Bolshoi Babylon, 2015.
Directed by Nick Read and Mark Franchetti.
Starring Maria Alexandrova, Maria Allash and Sergei Filin.
A look behind the curtain of the Bolshoi Theatre Company and the personalities and politics operating within it.
In a Q&A broadcast, following the theatrical UK release of the film, director Nick Read stated that of the technology available to today’s filmmakers “suddenly you can almost tell a story in the dark.” Bolshoi Babylon in many ways is an exploration into the dark, hidden spaces of Russian theatre, investigating its relationship to the state, the infighting between different directors and performers and how Russian culture is intimately connected to the Bolshoi Theatre Company.
The narrative of Bolshoi Babylon is insightful and investigatory in design, which is something you’d expect from directors Nick Read and Mark Franchetti, both of which have journalistic backgrounds. The film evidently addresses the acid attack of artistic director Sergei Felin, approaching it as less of a ‘who done it’ and more as a framework to explore the characters of those in the Bolshoi Theatre. The scope and insight that the film provides is unprecedented and surprising considering the secrecy surrounding Russia. The rhetoric used among those employed by the state, suggests that they imagined the film as a way to advertise and reinvent the image of the Bolshoi Theatre in light of all recent scandals. However, Bolshoi Babylon resists the pressures of portraying the Bolshoi Theatre as a means of propaganda. It compares the rhetoric of state politicians, who associate the Russian ballet with power, against those that see the interference of the state as a corruption of the arts.
The film addresses the theatre as a microcosm that reflects all the sensibilities with what it means to be Russian, whether it is positive or negative. One of the most interesting things about Bolshoi Babylon is the comparison’s it makes between performance on stage and political performance, drawing parallels between state politics and corruption, looking at what happens on stage and behind the curtains. The lines “If there is chaos in Russia, there is chaos on stage” fantastically summarises these parallels, further emphasising how intimately connected Russians are to the Bolshoi.
The film polarises this relationship, looking to those that have fond memories of Russia’s history with the Bolshoi, and those that see it as reflection of the Russian elite, symbolising Russian power and aristocracy. The quote “power has always loved the Bolshoi” draws attention to the fact that there are two separate spheres that love and hate the Bolshoi for its intimacy with the Kremlin. From the era of Tsar’s to the present day Putin, the Bolshoi Theatre has always been tied to the state as a company that represents the discipline and power of the Russian character. What Franchetti and Read succeed in illustrating in their documentary are the pressures involved in being held in such high regard as a performer. The state implies that the Bolshoi Ballet are a flawless representation of power, akin to the Kalashnikov, however Bolshoi Babylon beyond all else humanises its characters portraying them both as ballet performers and as mothers.
The film also identifies the infighting amongst the directors appointed by the state and the artistic directors that rose through the ranks of performing to directing. During the films second act the narrative focuses more closely on the newly appointed general director, Vladimir Urin. It explores the claim of previous music director Aleander Vederrikov, that the Bolshoi Theatre was putting “bureaucratic interests before artistic ones.” Bolshoi Babylon emphasises that the “dark ego” of certain directors and performers are a result of the theatre choosing performers not for their artistic skills, but rather instead to appease those with political sway. Archive footage of Stalin, Thatcher and Nixon at the Bolshoi are juxtaposed brilliantly against contemporary politics to illustrate how the Bolshoi wants to once again appear. The states interference with the Bolshoi Theatre is a sentiment that echoes throughout the entire film.
The soviet history of the state’s relationship to the Bolshoi Theatre is documented very well, suggesting that the decline in public interest in recent years is a result of the scandal’s surrounding corruption and political interference. The cameras capture a wonderful moment where a state official is quoted as saying “there will always be a place for the Bolshoi Theatre in the national budget.” This is in reference to the number of renovations, resulting in a partial rebuilding of the Bolshoi Theatre from 2005 to 2011 that was funded entirely by the federal government, costing a staggering 21 billion rubles ($688 mil.) According to The Moscow Times, the costs might be in excess of double that amount.
Bolshoi Babylon is an intriguing and excellent cross-examination of the relationship the state has with the Bolshoi Theatre, using interviews with its performers to emphasise the overwhelming feeling that the relationship is more of an interference imposing a structure on an artistic art form that does more to limit ballet than encourage it.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★