Bolshoi Babylon’, Nick Read and Mark Franchetti’s new documentary, lays bare a bleak story of life inside Moscow’s 200 year old dance company. It’s clear that in spite of the beauty of the dancing itself and the storied past, the Bolshoi is an awful place to work. The gloom on screen is confirmed by a constant parade of dour faces faces, an embittered artistic director, and vignettes of three of the company’s ballerina’s struggling to cobble together careers in an indifferent workplace.

Sergei Filin returns to the Bolshoi
Sergei Filin returns to the Bolshoi

In a story that made international news, Sergei Filin a former principal and then Artistic Director at the Bolshoi Ballet was brutally beaten and partially blinded by an acid attack in 2014. The documentary picks up Filin’s story as he returns to work and tries to reassert control of the company.  The most revealing aspect of the film is the glimpse it gives of the Bolshoi and its Soviet era style of top down management that reaches as far as Vladimir Putin himself. We see a number of sequences with a grimmly cynical Vladimir Urin, the new theater head (he oversees the orchestras, dance, and opera companies at the historic theater) laying out his hard line approach to reorganizing the theater’s inner workings. While he appears to offer Filin a chance to remain as the Bolshoi Artistic Director it’s clear that their toxic animosities as former colleagues at the Stanislavsky Theater will leave him little chance of survival.

The film opens with a rich collage of images and dancing on the Bolshoi stage. The body of the film links quickly cut archival film with recently shot scenes and interviews taken with a hand held camera into riveting but ultimately incomplete storytelling. The court room scenes covering Pavel Dmitrichenko, the supposed mastermind behind the acid attack, are particularly garish and make a disturbing sideshow out of his arrest and trial proceedings.

The documentary does very little to clear up the facts behind the acid attack, nor does it really settle any of the issues surrounding Filin and his short lived tenure as director of the company. But it does reveal a sharply divided and troubled company struggling to recover from recent scandal and more than a decade of misrule.

( ‘Bolshoi Babylon’ aired December 21, 2015 on the HBO documentary series.)


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