“Bolshoi Babylon,” a documentary about the backstage infighting at Russia’s famed Bolshoi ballet, opens with an interviewee explicitly stating that the Bolshoi’s problems are symbolic of the government’s deeper institutional instability. Statements like this pop up frequently throughout “Bolshoi Babylon,” but the film never substantiates them. This movie is so light on specifics and so heavy on sweeping pronouncements set to vaguely ominous music that the film never really gets around to telling its central story: how the Ballet Director of the most famous ballet theater in the world was attacked with acid by one of his own dancers. After watching “Bolshoi Babylon” I have only the vaguest sense of the internal strife that precipitated principal ballet dancer Pavel Dmitrichenko ordering this attack on Filin on behalf of his girlfriend. Consequently, “Bolshoi Babylon” is confusing and monotonous, a surprisingly dull take on such salacious material.
Certainly Filin seems to have been a divisive presence at the Bolshoi. Vladimir Urin, who is brought in as General Director of the Bolshoi as a response to its scandals, freely admits that he and Filin do not get along. And a number of dancers accuse Filin of passing them over in favor of younger, less talented dancers. Is this a fair characterization of Filin? I’m not sure. The film gives us little means of parsing this question. The portrait director Nick Read paints of the famed theater—insofar as he paints one at all—is certainly one of dysfunction, backbiting, and raw ambition. But is anyone really surprised that a legendary institution like the Bolshoi is incredibly competitive and rife with torrid internal politics? This sort of backstage melodrama is pretty much synonymous with the theatrical world.
“Bolshoi Babylon” wants to tell a tawdry tabloid-y sort of story while at the same time allegorizing it into a comment on contemporary Russia, but it is far too scattered and unspecific to do either. However, the film does offer some incidental pleasures, and these are not negligible. There is plenty of beautifully filmed dance footage, some lovely shots of the theater itself, interesting behind-the-scenes rehearsal work, and a few interviews that do offer a peek—but only a peek, sadly—inside the warped psychology of the world’s greatest ballerinas.
In its nearly two centuries of existence, the Bolshoi has survived fires, Nazi bombs, a revolution, and the fall of Communism. It seems quite likely it will survive whatever damage its recent scandals have inflicted on its reputation. And, more to the point, it seems just as likely that the internal troubles documented by “Bolshoi Babylon”—imperious artistic directors, charges of corruption, casting complaints—have been with the theater since its inception. That Read positions the recent scandals as a commentary on the state of Russia today is one thing; that he makes such an unfocused and frequently boring case for that thesis is quite another.