Acid Attacks, Ambition, and Power: The Bolshois Intense Backstage Dramas

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The inner rivalries and tensions of the Bolshoi exploded open when its artistic director had acid hurled in his face in 2013, as a brilliant documentary shows.

The reopening of the excellent HBO documentary film Bolshoi Babylon , features the public image we expect of the Bolshoi: beautifully costumed and made-up ballerinas, bathed in blue sun, performing Swan Lake .

But Nick Reads gorgeously shot documentary has two more complex and darker tales to tell, away from the perfect make-up and costumes: one about what happened after the notorious acid attack on the companys artistic director, Sergey Filin, in 2013, and another about the tangled and fascinating history of the Bolshoi itself.

The world of the theatre is cruel. It looks beautiful from the outside, but underneath everything is boiling .

The attack, which left Filin severely burned and virtually blind, was the culmination of long-running hostility with dancer Pavel Dmitrichenko, who had asked another man, Yury Zarutsky, to rough Filin up.

It was a shock to Dmitrichenko when he detected, via Tv news, that Filin had suffered acid thrown in his face.

Dmitirichenko told national courts that Filin had favored certain performers over others, and had slept with multiple ballerinas.

Filin had also passed over Dmitrichenkos girlfriend for roles.

The documentary begins as another general director, Vladimir Urin, begins work at the Bolshoiand there is added bad blood between him and Filin because of the style the latter left a previous post at the Stanislavski Theatre, which Urin had managed.

A lot of the documentarys amazing access and interviewee candor is down to Mark Franchetti, the documentarys producer and co-director, who has worked in Moscow for 18 years as the UK Sunday Times correspondent there.

For Franchetti, he and Read were not making a film about ballet, or an acid assault either, but trying to understand why this extraordinary organization has such a unique status in Russia, and why it attracts plotting, gossip, intrigue, and backstabbing politics and so on.

All this turmoil takes place offstageas first soloist Anastasia Meskova tells the documentary, Were supposed to come out smiling. We may have our own tragedies. But the prove must continue. And what will the audience find? Art and magic!

Roman Abramov, a ballet devotee, has been coming to the Bolshoi for 32 years and said the theatre was a sacred place to himthe acid-throwing scandal had built people see it as a rubbish dump full of rats, rather than the Olympus, where the gods of dance were worshiped.

Howeverdespite the laurels, and the world leaders and royalty who watch from the Bolshois boxesthis is still, said Boris Akimov, the Ballet Master, a ballet company of 250 people, every one with their own character, longings and ambitions.

It is a hot house, where people vie for roles, and panic if they are off stage too long. The world of the theatre is cruel, Akimov says. It looks beautiful from the outside, but underneath everything is boiling.

Maria Alexandrova, principal dancer, says, There is no-one who cant be replaced. Its what makes people practice 12 hours a day, torturing themselves. There are no pots of gold here. Merely physical hardship.

Alexandrova had a full Achilles tendon fracture on stage one night, butshe says proudlykept standing. She doesnt appear for her mother, or the audience. I do it for myself. The only thought that torments me is what if I cant appear on stage again.

She doesnt want her daughter to become a ballet dancer, to be like her, a performer-addict in search of the fixing: The truth is are always here to become princes and princesses.

The dancers, she says, exclaim and giggle, marry and divorce, were very strange people. It often turns to tragedy.

And if not tragedy, annoyance: We assure the dancer who, having danced since she was 4 years old, discovers out she is not going on tour, and who asks rhetorically why she tries so hardwell, because performing is the air that she exhales, she answers.

The dancer says she was horrified when detectives analyse Filins acid assault came and stood on the Bolshois stage, their sacred space, to ask the dancers questions.

People are deeply attached to the institution and house, and love it, says Franchetti. It is the most important stage in the world, and the hardest of all. Nothing dedicates that emotion for them. It is their home.

In the wake of Filins attack, detectives talked to the dancers like animals, says onethe outside world is not welcome here, you sense.

Franchetti says the trigger topic which produced most tears from the interviewees was, What does the Bolshoi mean to you? upon which all these emotions would come out. Theres so much history, its such a unique organization, that all the disenchantment, all the dreamings you have, all that, all the difficulties of management and bickeringall of that goes when you are on that stage.

One of the things that most surprised Franchetti was observing the backstage subculturesthe orchestra, ballet, cleaning ladies, technological staffand how they all come together, despite all kinds of tensions, to render a smooth evening performance.

The public, find all the Bolshois recent shenanigans, considered the dancers as serpents in a bottle, says one dancer. Person said, Youre all evil. Youd feed one another there.

Despite indicating an attack( even if it became much more extreme than he had conceived ), Dmitrichenko found a lot of support among the other dancerswith the company split between those who backed him and those who backed Filin. There was another conflict with the dancer Nikolai Tsiskaridze, who wanted Filinis job.

The Bolshoi is not only 500 meters from the Kremlin, and the geographical proximity is meaningful.

Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian prime minister, calls the Bolshoi the countrys secret weapon, sent out into the world as a symbol of culture. Well definitely use it to achieve our goals, he says.

A board member describes feeling as if “hes in” Alice in Wonderland when approached by the deputy prime minister over who should be the director of the Bolshoi.

The cameras follow Filins return to the ballet after his recovery, with the sight in one eye saved.

Urins antipathy toward him is clear. Nothing but run connects me with Filin, he says gravely.

Filin himself says his working life changed drastically when he was appointed artistic director: He went from a company member who never had needles placed in his pointe shoes to a completely different posture toward him. There was unbelievable jealousy.

Dmitrichenko was eventually sentenced to six years in prison, and Filin is shown in the documentary tangling with Urin at a company session in a row about gym versus pilates, which is really a power play. Urin commands Filin to sit down.

The film does have sweeter moments. A female dancer brings her son to a performance. Healthough meters away watching off-stage his mother perform beautifullystays glued to playing games on his cellphone.

But it is the sad, retreating back of Filin, strolling down a staircase, that is the films most resonant image. In voiceover, he states, There is no joy in being a boss. Its only hellishly hard work. Whatever you do, youre never going to get any thanks.

Filins contract, we detect, was not resumed in July 2015; his successor, Makhar Vaziev, was announced in October.

Franchetti says Urin is relatively autonomous in his task, though if the Minister of Culture calls him to tell him he should do something, he cant just tell him to get lost. If a powerful tycoon on the Board of Directors asks for a favor, he has to take the call.

If ordinary Russians eyed the Bolshoi suspiciously at the time of the acid assault , now they are much more concerned with the severe economic crisis they are in. The ballet remains exorbitantly expensive for most people.

And so this strange world–its own world of beauty and history and rivalries and passion–continues. As one of the contributors to the documentary says, the Bolshoi is like an ocean liner. Whatever craziness happens backstage, it simply keeps its course. At 7pm, that nights curtain goes up, and the indicate goes on.

Bolshoi Babylon is on HBO, Dec. 21, 9pm

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