Mystery and Intrigue. Violence. Revenge. Ballerinas. Sometimes reality collides with the fantastic, and what really happened is almost harder to believe than if you’d made it up. The new HBO documentary, Bolshoi Babylon, debuting tonight on HBO, finds the sweet spot between the bizarre and real life.
Bolshoi Babylon, directed by Nick Read, is a close look at the oldest and most famous Bolshoi Ballet and Theatre, the world’s most renowned and revered ballet company, that incidentally, is still controlled by the Russian government. Aside from being the premiere ballet company in the world, the Bolshoi gained infamy after an acid attack that left Director Sergei Filin badly scarred and blind in one eye.
Pavel V. Dmitrichenko, theatre dancer and soloist, was sentenced to six years in a penal colony for the attack, citing jealousies about the management of the dancers for the reason.
Although the film uses the attack as the starting point for the narrative, it doesn’t really slog through the nastiness of the infighting, backbiting, and insidious competition among the dancers and administration. Instead, it takes a closer look at the fallout from the attack, and just how crippling it was to the family of dancers at the theatre.
And it was crippling. The Bolshoi Theatre enjoys the reputation of one of the oldest, most prestigious ballet companies in the world. Commissioned by Catherine II in 1776 to maintain, “theatre performances of all kinds, including masquerades, balls, and other forms of entertainment,” the Bolshoi is so inherent to Russian history and culture, it is still maintained and supervised by the government. It’s a huge deal.
The Bolshoi is the highest form of contemporary art in modern Russia, and a scandal like the one told in the film is taken really personally by both Russian citizens officials. The film is critical about the intrigue and violence brought about by the intensity of the dancers’ professional life. The attack on Filin was informed by this, and the film continues to dig into the circumstances that could precipitate the kind of violence like the acid attack.
Bolshoi Babylon paints a beautiful and reverent picture of the theater and it’s players, and foregrounds the spirituality that the institution invokes. Director Nick Read states that he wanted to tell the story of an extraordinary institution that has become fatally flawed. Sure the film is sort of about an acid attack, but he says that is, “just one of the strands,” and that the story of the Bolshoi is really a story about Russia.
The filmmakers spent weeks and weeks with the company and in the theatre, and the dancers were surprisingly candid and forthcoming. Even Filin, the victim of the acid attack, gave an exceptionally honest and authentic interview, even though it took producers months to pin him down.
Read explained to HelloGiggles that the dancers were reacting to the attack that was “deeply traumatic to them, both personally and collectively” and that is when “the dedication and love to the institution” became so apparent.
When you watch the film, you’ll understand what Read means when he says, “ it’s just so much more than just a theater.” And the filmmakers honored the spirit of the Bolshoi by taking advantage of their very privileged point of view. They had almost unlimited access to the theatre, the dancers, the administration, and even the governmental overseers. This made for an jarringly authentic perspective, yet the film is intensely intimate and emotional.
This access allowed for them to capture how sacrosanct the Bolshoi is to its dancers, and really, to all of Russia. Read describes it as, “hallowed ground, like an altar and the audience is the congregation. It’s bound up in ritual, and it’s fitting that it should be a rite of passage for young children to come to the Bolshoi.”
Just like those children leave starry-eyed after seeing their first Bolshoi performance, audiences of the film will also feel awestruck at the affection with which both the theatre, the attack, and the dancers themselves are handled. It’s shot beautifully and thoughtfully, and the performances seem like they came out of dream. The grandness of the theater is communicated in gorgeous strokes, and the general aesthetic is just so beautifully wrought.
Aside from the graceful images and dangerous intrigue, Bolshoi Babylon parallels what’s happening inside the theater, to what’s happening in Russian politics. Says Read, “the Bolshoi is so much more than theater. It brings propaganda abroad in the form of artistic expression.”
Check it out the official trailer here, before tonight’s premiere on HBO at 9 PM EST.
(Images via HBO)