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For anyone who thought Darren Aronofsky‘s Black Swan was an implausibly bloody portrait of the ballet world, then the 2013 acid-attack on Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet’s artistic director Sergei Filin, a hit ordered by dancer from his own company, proved truth is often stranger than fiction. British documentary-maker Nick Read‘s Bolshoi Babylon explores the bizarre case in more detail, but grows even more interesting when it examines how this storied cultural institution struggles to survive tempestuous politics both inside and outside the theater walls. HBO Documentary Films will premiere it on TV in the US December 14, 2015, but the film could easily find a rich theatrical niche with avid balletomanes in other territories, especially London and Paris.
Covered extensively in the press, and in especially fascinating depth by a 2013 article by David Remnick in The New Yorker, the attack on Filin left the dancer with third-degree burns and blind in one eye. The story made for compelling copy not just because of its lurid, true-crime-among-the-culturati angle but also because it seemingly offered further proof of the corruption and violence in contemporary Russian society, confirming stereotypes long held in the West.
Via interviews with various dancers, fans, the company’s chair of trustees Alexander Budberg, ballet master Boris Akin, and most importantly its new company director Vladimir Urin, it emerges that the Bolshoi is indeed a veritable hotbed of scheming, backstabbing and favoritism. Filin himself allegedly alienated many people. It emerges during the trial for Pavel Dmitrichenko, the soloist who admitted to hiring his neighbor to attack Filin, that the motivation was jealousy and resentment over the way Filin played favorites – not that that justifies scarring anyone for life, of course.
Nevertheless, as new broom Urin takes steps to clean up the mess, cannily managing both his own and the company’s image through his cooperation with the filmmakers, it becomes clear just how many interested parties there are eager to influence the company’s future, going all the way up to President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev. Asone interviewee smartly points out, the Bolshoi is above all a brand, one of the country’s most exportable and in its own way profitable, and a symbol of national heritage.
Archive footage showing visiting heads of state attending performances underscores that propagandistic value that the Bolshoi has always enjoyed as the best ballet company in the world, a status threatened by the scandals surrounding the Filin affair. The filmmakers splice this background material in with lots of talking-head footage, getting especially good quotes from ballerinas like Anastasia Meskova and Maria Allash, bothfeisty characters somewhat embittered by the experiences and worried about their futures.
Although an obvious touchstone is the observational, institution-focused work of Fred Wiseman, who has himself made several docs about dance companies (Paris-set La danse, for example), the style here is less strictly puritanical and more TV-friendly than Wiseman’s work, so participants are actually identified with captions and the like. While this will make it a more commercial, broadcast-friendly work, in some ways the tight running time almost rushes through the story. At the very least, it would have been a treat to see some more of the dancing itself, so bewitching are the snippets shown of the company rehearsing and then performing various shows from the repertoire including, aptly enough given the Black Swan connection, Swan Lake.
Production companies: AN HBO Documentary Films presentation of a Red Velvet Films production in association with Red Box Films, Altitude Film Entertainment, Bbc Storyville, in co-production with Bayerischer Rundfunk, Mitteldeutscher Rundfunk, Arte
With: Maria Alexandrova, Maria Allash, Anastasia Meskova, Vladimir Urin, Sergei Filin
Director: Nick Read
Producer: Mark Franchetti
Executive producers: Simon Chinn, Maxim Pozdorovkin
Director of photography: Nick Read
Editors: Jay Taylor, David Charap
Composer: Colin Smith, Simon Elms
No rating, 87 minutes
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