Bolshoi Babylon

 

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British filmmaker Nick Read takes a sustained look at life behind the scenes at the Bolshoi Ballet.

 

Paradoxically this documentary fascinates by what it reveals and yet leaves one with the impression that it has not revealed enough. Britain’s experienced documentarian Nick Read, photographer as well as director but with a co-directing credit going to Mark Franchetti, has been given extensive access to the Bolshoi, here described as the best ballet company in the world. This access enabled him to speak frankly to a number of dancers and to members of the staff. Among the latter the most significant prove to be a new general director, Vladimir Urin, and the controversial Ballet Director Sergei Filin.
 
It was Filin who hit world headlines in 2013 when acid was thrown in his face in a street attack and he lost the sight of one eye. This event triggered the film which, ably shot, uses shadows and music in its very first scene to promote a sinister atmosphere that puts us in mind of Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan. But this is not just a film about that incident and its aftermath since it is suggested that this violence was simply an extreme example of the conflicts within the theatre.
 

Bolshoi Babylon 

 

Although some aspects of Bolshoi Babylon are in keeping with the standard ballet film, what is surprising is the degree of frankness about egos and rivalries and about a system that can leave dancers uncertain as to the amount of work they will get and whether or not it will sustain them financially. This speaking out is all the more remarkable because there are clear hints that the Bolshoi is a creature of the state, and it is even suggested that what is termed a sickness within the Bolshoi denotes how things stand in Russia itself. Early on it is declared that two things represent Russia: the Kalashnikov and the Bolshoi.
 
As the film proceeds, tensions become very clear, not least the differing views of Filin and Urin, but at the same time there is often a lack of detail. Following the acid attack the company divide into those supportive of Filin and those who, however disapproving of the violence, are hostile to him. However, while we hear from Filin himself, the film never fully explains the intense division of opinion about him, just as it leaves uncertain whether or not the man found guilty of setting up the assault was really responsible (again the company has shown divided attitudes when first learning that he is a suspect). Ultimately, if understandably, you  feel that the film can’t unearth evidence to fully prove its case,  but it is remarkable that it has been allowed to suggest that so much is going on in the shadows, even if exactly what remains vague. It is left to a bare written statement at the close to inform us that in 2015 Filin’s employment was announced as ending.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON       

  

Featuring  Vladimir Urin, Sergei Filin, Anatoliy Iksanov, Maria Allash.

  

Dir Nick Read with Mark Franchetti, Pro Mark Franchetti, Ph Nick Read, Ed Jay Taylor and David Charap, Music Smith & Elms.  

 

HBO Documentary Films/a Red Velvet Films production/Red Box Films-Altitude Film Entertainment.
87 mins. UK/Germany/USA. 2015. Rel: 8 January 2016. Cert. PG.