It’s a bit like Black Swan, only it isn’t, really – no lesbian scenes and descents into madness, but expect jealousy and backstabbing aplenty. Director Nick Read manages to access the backstage of one of the most reclusive theaters in the world, and does so as the Bolshoi tries to recover from the scandal involving artistic director Sergei Filin’s acid attack, ordered by a dancer dissatisfied with his casting choices.
We’re guided through the backstage of the theatre, one of the national symbols of Russia (the other one being the kalashnikov), and meet a few dancers – the single mom, the principal ballerina recovering from a foot lesion, the disgruntled teacher – while we’re filled in on Filin’s dancing and directing background, as well as the results of the attack investigation. But Bolshoi Babylon only gets serious when the new artistic director, Vladimir Urin, steps in, after being nominated by the Kremlin. Urin, by his own admission, had “bad blood” with Filin, who left the Stanislavsky Theatre where both worked in bad terms, dividing even further the 250 people that worked at the Bolshoi. What happens when Filin comes back to work is just too obvious.
Promising more bite but ending up only barking at the trees, Bolshoi Babylon is nonetheless a serious, well crafted look behind the scenes of an old and respectable cultural institution, and its brilliant cinematography and editing will keep you interested on what’s going on even if what’s delivered on the screen is more smoke than fire. Read’s difficulties in getting behind the smiley, cool mask of all Bolshoi performers is visible, and only in the staff meeting scene – when, at last, Filin and Urin have a public confrontation – we feel the director managed to get a good peak through the rabbit hole. The choice of framing it around Filin’s acid attack was a good one – after all it is the perfect turning point of the Bolshoi’s “disease” – but unfortunately it ends up being non sequitur, as the reasons behind the actor’s crime are never explored, and end up being yet another smoke curtain that fades into thin air.
Still, as a cultural document Bolshoi Babylon is excellent. People outside the cultural and ballet businesses can find the reality of it all a bit shocking (not to say slightly surreal to see so many individuals completely disconnected from “reality”), but for anyone with an inside view on the day to day life in any theatre the Bolshoi are not so much a viper’s nest as they are a bee’s hive, in search of a new queen bee. Certainly, some wasps wannabes are present, but then again, there’s no business like showbusiness, and why don’t you break a leg down the stairs, will ya.
Bolshoi Babylon will be released in UK cinemas on 8th January 2016