Overview: In January of 2013, Sergei Filin, artistic director of Russia’s celebrated Bolshoi Ballet, was attacked by an unknown assailant who threw acid in his face. The Bolshoi’s ballet company had long been part of the nation’s identity, but this mysterious and vicious attack thrust it into the limelight for all the wrong reasons, pulling back the curtain on the scandals and infighting plaguing the iconic institution. When one of their own – male soloist Pavel Dmitrichenko – was arrested and charged with the crime, it revealed a company defined by personality clashes, power struggles and professional jealousy, something Bolshoi insiders had known for decades.
Featuring backstage footage, breathtaking performances and illuminating interviews with Bolshoi dancers and power players, this documentary examines a storied cultural institution struggling to survive tempestuous politics inside and outside its theater walls.
Expectations: As opposed to last week’s premiere BOLSHOI BABYLON interests me from the beginning. The main reason for that is because of the lens from which this documentary tells its story. This work is apparently not a pirouette by pirouette account of the history of the premier Russian company from its inception until the modern day that you might find on PBS. Everything this film is about is filtered through the 2013 attack mentioned above. It makes this story not as much about the history of the Bolshoi Ballet as it is about the type of artists it produces and the political struggles and personal journeys taken by them. That is a far more interesting angle than just the bare bones historical facts.
Gut Reaction: Hey, I’m not a cultural dolt now. I have seen both professional & amateur ballet in my day and it is beautiful to behold. Anyone who has an inkling of the art form or anything who wrongly assumes that it is not a demanding and difficult discipline needs to see this documentary. You’d be surprised in what is revealed.
I just have a few points I wish to cover about BOLSHOI BABYLON. I first has to note the style in which this documentary is presented. If you use the trailer above as reference it seems the film is a bit sensationalistic, but it is not. We are talking theatrical performance here so, by its very nature, we have big dramatic moments and big personalities across the screen. In this world you got to go big and bold or go home and this film can’t avoid capturing and taking up that tone as well. There are very few quiet moments in this piece it is raw energy from beginning to end. It is even present when the camera just sits back and captures the energy generated in a performance. It keeps the 83 minute film moving.
The rare access to get deep inside the bowels of the Bolshoi and its people is a boon. The personas here give you a glimpse into not the historical statistics of the institution, but a representation of the mechanics it takes to execute its art. It very powerfully illustrates the life and fight of its dancers and its staff to maintain their personal integrity and goals as well as their part in making the penultimate ballet company the most lauded in the world. You truly understand the stresses and the regimen of such a life and as the camera picks up dancers exiting off the stage who think they have run a marathon they are that exhausted and spent. Some powerful and beautiful imagery that puts you in the heart of it.
The last point is one that the filmmakers specifically want viewers to get from the piece. It is the notion that the politics of the Russian State affects the politics within the theater’s walls. That the controversial and adversarial nature of the land is reflected in the turmoil and competitive nature of the performers and the attack on its artistic director helps illustrate that fact. As I stated before that approach is what sells this documentary as one to watch.
HBO: What was your take on the Bolshoi’s internal culture?
NICK READ: We posed ourselves the question from the beginning: How closely does the Bolshoi mirror Russian society, both political and cultural? There are hierarchies and people like Filin created their own group of loyalists around them, which would mirror Soviet behavior, speaking generally.
You see the corruption inside the building mirrored the corruption outside the building. At times the walls felt very thin. Other times, the walls of the Bolshoi felt very thick because, for instance, we were making the film when the Euromaidan protests in Kiev were kicking off and the disastrous conflict in eastern Ukraine was emerging. Inside the Bolshoi, it was as though it wasn’t happening. There’s one working public television inside the building and it was never tuned to the news. They’re artists.
Certainly, it’s a vast state institution and you never forget that it’s a state institution. The Bolshoi has a line in the state budget, so there’s a lot more oversight and interference, you might say, compared to any other theater.
HBO: I was surprised how disillusioned some of the dancers seemed.
MARK FRANCHETTI : It’s a mixture of love toward the institution and yet it’s a very difficult life. There’s no getting away from the fact that they are absolutely, emotionally attached to that building. They love it. Two or three people suddenly broke down in tears in the middle of the interview when we asked, “Tell me what the Bolshoi means for you.” All this emotion came out. Obviously, they’re artists so they’re big personalities, and Russians are quite emotional people. Additionally, they all say that the hardest stage in the world to dance in is the Bolshoi — and they’ve danced on all the big stages.
The disillusionment comes from the fact that it’s an incredibly tough life. You have to sacrifice so much. For what? You’re not getting paid a lot of money. It’s really just for the love of that art and the moment on stage when people are clapping and giving all this energy back. It really is about the art, and the sacrifices are huge.
It’s incredibly tough because there’s such competition. They call it the “graveyard of talent,” because there is so much talent that it doesn’t quite manage to break through from the ballet. The way the whole casting system works, it’s all about relationships and it’s not transparent. You’ve got to constantly fight to get noticed and get the parts. It’s a constant battle.
HBO: What do you hope viewers take away from this film?
NICK READ: I hope viewers take away an insight into the extraordinary dedication and determination of the dancers in their pursuits of excellence as well as the inner workings of one of Russia’s most sacred institutions. I hope they’re surprised by the extraordinary access we received at a time when relations between Russia and the West were at a very, very low point. There’s a small part of me that hopes that people who haven’t seen a ballet before might be persuaded to go to one. I know I’d be among them.
In Conclusion: This unprecedented look inside the famed ballet company debuted Monday December 21 at 9:00pm. It can be found on HBO and on HBONow/Go. I think viewers will get a real amazing look at what blood, sweat and tears are spent backstage but what beautiful excellence is seen onstage. I even will go as far as to say that BOLSHOI BALLET proves to be one of my favorites for 2015.
Next Week: Debuting Monday, 12.28 at 9:00pm is HEROIN: CAPE COD, USA. It is an unvarnished look at the heroin epidemic sweeping America’s small towns and communities, focusing on eight young addicts in idyllic Cape Cod, Mass.
About The Author
Editor at Large of HBOWatch.com and the internet's foremost HBO expert.