A new documentary about the acid attack on Sergei Filin shows that Black Swan has nothing on real-life ballet dramasby Neil Norman / December 28, 2015 / Leave a comment
It was like a scene from The Phantom of the Opera: a tale of high art, jealousy and violence. In January 2013, the artistic director of Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet entered his home and had acid thrown in his face. Few people outside the rarefied world of ballet knew of Sergei Filin before the attack, but many more knew his name afterwards.
The Bolshoi is the most famous ballet company in the world. It is a Russian icon, and a cultural ambassador for a country whose reputation in the outside world has gone downhill since Vladimir Putin took charge, and especially since the conflict in Ukraine began two years ago. As Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev puts it in a new documentary about the Filin affair, Bolshoi Babylon, the ballet company is “Russia’s secret weapon” in selling his country to the world.
The fact that it was riven with murderous jealousies came as a shock to many—but only to those who are outside the hermetically sealed world of ballet. At the Bolshoi training is ferocious and the competition fierce: it makes Black Swan looks tame by comparison. Yet until the Filin attack nobody had been seriously hurt. Blinded by the acid, he has undergone many operations to save his sight. One eye has gone completely. The other is only just working.
A co-production between the BBC and HBO, Bolshoi Babylon follows several characters in the aftermath of the attack in order to understand this savage act. Directors Nick Read and Mark Franchetti were allowed unprecedented access to Russia’s most closely guarded cultural institution. The cameras film backstage, in the wings and observe the often combative meetings between artists and management. They also follow the dancers who live and breathe through the company. Combining fascinating archive material from the Soviet era with footage of the trial of Filin’s attacker as well as interviews with the new men brought in to “clean up” the company and restore its tarnished image, it presents a truly frightening picture. It will put off any aspiring ballet dancer for life.
The film focuses on the conflict between two men: Vladimir Urin and Filin. The former is a pragmatic administrator appointed by the Kremlin to restore the company’s reputation. He accepts the position with the proviso that he is not be interfered with. While he appears ruthless, his decisions are based on sound principles. As a former general manager of the Stanislavsky Theatre, he knows his way around an arts institution and is not swayed by sentimentality and personal considerations.
Filin, on the other hand, is a former principal dancer of the Bolshoi who became artistic director. One ballerina describes this as going over to “the dark side,” a phrase that speaks volumes about the poor relationship between the dancers and musicians and the management. Moreover, Filin and Urin have history. Filin was the artistic director of the Stanislavsky Theatre on Urin’s watch and left the company under circumstances that are never explained, but which have clearly left a legacy of distrust between the two men. “Sergei would not have been pleased to hear of my appointment,” says Urin, with wry understatement.
As the picture builds through interviews with individuals like soloist Pavel Dmitrichenko—the man who was eventually convicted of masterminding the attack on Filin—it is clear that behind the scenes of the world’s greatest ballet company lurks a vipers’ nest of backstabbing and rumour-mongering that would not have disgraced the Borgias.
Some of the characters are achingly vulnerable, like the single-mother ballerina who finds herself marginalised and struggling to feed her child, and the injured dancer who practices out of hours to regain her confidence. Others are straight out of central casting. Nikolai Tsiskaridze, the self-styled “Face of the Bolshoi” for many decades, exhibits a snarling narcissism that embodies the Bolshoi. The ballet master, Boris Akimov, is as candid about the company’s problems as only a 70-year-old who has seen it all can be. Dmtrichenko, with his peroxide hair and permanent half-sneer, has something of the night about him. The look on his face when he is sentenced to six years for the attack reveals a chilling diffidence. “We are very strange people,” says one ballerina. “What happens on stage we drag into our lives.”
The one aspect that Read and Franchetti fail to uncover is the rumour that The Bolshoi is run along the lines of a high-class escort agency; that ballerinas are often encouraged to date patrons and oligarchs. It is alluded to by one of the participants but not followed through. As for Filin, he is allowed to return to his position as artistic director though the lengthy dispute he has with Urin in a meeting suggests his time at the Bolshoi may be finite.
And so it has proved. At the end of July, months after the documentary finished shooting, Urin took the unprecedented step of announcing that Filin’s contract—which ends in March 2016—would not be renewed and that the role of artistic director would cease to exist.
Bolshoi Babylon will be released in on 8th January