Revealing the Seamy Secrets of Backstage Life at Russia's Premier Ballet Company
To western audiences, the Bolshoi Ballet conjures up images of perfectly formed dancers pirouetting round the stage in memorable productions of SWAN LAKE. Or perhaps they might remember how the company became embroiled in political struggles, when dancers such as Rudolf Nureyev defected to the West in the early Sixties.
Nick Read and Mark Franchetti's fascinating behind-the-scenes documentary looks at backstage life in the wake of the 2013 scandal, when director of productions Sergei Filin was the victim of a horrific attack by having acid thrown in his face. His sight was miraculously preserved, but not without a lot of pain and suffering as well as extensive surgery.
What we discover from BOLSHOI BABYLON is that Filin was embroiled in a continual conflict of personalities. Some members of the company have overweening ambition and are prepared to stoop to anything to achieve their aims. Directors and other managers are often regarded suspiciously by members of the corps de ballet; the division between the two groups, it seems, is irreconcilable. The Bolshoi company is run by a complicated alliance between the General Director Vladimir Urin, the chief administrator Anatoliy Iksanov, and the Russian government, which takes a direct role in financing and administering it. In a revealing interview, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev confirms the Bolshoi's role as a leading instrument of government propaganda both at home and abroad; the interests of art and politics are indivisible.
In this kind of environment, it is hardly surprising that disagreements occur. There are some memorable quotations: one dancer suggests that Russians are very fond of giving advice, but are reluctant to carry it out. There are a plethora of armchair critics but no one really wants to rock the boat. When somebody does make such efforts, conflict is inevitable; there is a climactic sequence where Filin is abruptly asked to sit down during a staff meeting, just as he is about to launch into a tirade against his superiors.
Meanwhile the company continues to produce high quality work on stage - a tribute, perhaps, to their professionalism in the face of adversity. The Bolshoi will sustain its international reputation, even if its personnel changes - a note at the film's end indicates that senior managers have managed to achieve their aims, even if it leads to the departure of some talented people.
BOLSHOI BABYLON has a certain ghoulish charm, but this is by no means exclusive to the Russians. In the Nineties the BBC showed a series on life backstage at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, which was equally riven with conflict. Perhaps ballet takes so much out of its practitioners that it inevitably gives rise to personality clashes.
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