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'The picture of the Bolshoi director pressurising a crippled man does not turn out a flattering one'
Sergei Fili (photo RIA Novosti/ Vladimir Viatkin
3 FEB 16
The new British documentary about the Bolshoi Ballet, Bolshoi Babylon, will not be watched - in public, at least - by two of its central focuses, the stricken artistic director Sergei Filin and his rival Nikolai Tsiskaridze, when it opens in St Petersburg tomorrow. (I reviewed it for The Spectator.)
Audience reaction in the northern city has particular interest since after his dismissal from the Bolshoi Tsiskaridze took up the prestigious job of the Vaganova Academy's Rector, and his rivalry with Filin is documented in the film, made by the Sunday Times Moscow correpondent Mark Franchetti and Nick Read, two experienced TV documentarists in the darker corners of Russian life.
Their documentary portrays a twin track of normality and abnormality: the complex daily lives inside the Bolshoi Ballet and also the turbulent aftermath inside the theatre after the acid attack on Filin. While he has drawn deep sympathy for his traumatic experience, Filin emerges as a disconcerting character, who unexpectedly admitted in the film that he wished he had never taken up the Bolshoi job at all, so heavy had he found the pressure.
Part of that pressure was the opposition of the popular Tsiskaridze, who was sacked by the then general director Anatoly Iksanov after the attack due to his media attacks on Filin and the Bolshoi management. Tsiskaridze now says that he had agreed to an interview with the documentarists at the time, but would never have done so had he known what the film would be about (I've translated the news story at the end).
But what struck Kommersant's perceptive critic Tatiana Kuznetsova as still more revealing in the film was what she describes as the cruelty and rancour shown towards Filin by the Bolshoi's general director, Vladimir Urin. She highlights the contrast between Urin's PR image as a competent, kind man and the humiliations he dished out to Filin on camera.
Her review of the documentary, which I've translated here in full, expresses amazement at the total lack of limits placed on the British filmmakers by Urin, something she believes would never happen in any other theatre anywhere in the world - ironically enough, she points out, given Russia's global reputation for micromanaging opinion.
It is not unique, in fact, given the access-all-areas revelations of the Paris Opera Ballet in Frederick Wiseman's much admired 2010 film, La Danse, whose observational style clearly influenced Read and Franchetti. But Kuznetsova is surely right to point out that the deep mistrust existing between the West and Russia at the moment means that no matter what liberal hospitality the Bolshoi showed towards foreign media, Western reaction would still insist that it was all directed by the Kremlin.
Urin 'a typical post-Soviet apparatchik'
Russian Time Out's Denis Ruzaev gives an interesting appreciation of the film (7 Things We Learned About the Bolshoi), noting the “superhuman load” and abnormality of the cloistered ballet life, where an almost insane competition drives behaviour. He adds that the Filin attack “haunts” the Bolshoi still, with internal problems still unaired, and many dancers still supporting the convicted Dmitrichenko rather than Filin.
Ruzaev remarks that a longstanding Soviet habit continues whereby current leaders “don’t hesitate to throw mud” at their predecessors, and he ascribes Urin’s unforgiving attitude to Filin as par for the course of a former USSR official of his generation.
What Ruzaev thinks it’s a pity the film was unable to reach was the two largest, deepest-buried abscesses in the Bolshoi organism: the industrial-scale corruption around the box office which reaches to the theatre's highest levels, he says, and the fallout from the scandal of the mishandled reconstruction of the theatre.
He comments that what he film does indicate is the Bolshoi's significant shortage of charismatic personalities. Alongside the "typical administrator" Urin and the unfortunate Filin, there are few dancers or coaches with anything to say other than clichés. As a result, Tsiskaridze, a "narcissist on a massive scale", mesmerises despite his few appearances.
Ruzaev adds the information that Anastasia Meskova, the ballerina who characterfully represents those who don’t make it to the top, is now a TV actress.
Here are my translations of the Kommersant review, then the Filin/Tsiskaridze reactions as reported on Radio Baltika's website.
The theatre in the title role
The Centre for Documentary Film hosted the Moscow premiere of the full-length documentary Bolshoi Babylon by British director Nick Read and producer Mark Franchetti, about the most dramatic and criminal season in the history of the Bolshoi Theatre.
The film begins with a TV crime chronicle of January 2013, when sulphuric acid was thrown in the face of the Bolshoi Ballet artistic director Sergei Filin by an unknown ill-wisher. It was after news of the crime ricocheted around the world that Nick Read and Mark Franchetti, having already just made The Condemned, a documentary about the Russian hard-labour penal system for murderers, decided to do a film about the Bolshoi. As Franchetti told Kommersant, this was to be pitched not at audiences in Russia but in the Western world.
The Bolshoi Theatre, in the form of the then general director Anatoly Iksanov, allowed the filmmakers into the theatre backstage. But after investigators arrested the leading Bolshoi soloist Pavel Dmitrichenko for the crime in March 2013, the theatre closed its doors to the film crew. They were only able to resume six months later, when Vladimir Urin now occupied the top job, and it was he who authorised the documentarists to spend the rest of the 2013-14 season shooting whatever they needed and anything they wanted, and moreover without paying and without any control.
It must be said that not a single theatre in the world would have allowed such a thing. Even in the most untroubled and successful companies newspaper interviews with artists and artistic directors are controlled by the press office, while to allow cameras to crawl about the stage during performances, filming rehearsals or closed meetings, is unheard of. [MY NOTE: Kuznetsova appears unacquainted with previous films such as Michael Waldman's 1997 BBC documentary The House about the Royal Opera House, Frederick Wiseman's La Danse about Paris Opera Ballet, and even the Ballet Boyz' 2007 Channel 4 film about the Bolshoi and Christopher Wheeldon.]
The filmmakers could not have been expecting such openness, still less so Western viewers of the film, who believe that the Kremlin controls virtually every step of the Russian people. After the showing of Bolshoi Babylon to a small group of members of the English BAFTA, the first question was “What did Putin say about it?”
And the filmmakers' assertion that President Putin not only has not seen the film but did not even know it was being made, evidently did not meet equal trust - after all, one of the basic themes of the film was the closeness of links between the Bolshoi and the government, and the unceasing monitoring and interference in theatre matters by high-ranking government officials. In the middle of the film general director Urin speaks for the establishment, how everyone in the country knows how to run the Bolshoi, and that around 40 percent of decisions are imposed upon him - though he also asserts in a radio interview that if he had not been allowed total freedom of operation, he would not have taken the job at all.
And the chairman of the executive committee of the board of trustees, Alexander Budberg, speaks to the camera about how a deputy prime minister spent an hour and a half trying to impose a desired candidate on him for the artistic directorship.
Corruption, chaos and mistrust of authority
The film's second theme - that the state of culture is a microcosm of the country - rings out well enough, but is somewhat speculative and unsubstantiated. The chief traits of similarity are corruption, chaos, and the mistrust that Russians feel towards authority. Here, the mistrust felt by his former colleagues when the company favourite, Sergei Filin, moved from dancer to director.
Chaos, it's true, has been refuted by the film's end: the theatre’s product - ie, top-quality performances - goes on uninterrupted, underlined by bitter comments from artists: “No matter what happens, we must go out on stage and smile.”
The allegations of corruption were loudly asserted, if never substantiated, during the trial of Dmitrichenko, insinuating hints that theatre careers are made through a casting couch, which forced Filin into the most humiliating of refutations. His response - “I’ve slept with my wife for 10 years but she is still in my corps de ballet!” - comes out as something like a desperate wail. No one gives any specific names, no facts emerge, so it all just hangs in the air, suspended by invisible intrigues, borne on atmospherics.
Sergei Filin has been the initiator of a whole array of successful productions, fulfilling a long-due generational change, the first and only one of the ballet leaders who has openly come out against the permissiveness of the darling of high officials Nikolai Tsiskaridze, but he emerges from the film as an unwise and weak leader. He is a victim three times over, being also brought down by the wholesale badmouthing of the new general director, who does not miss a chance to humiliate his artistic director.
The decisive and competent Vladimir Urin comes out of the film as a cruel, rancorous man: he gives Filin - with whom he used to work at the Stanislavsky Theatre and parted on bad terms - a cruel take-down during a ballet company meeting, not allowing him to say a word; and during a management meeting you wince when the artistic director takes off his dark glasses to show his blinded eye. And although the makers of Bolshoi Babylon invite viewers to think that the theatre is now in safe hands, the picture of the Bolshoi director pressurising a crippled man does not turn out a complimentary one.
Ballerinas commute to work
Still, viewers do not only have criminality, duels between egos, and theatre-state problems to feast on. The dynamic montage provides further excitement to the already vivid rhythm of the narrative, the backstage, a place full of enticement and exoticism. There are close-ups of sweating swangirls; you hear funny asides from the corps de ballet girls (“Today we’ll swap legs”); there are the ballerinas’ feet, the bashing of pointe shoes, and the camera’s roamings through theatre corridors hung with costumes, through occupied dressing rooms, and onto a metro where ballerinas commute to work, just like ordinary people. And also the emotional, honest, brave, often witty comments of the ballerinas. All of it makes Bolshoi Babylon a fascinating film, which not without good reason should aspire to serious world success.
Despite the highly expressive portrayals, actions and utterances of the participants, compressed from 140 hours of footage into 85 minutes in a form intended to invoke a definite view in the spectator, the filmmakers present the film objectively in its own way. There is no editorial text, and even the factual errors in the quoted TV reports are not corrected.
The directors believe that they should not take one side or the other, not to say who dances better and who worse, nor to carry out a general investigation into ballet. It would appear that what came first for them was the uniqueness of the texture, the reality of life, inside a world art theatre. The thing that hooks any viewer.
Following on from the Canadians, Americans, Japanese and English, now the Russians will be lured in. In February Bolshoi Babylon goes on general release, and in March it will be shown on Channel 1.
Filin misses St Petersburg premiere of Bolshoi Babylon
The dancer and Bolshoi Ballet artistic director Sergei Filin has told Radio Baltika that he will miss the premiere of the film Bolshoi Babylon in St Petersburg. "Right now at the Bolshoi we have the premiere of Don Quixote so I am staying here in Moscow. I cannot possibly go, so it will somehow have to go on without my presence," he said.
The artist did not acquaint himself with the rushes of the film before its release to cinema screens. "Not having seen the picture, it's hard for me to comment. I will say this: I do think there's been a lot of stirring around the film," he added.
The Rector of the Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet, Nikolai Tsiskaridze, is sure that nothing would persuade him to attend the film. The balletmaster stressed that he did not give consent to the shooting, and yet appeared in it.
"I signed no paper with them, but they still put me in it. They came to me, they did an interview, they talked about something completely different. And when I realised what it was about, I said I would not have a thing to do with it. In my view, they acted without tact," said Tsiskaridze.
The premiere of the documentary Bolshoi Babylon will be held in St Petersburg on 4 February. The film tells of the long-drawn-out crisis at the Bolshoi Theatre and the attack on Filin, when in January 2013 he had acid thrown in his face and was badly burned.
The production of Don Quixote will return to the main stage of the Bolshoi Theatre for the first time in a while, and the first-run performances end on Sunday. The ballet first joined the Bolshoi repertoiry in 1869,
Maria Allash, one of the film's participants © Altitude Film Entertainment