Director: Nick Read, Mark Franchetti
Cast: Maria Alexandrova, Maria Allash, Sergei Filin
Watch Bolshoi Babylon online in the UK: We Are Colony / Curzon Home Cinema / TalkTalk TV store / Google Play / BFI Player
“The world of theatre is brutal,” says one veteran ballet master in this documentary. “It looks more beautiful from the outside… But underneath everything is boiling.”
It might not sound like much of a revelation, especially after the theatrics of Black Swan brought us the tormented tale of one dancer desperate to achieve perfection, but Bolshoi Babylon brings us an insight into the world of dance at an astonishing time: the aftermath of an attack upon Bolshoi director Sergei Filin, who had acid thrown in his face.
“Brutal” doesn’t even begin to cover it, especially when you consider the uniquely symbolic nature of the Bolshoi: are there any other cultural institutions as emblematic of their country? Decisions about the people in charge are made by government officials we never see, the kind of behind-closed-doors approach that’s as synonymous with Russia as tutus are with Swan Lake.
It’s no surprise, then, that someone appoints Vladimir Urin to be the new General Manager of the Bolshoi following the attack, who promises to usher in a new era of transparency. Sergei, though, makes his return, wearing sunglasses (he was told he might never be able to see again) – and the tension is immediately evident. “You said we’d have a gym,” he points out in an open meeting with the whole ballet company. He’s promptly told to sit down and be quiet.
That ominous sense of conflict looms over everything like one of the theatre’s grand spotlights, with productions and castings able to change (or ruin) a dancer’s career – we see once dancer, who’s “always told great by the bosses”, shocked to discover she’s been “kicked out” – or forge rifts between professionals. It’s telling that Sergei even refers to himself as a “traitor”, because he once worked with Vladimir, only to leave that theatre to take the Bolshoi job.
What’s impressive is that directors Nick Read and Mark Franchetti have such wide-ranging access to everyone involved, despite the tumultuous times surrounding them. The result isn’t just an honest take on what it’s like to run a ballet company, but a candid glimpse of a nation during a time of unrest.
“No one can’t be replaced,” observes principal dancer Maria Alexandrova, who has seen more than her fair share of dressing room upsets. You might expect Sergei’s attacker to be an outsider making a point, but the discovery that they came from within the company is chilling – not just because of how everyone reacts, but because there’s a sense that this kind of outbreak was almost waiting to happen. All the world’s a stage, but this stage is their world. The participants talk of being united, from dancers to cleaners, but inequality and power is as much a problem as it ever has been, both inside the ballet and outside.
The directors splice together the cutting remarks with shots of the Bolshoi’s stunning performances. It’s beautiful, calm and breathtaking to watch. But underneath, the tension simmers.
Bolshoi Babylon is available to buy and rent from We Are Colony with a bundle of digital special features, including interviews with the makers of the film.