[Exclusive] 'Bolshoi Babylon': A Look Inside Russia's Greatest Ballet

An interview with director Nick Read about 'Bolshoi Babylon' and the acid attack on the director of Russia’s most prestigious ballet company.
January 4, 2016, 10:25pm
All images courtesy Red Velvet Films

Known predominantly as the land of communism, fur coats, and vodka, Russia is also home to one of the most prestigious ballet companies in the world, the Bolshoi Ballet. Housed since 1856 in a magnificent Classic-style building only about 500 feet from the Kremlin government headquarters in the Red Square, the Bolshoi (which literally translates to “big”) was founded in 1776 and remains to this day a bastion of Russian pride and creativity. During the Soviet era, it held a particularly important place in Soviet foreign policy: dancers were exempt from military service, and the company was strategically sent abroad to send very specific messages regarding life in the Soviet Union. Visiting international dignitaries were first and foremost brought to watch the Bolshoi, and during wartime the ballet was an important national rallying point. Although other Russian companies enjoy prestige on the international stage, no company comes close to the Bolshoi in terms of reputation, quality, and symbolism.

The Bolshoi embodies Russian grandeur and boldness. Its stage is one of the largest stages in the world, and the six-tier gilded auditorium can hold thousands of audience members. The style of dance is expansive and exciting, seen best in the classic story ballets the company is so famous for. But the real life stories are often not as clean and satisfying as the ones they dance. Corruption and scandal are not unheard of in the theater. But one scandal has outshone them all, and has brought the dirty laundry of the Bolshoi out for the whole world to see.

On the night of January 17, 2013, ex-dancer and current artistic director Sergei Filin had acid thrown in his face outside his apartment building, rendering him almost completely blind. After investigation, the accepted story is that principal dancer Pavel Dmitrichenko had ordered the attack after Filin had failed to cast Dmitrichenko’s girlfriend in the role of Odette in Swan Lake. In testimony, Dmitrichenko claimed to have ordered a beating—not an acid attack—and that the acid was on the initiative of assailant Yuri Zarutsky. Both men (and the getaway driver) are now serving time for the attack. But the story has captured the imagination of people even outside the ballet world, and Filin’s slow recovery from the attack has been closely followed. He's since regained some eyesight after countless surgeries, enough to be able to continue his post as artistic director.

Filin was a popular dancer and before taking on the job of artistic director at the Bolshoi, held the same position at the Stanislavsky Theater, another ballet company in Moscow, where he worked with director Vladimir Urin. Their relationship is known to be tumultuous, a fact only exacerbated when Urin followed Filin back to the Bolshoi as director. With the eyes of the world of the theater, as well as the constant influence of the Russian government, both men are in difficult positions of power within the world of Russian art and politics, with or without the acid attack.

The story has ramifications far beyond the surface story: the Bolshoi has always been a symbol of Russia and its role on the global stage and at a time when diplomatic relations with the country are reminiscent of colder times, this story is all the more poignant. This relationship is explored in depth in the fascinating documentary Bolshoi Babylon, which interviews key players in the company and in the scandal to understand the significance of the attack to the Bolshoi, the ballet world, and Russia. From ballerinas struggling to get noticed and veterans feeling their power in the company slipping away, to 70-year-old teachers, and even the Prime Minister of Russia himself, the people profiled in the film give viewers an unprecedented look at Russia and explains how power play in the theater comes through on stage and off.

The Creators Project spoke to director Nick Read about Russian politics, dance, and intrigue as an outsider filmmaker, and got an exclusive clip from the film, both of which you can check out below:

The Creators Project: What sparked the decision to make this film? What was your connection to ballet before this, if you had one?

Nick Read: I knew minus zero about ballet when we started this. At the time when the acid attack story broke, [producer and co-director Mark Franchetti] and I were making a film about prison serial killers in the north of Russia. We both came from fairly journalistic backgrounds, Mark as a print journalist, myself as a filmmaker. So we were sort of drawn to stories that go to the heart of human dilemmas and human interest stories, if you like. Mark was sent in by his newspaper, The Sunday Times, to do a piece on this breaking story. At the time they didn’t know who was responsible, it was just a very curious crime, and so there was a mystery at its heart that we were interested in unraveling in the early stages, but then they arrested Dmitrichenko and the doors remained firmly shut for a good seven or eight months. But I was intrigued, as it is a sort of symbol of Russia and I was very curious about making a film about this revered institution.

Did you ever go to any ballets beforehand, or interested at all?

I’d seen Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake, the all-male version. It’s kind of iconic. I’ve watched a lot ballets and films about ballets, mostly documentaries and feature films, and I did a lot of homework about it before we started filming. But I think in a way our naiveté about it was to our advantage, because we didn’t go in being reverential of any of the stars of the Bolshoi. Of course we were very polite, but we didn’t feel we had to include some of the stars. We did interview people like Svetlana Zakharova, the sort of prima of primas there. She’s a fantastic, extraordinary dancer, but she’s not a great film character. We never set out to make a film for balletophiles or a dance documentary, we were always ambitious to bring a wider audience, and so we went in with a naiveté of outsiders.

Interesting. So as a filmmaker, shooting dance is a completely different animal from any other kind of camera-work. How did you approach that?

A lot of ballet films, especially coverage of performances, they tend to be shot more in wide shot and full shot, and I was very interested in trying to present ballet in a different way. So I knew I wanted to prefer filming from backstage, because everyone’s already seen the front of the stage. I wanted to do it a little differently, but also share with the audience this privileged perspective. I also wanted to shoot it much more in close-up to really see the emotions on the dancers’ faces as they’re performing. Especially immediately before they go on stage, when there’s all this nervous energy, and when they come off stage, they’re like an athlete who’s just run a 100-meter, they’re sort of panting and out of breath, and I was very interested in those moments and the dynamics of backstage. This is also facilitated by cameras and lenses that can shoot in very low light, which is relatively recent, so I also wanted to capture what was happening in the dark corners of the building.

Like you said, there’s so many movies and shows about ballet recently, like Black SwanFlesh and BoneBreaking Pointe. How do you see this film fitting into this new canon, as well as the older ballet films like White NightsCenter Stage? Many of those, especially the more recent ones, seem to promote quite destructive stereotypes about the art. Was this something you were aware of while making the film?

It’s fair to say we were informed by Black Swan, in the sense of a sort of inner psychosis within dancers’ psyche. But that’s a perfectly fantasy story in Black Swan. So I wanted to show the performances in a different way, try to have a narrative that was very character-driven, very intimate, up close and personal. But also it’s an epic canvas, both in terms of what’s happening inside the theater and outside, so we were trying to contrast the epic and the intimate, if you like. I didn’t really want to follow in other people’s footsteps as a documentary filmmaker. Fred Wiseman obviously addressed the subject, as well as other colleagues of mine in the UK as well, and I’ve watched all those films. But they’re very objective, very observational, and while I used some of those techniques, I did want to make more of a dynamic and constructed story.

In the film, you explore the fact that the story brought a lot of negative publicity to the theater, especially right after it. How do you think this film might spread a more nuanced understanding of the situation, or might it only fan the flames of unnecessary intrigue? Many would say that intrigues and controversies and scandals like this have always happened, at the Bolshoi especially, but it’s always been behind closed doors, and some say it should stay that way. What do you think of that, as someone in the film/journalism community whose very purpose is to reveal things?

It’s all been very closed off for many years, and we were very fortunate to be in the right time and the right place when [general director] Vladimir Urin came into the building. He very much wanted to make transparency a byword of his new regime, and he was as good as his word. We pitched to him a film about a season at the Bolshoi, in which the acid attack of recent history had to be addressed, and we had to ask those questions to see and to understand how they were repairing their image, which was severely damaged. Many people would say this was the darkest chapter in the Bolshoi’s history. So we were very fortunate, because Urin is a very unusual man, and our access was completely unfettered. There was nowhere we couldn’t go, there was no one we couldn’t talk to. We had no written agreement, which was very unusual for a project of this scale, on an access-driven film. This would make us incredibly nervous, because we could get kicked out without any legally-binding agreement. But, Urin is a very unusual character and so he was as good as his word. So to answer your question, I think another aspect of it is that yes, you could say it fans the flames of controversy and keeps the memory of that scandal alive. However, we were making a film at a time when the whole crisis in Eastern Ukraine was emerging, at a time when Russia’s relationships with the West and Europe were at a very low ebb, and still, our access was completely unrestricted at a time when Russia as country was slamming all the doors in the faces of the West. So I hope the film surprises people in terms of its presentation of Putin’s Russia, both in a negative and a positive way. Urin asked us only to be fair, and he’s seen the film and he feels it’s fair.

Art is a part of Russia that the West seems to forget about a lot, especially nowadays. In the Soviet times, everyone knew about the Bolshoi, and now when people think of Russia it’s mostly about politics, so it’s nice to see a film that focuses on the art form.

Sure, and it’s a very political institution. It’s only 500 yards from the Kremlin, and it’s a separate line in the state budget. Very influential members of the political elite that are on the board of trustees, so there is I think a very active, and sometimes unhealthy interest in the goings on inside the Bolshoi. Urin came in and said, “I’ll take on this job, but only if there’s not too much political interference.” There’s always going to be a level of political interference from outside.

Dmitry Medvedev once called it Russia’s “secret weapon.” And it’s been used as a political tool for many years. Based on the film, it seems though that Urin’s personal ambitions are also getting mixed up and involved. Did you get any sense of how this balance between personal and political ambitions might play out in the future?

Well, Urin is a fascinating character. On one level, he’s appointed, so you would naturally assume that he’s a Putin loyalist, and he had to meet Putin and discuss the terms of his engagement there. But at the same time, he’s very much a maverick, and he was very public in saying that he wants no political interference. So you have someone who’s also an autocrat, and there’s a scene in the film with the ballet company and Filin, where Urin gives Filin a real dressing down, and you get a sense of how keenly he wants to stand his own authority. I asked him once if he believed in democracy and he just sort of laughed. But he’s a very experienced theatre manager; he spent 15 years at the Stanislavsky Theater. How he marries the personal and the political is very tricky. He’s turned down the job many times, as he explains when we first meet him in the film. It’s such a politically charged position, very vulnerable to outside pressures. In the time when we were working there, I was very impressed to see he became very popular with the dancers, and pretty much most of the people we met inside the Bolshoi. He was able to break up a lot of the cliques that I think lay behind the acid attack.

He’s trying to balance the political and the larger symbolic reputation of the Bolshoi, but also in his tenure as director of the Stanislavsky, he and Filin—as alluded in the film—had a bit of a falling out in regards especially to Filin’s decision to go back to the Bolshoi, where Urin eventually followed him. So it’s interesting to see how their relationship plays out where he gets appointed at a very interesting time in Filin’s career.

They did have a bit of history—not one that Urin was ever going to forget or sweep under the carpet. When he took the position at the Bolshoi and left the Stanislavsky while it was under Urin’s management, he gave very little notice. He just said, “I’m going,” and then started poaching some of their best dancers. So Urin felt very betrayed by his behavior in that particular moment in their history. And Filin is also a particularly complicated, tricky character. He noticed his reputation dwindling, and the film sort of poses the question: is he victim or villain? I think he’s a bit of both.

Do you think people were perhaps afraid to say something in the current climate that somebody wouldn’t like, especially on camera?

Of course there’s a degree of self-censorship that they applied, and it’s difficult to know. When we started the process, the acid attack was still very fresh in their minds, it was a big trauma, still very raw. Not just the attack itself, but all the bloodletting that went on afterwards: people resigned, people were sacked, management changes, lots of turmoil in the building, and I think most everybody, certainly in the ballet company, wanted to steady the whole process and just get back to what they do best—to perform. So to begin with, people were very reluctant to address any sense of the controversy and the scandal, or to speculate on Dmitrichenko’s motives or anything. But after about three or four months, people became a little more reflective and started talking about it. A lot of them are very loyal, so it’s not in their nature to speak ill of the institution or of their colleagues, even though it’s intensely competitive between them.

Just a small thing I noticed is that there were no male dancers profiled in the film, and no female coaches or managers. I was wondering if there was any particular reason for that or if it was just a coincidence?

It’s a fair point, and well made. I mean, obviously, Filin was an ex-dancer, Dmitrichenko was a male dancer, and Nikolay Tsiskaridze was a male dancer, so we didn’t feel their voice was unrepresented in the film. As I mentioned, there were many more characters we filmed than ended up in the final cut. We did film younger male dancers, we featured some of the older pedagogues who were former female stars of the Bolshoi in the Soviet era, but we didn’t really want to make a film in the past tense. I’d like to think we just got the gender balance right overall, but no you’re not the first person to note that perhaps it’s not completely representative. As I say, we’re interested in people who have a great story to tell and who can tell it well. So it’s not about ticking boxes.

Of course, the people who speak all have something to say.

Right. There were several male dancers we talked to. And you get a glimpse of the great American dancer David Hallberg in the film, who’s the lead male soloist there, but he’s a guest soloist and we were trying to make a film that says something about the Russian psyche, about Putin’s Russia, and Mother Russia, if you like. We talked to him, but by his own admission, he said if we really wanted to understand this building he’s not the person to talk to, so some of it is self-selection. To be honest, a lot of the male dancers were a lot more closed than their female counterparts. We could instinctively feel we weren’t going to get much from them.

That’s definitely part of the sort of ballet male Russian archetype. You mentioned Nikolay Tsiskaridze. He has a bit of a looming presence in the film, and a lot of talk around the acid attack within the ballet world and outside it, brings up his name. Could you speak to his intrigue and his involvement with the film?

Well, I don’t think anyone could dispute that Tsiskaridze is a world-class ego. He’s a really tricky character, I’ve never met his like before [laughs]. He was the greatest male dancer of his generation, many would say. He was dancing at the same time as Filin, so they’d compete for parts. Tsiskaridze kind of felt that he should have gotten the job as artistic director when Filin was invited to join, so there’s this enmity and jealousy between the two of them. Tsiskaridze was very instrumental in creating a very poisonous atmosphere that by all reports inside the building, basically fell into two camps. It’s a very Soviet Russian characteristic, I think, that you create a sort of little clique around you of loyalists, people you can depend on. Filin had done that, and he was only casting those dancers in the key roles, so a lot of the allegations of corruption, sexual favors, and malpractice circulated around the casting process. Tsiskaridze kind of fanned that—he was making a lot of allegations about Filin’s professional behavior, and all of that, I think, was a prelude that created the atmosphere in which the acid attack could have taken place.

He makes an all too brief appearance in the film, but the basic facts are that we did a very long interview with Tsiskaridze, which virtually began with him saying “I am the Bolshoi,” that basically the institution would be far lesser without him being there [laughs]. And then he withdrew permission for us to use that interview when he was appointed head of the Vaganova Ballet School in St. Petersburg. The reasons for that are actually practical, as well as him also probably wanting to rein back what he said. He became a state employee when he went to the Vaganova in a way that he wasn’t when he was at the Bolshoi, so he felt it would be unwise for him to be featured as heavily as we planned to feature him in our film. He’s a very very tricky character, as is Filin. A producer I worked with once described FIlin as slippery when dry [laughs]. He’s a very divisive and evasive character, while Tsiskaridze is an enormous ego. They’re like tectonic plates coming together. Indeed, Tsiskaridze led us on a merry dance. He’s a very difficult case to work with, but it makes for great television!

This is true, he’s very popular on Russian television.

Yes, and he’s an example of how the outside world comes into the Bolshoi as well. Tsiskaridze had massive support from the “ladies who lunch” in Moscow, the oligarchs’ wives, who are the main power behind the scenes. They could promote Tsiskaridze in a way that Filin wasn’t being promoted, so gradually Tsiskaridze accrued more and more soft power around himself, and that’s when the scheming started. I think Tsiskaridze had influence on Dmitrichenko and Dmitrichenko’s girlfriend. They were very close, and I’m not going to join up all the dots in terms of Tsiskaridze’s role in the acid attack, if you can put it like that, but he certainly was very instrumental in creating this poisonous atmosphere.

So with all of these interviews and all of these long discussions, and taking time in the building, how did you know when the case was closed for you? How did you know when to stop asking questions?

That’s a very good question. The simplest answer would be when the season was over. It’s a nine-month season, and we thought nine months would be enough for us. But we filmed for about 5 or 6 months, and we weren’t sure we had the film in the can at the end. We kind of had to find the film in the cutting room, which is kind of where I take over from Mark, that’s my experience—building and constructing a narrative, which in a film like this is quite difficult. It’s not a dramatic feature where you’ve got a script and you know what you’re going to do from the word go. I suppose it’s the only thing that is highly unusual: the mechanics of the narrative came quite late. It took us a long time to figure it out, but we felt like we had enough characters and enough material by the end of the season. We really had some very special moments, it was just working out which sections to use and putting them in the right order.

Ultimately, what is the message you want viewers to come away with after they watch it, about the film, the scandal, the ballet world?

I hope they learned something about Russia, and that it goes a long way to answering the question: what makes the Bolshoi unique? I’d like to think that people would be surprised at the level of access we got at a time when Russia was and still is, pretty closed to Western influence. For those who don’t really know anything about ballet, I hope it draws people to ballet as an artform. I’m certainly drawn to it, and I can’t wait to sit through a ballet. I never sat in the audience and watched a ballet, I was always busy backstage. I was deeply impressed with the dedication and sacrifices the dancers had to make in pursuit of excellence. And I hope people are as surprised by that as I was. People who are inside ballet would know it well, but the level of physical training and excellence that they attain is pretty remarkable. Hopefully, it will recruit the next generation of ballet stars, I dare to dream.

Bolshoi Babylon is available on HBO On-Demand and comes out in limited release January 8. For more information, visit the official website.


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