In January 2013, Russia’s prestigious Bolshoi Ballet company was rocked when its artistic director, former dancer Sergei Filin, was the victim of an acid attack. Documentary maker Nick Read was filming in the country at the time and decided to turn his attention to the troupe as they attempted to get through the season in the aftermath of the scandal.
The resulting film from Read and co-director Mark Franchetti is an intriguing, if not entirely satisfactory, inside-look at one of the world’s most acclaimed artistic institutions, as it attempts to deal with its (now very public) internal struggles and reinvent itself for a secure future. The opening sequence, with its ominous chords and slow-motion visuals of dancers in silhouette, is immediately reminiscent of a Black Swan-esque thriller and, as it cuts to the curtain-raising accompanied by the sound of gentle strings, it quickly establishes the push-pull nature of life at the Bolshoi. While there may be private turmoil, the show, in all its polished glory, must go on.
As the narrative unfurls through a combination of archive and newly shot footage and talking head interviews, however, it’s clear that not everyone involved is prepared to take a deep dive into the issues at hand – aside from the dancers themselves, who talk eloquently and passionately about the physical hardships and personal sacrifices involved in becoming masters of their craft.
While the Bolshoi’s management, including Filin and incoming general director Vladimir Urin – between whom there is no love lost – discuss issues such as the Russian government’s interference with the running of the theatre, and the outdated ideas that are turning it into something of a relic, more focus is given to the day-to-day machinations. Even the shocking attack on Filin, which divides the company even further, takes a backseat to footage of rehearsals, dressing-room conversations and the stunning productions themselves.
Still, as a behind-the-scenes portrait of one of the world’s greatest dance companies, Bolshoi Babylon makes for a fascinating watch, and an interesting exploration of the age-old battle between art as creative endeavour and as commercial, and political, enterprise.
UK Theatrical Release Date: January 8, 2016
This review was originally published by The List