Sunday, December 20, 2015

Bolshoi Babylon: Light on Pretty

Nick Read and Mark Franchetti's documentary Bolshoi Babylon airs on HBO on Monday, December 21.

Nick Read and Mark Franchetti were in Russia in the winter of 2013 looking to make their first documentary film about a prisoner accused of murder in the northern reaches of the country. But while there they got the call that another, perhaps more explosive, story had just broken thousands of miles south: an acid attack on Sergei Filin, the artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet.

Franchetti, the Moscow-based correspondent for London’s The Sunday Times, and Read, an award-winning British cinematographer and director who had previously covered the war in Iraq and the 1989 Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, wasted no time in shifting gears. While neither at that time was a dance fan, both could see that an act of barbarism inflicted on the seemingly beautiful world of the ballet was itself a compelling blood-and-guts story.

Once in Moscow, they got permission to bring their cameras inside the famed 250-year old theatre and started interviewing subjects for a new documentary that ended up taking them close to a year to complete. Bolshoi Babylon, which screens on HBO on Dec. 21, goes behind the scenes of one of the world’s most famous classical dance companies to show the dark side of an art form that most people think of as light, airy and divorced from reality. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Taking the acid attack on Sergei Filin as its starting point, Bolshoi Babylon shows the Russian ballet, as viewed during its angst-ridden 2013-14 season, weighed down by jealousy, envy, ambition and other base instincts. Other classical dance companies throughout history have been similarly plagued by scandals (prostitution, unsafe work environments, arbitrary hirings and firings and eating disorders leading to death, to name just a few) and so saying that ballet is ruthless and competitive – as well as scary in places – is nothing new. Distinguishing Bolshoi Babylon, however, is that it dares tread where no other ballet doc has gone before. Light on pretty and investigative in nature, the film’s unfettered access to key backstage players presents first-hand testimonies that make all too real the harshness underlying the gracefulness of the ballet.

A scene from Bolshoi Babylon: Bolshoi artistic director Sergei Filin, post-attack, at a press conference.

A former leading dancer at the Bolshoi who had been directing the famed dance company since 2011, Filin, then 42, had been waylaid near his Moscow home late at night by a masked assailant who tossed sulfuric acid in his face, disfiguring him and blinding him in one eye. Within weeks Bolshoi principal dancer, Pavel Dmitrichenko, was arrested and charged with having organized the attack. Born in 1984 into a family of artists, all members of the State Academic Folk Dance Ensemble under the direction of Igor Moiseyev, Dmitrichenko was sentenced to six years in prison while his accomplices, Yury Zarutsky, who threw the acid, and Andrei Lipatov, the getaway driver, got sentences of ten and four years, respectively.

During testimony, Dmitrichenko said he had wanted to get even with Filin for having overlooked his girlfriend, 21-year old ballerina Anzhelina Vorontsova, when casting his ballets. The crime had been artistically motivated. And yet the objective was not to make an arts film, Read said in a conversation with me following Bolshoi Babylon’s world premiere at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival. “We are not dance people. We wanted to explore what this institution means to Russia, to modern Russia.”

To this end, Bolshoi Babylon makes the argument that the ballet is symbolic of Russia itself. Unethical conduct within the Bolshoi is symptomatic of corruption within the state. People who either work or worship at the Bolshoi espouse this quasi-Shakespearean theory in the film’s opening scenes. Further bolstering the idea that the state and the stage are closely intertwined is hauntingly beautiful footage of dancers performing the 19th century classic, La Bayadère, interspliced with newsreel images of Russian tanks rolling into Ukraine and of president Vladimir Putin looking characteristically stern. It’s a predictable scenario, making spurious connections that are not credibly substantiated, and is one of the few grating moments in an otherwise captivating film.

Oksana Yushko (and the Bolshoi corps) performing La Bayadère, in a scene from Bolshoi Babylon.

Bolshoi Babylon’s clichéd portrait of Russia as a totalitarian dictatorship is undercut by the fact that the film only got made because Russian authorities gave its foreign filmmakers unprecedented entrée to the Bolshoi’s usually hidden corridors of power. These same authorities also granted access to important political and cultural figures, among them Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. and appeared to have turned a blind eye when disgruntled dancers like the outspoken Nikolai Tsiskaridze and the ballerinas Maria Alexandrova and Anastasia Meskova aired their grievances to these outsiders suddenly in their midst. Many in the film speak candidly about the fierce backstage politicking that no doubt led to the crime inflicted on Filin. This is where Bolshoi Babylon gets interesting.

While clearly a primary character in the real-life Bolshoi drama, Filin does not emerge as the film’s hero. Characters within the organization champion his leadership. But there are just as many who suggest that Filin may have been the author of his own misfortune. Dmitrichenko had publicly accused Filin of taking bribes and trading roles for sexual favours, allegations the beleaguered artistic director staunchly refutes in the film. Yet, Filin’s own behaviour, as captured by Read’s sly and all-seeing camera, suggests a shady character.

In one scene, Filin communicates secretively with David Hallberg, the first American dancer to become a principal dancer with the Bolshoi in 2011 (and at Filin’s request), about his choice of a partner for him, and his reasons are suggestively sexual. Later on, Filin openly locks horns with Vladimir Urin, the newly-appointed head of the Bolshoi ballet who is attempting to introduce transparency into the organization, and it is an uncomfortable moment for all concerned. The tension Filin creates in the room is palpable. It might be why, this past June, the Bolshoi did not renew his contract. “He is a divisive character,” said Read. “He had divided the company and then couldn’t control it. But is he victim or villain? We let the audience decide.”

Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York and the Dance Gazette in London, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet (St. James Press). A staff writer at The Globe and Mail, she was her newspaper's award-winning dance critic from 1985 until 2001 before transitioning to the Style section as the fashion reporter. She has also served as the paper's rock critic and as an investigative reporter in the visual arts with a focus on art crime. The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, recently re-released in paperback, she writes on dance, theatre, the visual arts and fashion for Critics At Large.

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