Bolshoi Babylon

With stylistic nods to the great Fred Wiseman and his detached studies of institutions such as the Met Opera and the Paris Ballet, the documentary Bolshoi Babylon *** ups the ante to include all the ingredients of a sinister conspiracy thriller.

The makers find themselves investigating the dark heart of Russian society when the director of the Bolshoi ballet, Sergei Filin, becomes the victim of a vicious acid attack. Who did it, and why?

“It’s an omen,” says one interviewee. “When the Bolshoi is in turmoil, it means the nation is sick.”

Another mentions, beautifully, that there are very few “brands” synonymous with modern Russia other than “the Bolshoi and the Kalashnikov”. I don’t know. What about vodka, furry hats, doping, oligarchs, blondes, corruption, owning Chelsea…?

Anyway, the point is, the Bolshoi is a sacred temple and something’s rotten therein and, as we watch clips of Ronald and Nancy Reagan with Gorbachev, Fidel Castro and Kruschev, and The Queen next to good old Boris Yeltsin, the film recounts how a leading dancer called Pavel is arrested for ordering the attack, horrifying the company and putting them right off their jetees.

“There were detectives on our sacred stage,” wails one ballerina. “They behaved like monsters, treated us like criminals…”

Nick Read and Mark Franchetti’s film not only looks at the Bolshoi but at Russian politics – the ballet is but a leap away from the Kremlin, geographically and culturally. A new general manager is called in, and he looks a real Russian hardnut. You couldn’t make him up. He’s even called Vladimir and has been to Putin’s dacha.

This is good stuff. It looks great and there’s some fine dancing – not much, just a few clips which is quite enough – but you also get all the rehearsal shots, a bit of Kids from Fame leg warmer style, as well as some insight into the dancers’ lives.

I found it a bit frustrating. I’m not sure quite what happened, nor why. Did Pavel really do it for the sake of his girlfriend overlooked for a lead part in Swan Lake? Or did someone higher up want rid of Filin?  Oh those Russians…

“The real Black Swan” boasts the poster, and I guess that’s right in a way, and not even in Darren Aronofsky’s Hollywood pot boiler did a star ballerina end up in a “high security penal colony.” Dancing at the Bolshoi is a serious business.


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