Film offers peek into Bolshoi's secretive world

Bolshoi Ballet in a Swan Lake performance at the Esplanade Theatre in November 2013.
Bolshoi Ballet in a Swan Lake performance at the Esplanade Theatre in November 2013.PHOTO: ST FILE

NEW YORK • Nearly three years ago, a real-life horror story struck the Bolshoi Ballet: Sergei Filin, artistic director of the Bolshoi, was attacked with acid by a masked man outside his home.

Pavel Dmitrichenko, a Bolshoi soloist, was eventually arrested and charged with ordering the attack. He was upset, prosecutors said at his trial, about Filin's casting decisions - namely that his girlfriend was not given the role of Odette-Odile in Swan Lake. Dmitrichenko was initially sentenced to six years in prison.

Filin, whose contract runs out in March and was not renewed, has lost much of his sight.

Like many who followed the scandal, film-maker Nick Read and journalist and producer Mark Franchetti had little interest in ballet. But they became obsessed with the headline-making story.

"I thought, God, what is going on at this extraordinary institution that has such a unique place in the consciousness of Russians?" Franchetti said in a telephone interview from Moscow, where he is a correspondent for The Sunday Times of London.

"The interest was always way beyond the acid attack. What does this tell you about what's going on inside the building and also, to an extent, about contemporary Russia?"

Making Bolshoi Babylon, which documents the climate of the company after the acid attack and airs on HBO today, the film-makers had rare, uncensored access.

"It's very much to Mark's credit," Read said from London. "His achievement was not only getting us in in the first place, but sustaining the access to the whole season - we were inside for about six months."

There was no written agreement.

"There was the possibility that we could make a wrong move or someone could turn against us," Read said. "But we worked very hard at maintaining relationships with the management and dancers. It took us a long time to win their trust. We went in without cameras and then with cameras and just established a presence."

Filin is a slippery character in the film. He speaks with surprising frankness about "all kinds of intrigues" that troubled him. But there is a strange, telling scene in which he is shown speaking - in hushed tones - to principal dancer David Hallberg about changing partners for a coming ballet.

Unlike Vladimr Urin, the general director, "who makes decisions very quickly and tells you to your face what his position is, Filin just doesn't play a straight bat", Franchetti said.

"I certainly found him pretty frustrating to deal with just as a human being."

It took some time to secure an interview with Filin, but Read and Franchetti wore him down.

"We knew he was a crucial component to our story and we had to be very patient," Read said.

"He's very evasive - literally and in terms of his personality. Everything's whispered words and behind cupped hands, and his door is always closed. He's the only person in the building you have to queue to get into his office. In the 11th hour, we managed to pull it off."

Why did he agree to participate in the film?

"I think he was just desperate to get rid of us," Read said, laughing.

"We were very persistent and I think he understood that with the scale of our project that he needed to go on the record."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 21, 2015, with the headline 'Film offers peek into Bolshoi's secretive world'. Print Edition | Subscribe