February 23, 2017 — The Bolshoi Ballet has been an honored institution in the world of ballet for centuries. Founded in 1776, it is one of the world’s oldest ballet companies and has been recognized as one of the greatest ballet institutions in existence throughout the last 100 years.
But in Russia, it is more than that. It isn’t honored — it is revered.
Its artists, fame and legacy are carefully protected — one might say guarded — which made the company’s 2013 front page scandal, one so disastrous and public that neither the company nor the government could cover it up, particularly devastating.
In January, 2013, Sergei Filin, the Artistic Director of the company, had acid thrown in his face. He was severely burned and almost blinded in the attack. He would spend months in the hospital as doctors fought to save some of his eyesight.
After weeks of gossip and theories, several people, including ballet soloist Pavel Dmitrichenko, were arrested and charged in the attack.
Dmitrichenko had organized the attack; he would admit that he had wanted Filin roughed up, but never thought that the attack would include acid. Eventually he would be sentenced to 4 years in prison. His accomplices would receive longer sentences.
The attack appears to have been the result of serious professional disagreements between Filin and Dmitrichenko. Filin was accused — by many company members, not just by Dmitrichenko — of giving better roles to ballerinas who slept with him and ignoring superior dancers whom he did not personally like. Among those not in favor were Dmitrichenko and his wife, both of whom were frequently passed over for starring roles. The in-fighting that took place at the theater had reached poisonous levels.
Astonishingly, despite the horror of the attack, many of the dancers of the company supported Dmitrichenko. Even more astonishing, in the wake of this scandal, Filin’s contract as artistic director was not renewed.
The documentary Bolshoi Babylon was filmed immediately after the attack. The unprecedented level of access given to the filmmakers enabled them to speak to the company and the dancers, some of whom were brutally honest — and passionate — about the Bolshoi, the personalities involved and the realities of the world of ballet. Veteran ballet master Boris Akimov remarks, “The world of theatre is cruel. It looks beautiful from the outside. When you see the stage, there is beautiful movement and love and romance – but underneath everything is boiling.”
The film, which features spectacular footage of performances filmed from the wings of the stage, illustrates the breathtaking beauty that is created by the individuals who have devoted their lives to this medium of expression. Possibly no other art form demands so much sacrifice of its practitioners; probably no other art form has a shorter span in which the practitioners can actually perform. Years of devotion, practice, sacrifice and work go into creating a career in the world of the ballet; one false step, one unexpected injury can end it in a moment. It is both magical and astonishingly vicious.
Bolshoi Babylon is available on Blu-Ray and DVD.