Film Review: Bolshoi Babylon

Directors: Nick Read and Mark Franchetti

PG  |  86 min  |  Documentary  |  8 January 2016 (UK)

RATING: ★★★★☆

This interesting new documentary goes backstage at the hallowed institution known as Russia’s Bolshoi Ballet, and directors Nick Read and Mark Franchetti successfully demonstrate that there can be just as much life-or-death drama found in the real world of professional ballet as there is in Darren Aronofsky’s fictional Black Swan. The filmmakers use the events surrounding the January 2013 acid attack on Bolshoi artistic director Sergei Filin, a former lead dancer, as the jumping-off point for an exploration of the tensions that lie behind Moscow’s premier institutions, which one observer notes remains Russians premier export ‘along with the AK47’.

One of the men who was convicted of being involved in the acid attack on Filin turned out to be a dancer on the Bolshoi’s payroll – dancer Pavel Dmitrichenko- and this was taken by observers of the company to confirm that the revered theatre was in crisis, racked by personality clashes, jealousy and dysfunction. One of the motives appearing in the media for Dmitrichenko’s attacks was apparent bitterness at key roles not being allocated to his preference by his boss Filin, and he himself is seen accusing Filin of misallocation of funds and other corrupt acts. For his part, Filin in interviews has some truly disturbing tales of the kinds of sabotage backstage that you can imagine would drive performers paranoid: pins in shoes, cut laces, and other dirty tricks. Filin himself, despite being a former dancer, reflects sadly on how his ascendancy to a management position overnight changed his relationship with many in the theatre, a result of longstanding suspicions of management.

Truly there are enough lively personal dynamics here to provide material for an entire dramatic TV series, but the documentary also throws light on the impossible position the higher management of the Bolshoi have to exist in regardless of what their performers are doing to each other. Following the sacking of the former manager of the theatre, the newly installed head of the Bolshoi, Vladimir Urin, wearily observes to the camera that political interference from the Kremlin is a fact of life for those running the theatre, something he intends to try to counteract. Government figures not only ordered the sacking of his predecessor, but have a long sordid history of making actual decisions about the productions themselves, a level of meddling unthinkable here.

As divided as this theatre is made to appear in the documentary some space is given over to footage showcasing some truly breathtaking live performances (intercut with musings about the agonies of training and the fears of replacement from the performers); which serves as a reminder of the power the Bolshoi holds on it’s members and audiences, and why its fate is seen by many as reflecting the state of the Russian nation.

Film Review: Bolshoi Babylon
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