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segunda-feira, 11 de janeiro de 2016
Bolshoi Babylon review: 'the dark side of ballet'
Filmed after the 2013 acid attack on the Bolshoi Ballet director Sergei Filin, this fly-on-the-wall documentary is a compelling look at the Moscow company
On January 17, 2013, the venerable Bolshoi Ballet hit the headlines for the vilest reasons. That was the now notorious night when a masked man threw a jar of sulphuric acid in the face of the company’s director, Sergei Filin, as he returned home in Moscow after a performance. The orchestrator of the attack turned out to be Pavel Dmitrichenko, a Bolshoi dancer said to have been angry with Filin for not giving his girlfriend, Anzhelina Vorontsova (also with the Bolshoi), what he regarded as sufficient promotion. Maintaining that he “only” wanted Filin beaten up and did not sanction the use of acid, he was sentenced to six years in prison.
The attack – which made global headlines, left Filin (a former Bolshoi star) with frightful burns to his face and hands, ruined his right eye and damaged his left – was in fact the culmination of years of toxic, factional in-fighting at the world’s biggest and most famous ballet company. And it was in its wake that director Nick Read, producer and co-director Mark Franchetti and crew were allowed to spend several months backstage at the still-reeling company to make the fly-on-the-wall documentary Bolshoi Babylon.
The film turns out to be a slickly produced piece of work that paints a dark-hued portrait of the modern Bolshoi via candid interviews with several significant figures in the company and beyond, as well as tracing the events and immediate fallout of the fateful night via artfully spliced contemporary footage.
Among the interviewees are first soloist Anatstasia Meskova (dropped from a vital tour, and fighting to cope with the simultaneous demands of the company and being a single parent), principal Maria Allash (already fearing about her future at the age of 28) and fellow principal Maria Alexandrova (recovering from a ruptured Achilles tendon).
At times these interviews, however involving, can feel on the un-specific side: you won’t find a ballet company in the world in which certain dancers don’t feel undervalued, nervous about reaching their thirties, or up against it in the wake of an injury.
Similarly, Meskova’s statement, “We’re trained not to show emotions, and always looks good” is the essence of all ballet, full-stop, while long-time Bolshoi devotee Roman Abromov’s declarations that everything was better in the past can only elicit a sceptical, “Really?”
The Bolshoi’s own history is far from unblemished, with a grim tally of misfortunes having befallen the company between the collapse of Communism in 1991 and Filin’s appointment in 2011. First, its government subsidy bottomed out. Then in 2008, Alexei Ratmansky – its brilliant artistic director since 2004 – suddenly quit, said to have been squeezed out by rival factions. And in 2011 the then deputy director, Gennady Yanin, resigned after photographs appearing to show him in bed with other men were posted online. Let’s not forget, too, that its great St Petersburg rival, the Mariinsky, was renamed the Kirov by Stalin, after a friend of his whom he later had murdered. Only in Russia.
Still, as the film progresses, Read and co do an increasingly praiseworthy job of linking these stories to the bigger picture at the Bolshoi, while Alexandrova’s candour is often particularly striking: “There are no pots of gold here,” says this star of the company, “only physical hardship”, and she is also fascinating when talking about the fundamental Russian mistrust of managment up against which Filin was always going to find himself.
The film-makers also paint a vivid picture of the Bolshoi as a company historically and inextricably linked to Russia’s rulers. Through interviews with the Bolshoi’s general director Vladimir Urin, and even prime minister Dmitry Medvedev, it emerges very much as the cultural wing of Red Square, a historical plaything of the Kremlin.
This is entirely accurate. Stalin, balletomane and paranoid schizophrenic, had his own bulletproof box at the theatre; Khrushchev later paraded the company around the West as the ultimate emblem of Soviet superiority. Moreover, when I talked to the then general director Anatoly Iksanov in Moscow, five months after the attack on Filin, he surprisingly told me “we are independent [from the Kremlin] – today. But Russia is so unpredictable. We can never say what is going to happen tomorrow.” Just one day after the article went to press, the Russian government fired him, and hired Urin in his place.
It is the strained relationship between Urin and Filin that is Bolshoi Babylon’s central and most fascinating thread. In 2011, Filin suddenly quit the Moscow’s second-tier Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Theatre, where he was head of ballet under Urin’s overall directorship, to take up the equivalent post at the Bolshoi. Filin tells Read, “I’m sure somewhere deep in his heart, Vladimir Urin remembers and can’t forget that I turned out to be a traitor.” And Urin himself candidly doubts that his taking up the post at the Bolshoi in 2013 was a great day for Filin.
Things come to a head in the film with the unyielding Urin first criticising by implication and then humiliatingly pulling rank on Filin in front of the entire company – and, in July last year, Urin indeed announced that Filin’s contract will not be renewed when it expires in March.
The film could have done with far more of that preposterous egotist and former Bolshoi star, Nikolai Tsiskaridze. A dyed-in-the-wool traditionalist, longtime, very vocal opponent of Filin and Iksanov’s administration and still an influential figure, he was described to me by Iksanov, Just days after the attack, as “like an abscess” for his frequent public criticism of the Bolshoi. (Tsiskaridze didn’t last much longer in the company, either.)
The film-makers might also have pushed the apparently mild-mannered Filin further and more rigorously than they do to answer the various accusations of corruption that have been levelled against him. And they might also have encouraged someone to mention the grim tally of misfortunes that befell the company between the fall of Communism and Filin’s hiring in 2011.
Nevertheless, the documentary succeeds admirably in the clarity with which it places the traumatised but still astonishingly high-functioning company in national and historical context, peels away its glamorous mask, and lets the backstage dramas of its various damatis personae unfold. When Filin – who now perpetually wears shades – wearily laments his 2011 return to the Bolshoi, you have to feel for him. And when Urin says “A lot must be changed at this theatre”, you can’t help wondering if the Bolshoi will ever be easier to change than the vast, corruption-ridden country whose cultural centrepiece it still is.
On January 10, there will be a live post-screening Q&A broadcast nationwide from Bertha DocHouse, Curzon Bloomsbury (dochouse.org), featuring broadcaster Kirsty Wark, former Royal Ballet principal dancer Deborah Bull, and author Simon Sebag Montefiore. For full details and list of participating venues, go to bolshoibabylon.com