The Bolshoi and the Kalashnikov are brands that have defined Russia, argues new documentary Bolshoi Babylon. When an acid attack was carried out on the ballet company’s artistic director Sergei Filin in 2013, the state institution’s reputation was left in tatters. The film explores the legacy of the attack on the Bolshoi and what it says about wider tendencies in Russian society. Directors Nick Read and Mark Franchetti negotiated access to shoot at the Bolshoi over a season, as the theatre tried to reinstate strong leadership. We met with Read in Copenhagen at film festival CPH:DOX in November, where the film had its European premiere.
Read and Franchetti had just finished shooting their first documentary feature together The Condemned, about an isolated prison for serial killers in Russia’s Urals, when a principal dancer was charged with the attack. “It was such an unusual story when it broke, even by the standards of the Russian underworld,” says Read. “Acid is not a commonly used weapon. They’ve got other modi operandi. That’s why I was so curious, and why it created a profound curiosity inside Russia. Everyone was scratching their heads. It lifted a lid on this bottle of snakes.”
The media story circulating was that accused dancer Pavel Dmitrichenko orchestrated the attack via two thugs because his girlfriend Anzhelina Vorontsova had been passed over for the lead role in Swan Lake by Filin. Her teacher had been Nikolai Tsiskaridze, a veteran dancer who was bitter at not having Filin’s post. “How these dancers are cast is not always based on merit,” says Read. “It’s about who you are loyal to and who you butter up, and who patronises you. That’s the legacy of a communist past. People are forced to get themselves noticed, and that’s why other tactics come in, and allegations of sexual favours, corruption and so on.”
While Read underlines the extremely high conviction rate of more than 99% in Russia, in his view Dmitrichenko was caught “bang to rights”. It’s the details of his guilt that are hazier. “Did he commission a crime in which he knew acid would be involved? I doubt it. I think it was just a spur-of-the-moment thing, of these thugs wondering how to shake this guy up.”
The human drama of Bolshoi Babylon turns not so much on Dmitrichenko’s role, but the tension between Filin, Tsiskaridze and Vladimir Urin, who was brought in as the Bolshoi’s head after the acid attack by the Kremlin from managing the Stanislavsky Theatre. Charged with restoring control and a new casting system transparency within the theatre, Urin’s trepidation is palpable. Read explains: “You’re in the firing line if you’re head of the Bolshoi. It’s an intensely politicised role. I’m sure you know enough about Putin’s political style to know what happens if you step out of line.”
Read says of the “deeply contradictory” Urin: “On the one hand he’s a loyalist and the other a maverick. I asked him once if he believed in democracy and he just laughed at me, which is a sort of communist disposition. People of his generation are quite, shall we say ambivalent about democratic principles. It’s a hard line, a disciplinarian ethos, which you witnessed in the ballet company meeting. We couldn’t really fathom him out, other than feeling that he was a man of quite deep integrity. He was certainly as good as his word on giving us unfettered access.”
While access was granted, the Bolshoi is not such an open book. “I regularly got lost in there,” Read says. “There are 3,000 people working inside, which was frankly quite intimidating.” There was also initial reticence among dancers about discussing the acid attack. “We started off talking about their discipline, fear of injury and short career spans, all things in common with dancers anywhere. It took a long time to build the trust to ask the questions we really wanted to ask. Although there are lots of professional jealousies they are all diehard loyalists to the institution. They know it’s never going to get better in their world than dancing at the Bolshoi. But in talking to us they certainly felt there was a cathartic process going on that they had to get to the other side of.”
And there were the egos to contend with. “Filin was extremely difficult to deal with,” says Read. “He was recovering from an extremely serious injury, so to begin with he was having treatment and just wasn’t around. Then as we entered 2014 he was much more in the building, but just would not be available, to us or anyone else. He’s the only character in the building who operates from behind a locked door. This is why he’s such a divisive figure. He was a great dancer, but who says great dancers can become great managers.”
“Filin’s got an ego but it’s miniscule compared to Tsiskaridze’s. That is the size of Texas,” continues Read. “He was very difficult to deal with. You’ve got a guy who’s on record as saying “I am the Bolshoi.” He was an extraordinarily talented dancer, and if you watch him dance he’s in a class of his own, which leads to due respect he doesn’t necessarily have to earn as a person.”
The film, then, takes us inside a deep-rooted culture at the Bolshoi of intense partisan divisions. These have only been augmented by the pressure on it to become a commercial entity in the capitalist era. Dancers now freelance to supplement their basic pay, with fierce competition for plum roles. “We spent a lot of time trying to work out how precise a mirror it was of the political landscape,” says Read. “I’m still undecided. It’s intensely political and has been used as a pawn by the regime but at the same time it’s a reality bubble — the walls are very thick.”
Read describes the mutations the Bolshoi has undergone through successive regimes. “During the Cold War they were the harbingers that glorified Mother Russia and were sent abroad as an icon of soft power. Even during glasnost and perestroika they were sent to the White House to dance before Gorbachev came to meet Reagan, just to set the scene. Then in the Yeltsin years, when the state structures were dismantled, organised crime coalesced, and the phenomenon of the oligarchs appeared, the Bolshoi had to move with the times. Even though they are state-funded they were very impoverished because the whole economy was destabilised, and they had to start touring far more heavily. That’s where you get “brand Bolshoi” coming in, and they even brought in a western marketing team. Now they’re much more aspirational as an institution, as are the dancers themselves.”
Bolshoi Babylon with fair-minded equilibrium avoids a definitive or (despite its title) tabloid-lurid take on the acid scandal and its reverberations. “Brought up in an observational tradition, I’d rather the audience make up their own minds,” says Read. But seeing its huge personalities in interplay at close quarters is a fascinating window onto an institution balanced on a knife-edge between high-culture virtuosity and the brutal nature of aspiration in current-day Russia.