin had favored certain performers over others, and had slept with multiple ballerinas.
Filin had also passed over Dmitrichenko’s girlfriend for roles.
The documentary begins as another general director, Vladimir Urin, begins work at the Bolshoi—and there is added bad blood between him and Filin because of the way the latter left a previous post at the Stanislavski Theatre, which Urin had managed.
A lot of the documentary’s amazing access and interviewee candor is down to Mark Franchetti, the documentary’s producer and co-director, who has worked in Moscow for 18 years as the UK Sunday Times’ correspondent there.
“Russia is a place where personal connections, personal relationships, are extremely important. I spent months and months backstage developing those relationships, so people trust you,” Franchetti told The Daily Beast.
For Franchetti, he and Read were “not making a film about ballet, or an acid attack either, but trying to understand why this extraordinary institution has such a unique status in Russia, and why it attracts plotting, gossip, intrigue, and backstabbing politics and so on.”
All this turmoil takes place offstage—as first soloist Anastasia Meskova tells the documentary, “We’re supposed to come out smiling. We may have our own disasters. But the show must continue. And what will the audience see? Art and magic!”
Roman Abramov, a ballet devotee, has been coming to the Bolshoi for 32 years and said the theatre was a sacred place to him—the acid-throwing scandal had made people see it as a “rubbish dump full of rats,” rather than the “Olympus,” where the gods of dance were worshiped.
However—despite the laurels, and the world leaders and royalty who watch from the Bolshoi’s boxes—this is still, said Boris Akimov, the Ballet Master, a ballet company of 250 people, every one with their own character, desires and ambitions.
It is a hot house, where people vie for roles, and panic if they are off stage too long. “The world of the theatre is cruel,” Akimov says. “It looks beautiful from the outside, but underneath everything is boiling.”
Maria Alexandrova, principal dancer, says, “There is no-one who can’t be replaced. It’s what makes people practice 12 hours a day, torturing themselves. There are no pots of gold here. Only physical hardship.”
Alexandrova had a full Achilles’ tendon fracture on stage one night, but—she says proudly—kept standing. She doesn’t appear for her mother, or the audience. “I do it for myself. The only thought that torments me is what if I can’t appear on stage again.”
She doesn’t want her daughter to become a ballet dancer, to be like her, a performer-addict in search of the fix: “The truth is we’re all here to become princes and princesses.”
The dancers, she says, “cry and laugh, marry and divorce, we’re very strange people. It often turns to tragedy.”
And if not tragedy, frustration: We see the dancer who, having danced since she was 4 years old, finds out she is not going on tour, and who asks rhetorically why she tries so hard—well, because performing is the air that she breathes, she answers.
The dancer says she was horrified when detectives investigating Filin’s acid attack came and stood on the Bolshoi’s stage, their sacred space, to ask the dancers questions.
“People are deeply attached to the institution and building, and love it,” says Franchetti. “It is the most important stage in the world, and the hardest of all. Nothing gives that emotion for them. It is their home.”
In the wake of Filin’s attack, detectives talked to the dancers “like animals,” says one—the outside world is not welcome here, you sense.
Franchetti says the trigger question which produced most tears from the interviewees was, “What does the Bolshoi mean to you?” upon which “all these emotions would come out. There’s so much history, it’s such a unique institution, that all the disillusionment, all the dreams you have, all that, all the difficulties of management and bickering…all of that goes when you are on that stage.”
One of the things that most surprised Franchetti was observing the backstage subcultures—the orchestra, ballet, cleaning ladies, technical staff—and how they all come together, despite all kinds of tensions, to produce a smooth evening performance.
The public, observing all the Bolshoi’s recent shenanigans, saw the dancers as “snakes in a bottle,” says one dancer. “Someone said, ‘You’re all evil. You’d eat each other there.’”
Despite suggesting an attack (even if it became much more extreme than he had conceived), Dmitrichenko found a lot of support among the other dancers—with the company split between those who backed him and those who backed Filin. There was another conflict with the dancer Nikolai Tsiskaridze, who wanted Filini’s job.
The Bolshoi is not only 500 meters from the Kremlin, and the geographical proximity is meaningful.
Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian prime minister, calls the Bolshoi the country’s “secret weapon,” sent out into the world as a symbol of culture. “We’ll definitely use it to achieve our goals,” he says.
A board member describes feeling as if he was in Alice in Wonderland when approached by the deputy prime minister over who should be the director of the Bolshoi.
The cameras follow Filin’s return to the ballet after his recovery, with the sight in one eye saved.
Urin’s antipathy toward him is clear. “Nothing but work connects me with Filin,” he says gravely.
Filin himself says his working life changed drastically when he was appointed artistic director: He went from a company member who never had needles placed in his pointe shoes to “a completely different attitude” toward him. There was “unbelievable jealousy.”
Dmitrichenko was eventually sentenced to six years in prison, and Filin is shown in the documentary tangling with Urin at a company meeting in a row about gym versus pilates, which is really a power play. Urin commands Filin to sit down.
The film does have sweeter moments. A female dancer brings her son to a performance. He—although meters away watching off-stage his mother perform beautifully—stays glued to playing games on his cellphone.
But it is the sad, retreating back of Filin, walking down a staircase, that is the film’s most resonant image. In voiceover, he states, “There is no joy in being a boss. It’s just hellishly hard work. Whatever you do, you’re never going to get any thanks.”
Filin’s contract, we discover, was not renewed in July 2015; his successor, Makhar Vaziev, was announced in October.
Franchetti says Urin is relatively autonomous in his job, though “if the Minister of Culture calls him to tell him he should do something, he can’t just tell him to get lost. If a powerful businessman on the Board of Directors asks for a favor, he has to take the call.”
If ordinary Russians eyed the Bolshoi suspiciously at the time of the acid attack, now they are much more concerned with the severe economic crisis they are in. The ballet remains exorbitantly expensive for most people.
And so this strange world--its own world of beauty and history and rivalries and passion--continues. As one of the contributors to the documentary says, the Bolshoi is like an ocean liner. Whatever craziness happens backstage, it just keeps its course. At 7pm, that night’s curtain goes up, and the show goes on.
Bolshoi Babylon is on HBO, Dec. 21, 9pm