The juxtaposed nature of ballet, the grace of the dance combined with the often vicious ambition, has long fascinated those even faintly familiar with the art form. This reputation, surely reinforced by Darren Aronofsky’s hyperbolic Black Swan, ensured that the events of the Bolshoi Ballet in early 2013, in which the Bolshoi’s artistic director Sergei Filin was the victim of an acid attack, garnered much attention.
During this period and the subsequent months, a small film crew were allowed unique access to the ballet company, in which they detailed the stresses, pressures and rivalries that are seemingly so endemic within the company. This premise alone, charting the events that led to the attack on Filin (later revealed to have been spurred through professional jealousy) is a central conceit that would have certainly served as an engaging narrative, so it’s a shame that the makers Nick Read and Mark Franchetti don’t appear to agree. Instead, Read and Franchetti use Filin’s experience as a route into featuring other members of the Bolshoi, and in diversifying their focus they fail to truly analyse or ruminate upon anything in particular.
Thus interviews in which dancers mention their desperation to be cast for specific parts, detailing the hours of focus required, or the bribery rumoured to be part of Filin’s regime, are brushed over, without going in to any real detail or reflection. Certainly it’s understandable why Read and Franchetti may have been reluctant to resort to an often-repeated traditional dichotomy of battling personalities as it can far too easily stray into cliché, but with the film purporting to be borne out of this event, it seems odd that the film then fails to illuminate this incident.
It would seem that Read and Franchetti, in gathering such a wealth of material, tried to retain as much of it as they could in their final edit, meaning that the film fails to really adopt any one narrative and instead touches upon several resulting in a lack of engagement.
This criticism is not to suggest for one moment that Bolshoi Babylon is unworthy: it is beautifully shot and the film should be watched for the moments of dance and backstage rehearsals alone. Instead it is a wasted opportunity. It would have been preferable to have either seen a detailed lead up and exploration of the fallout of attack upon Filin, or rather like the wonderful BBC documentary series which followed the English National Ballet, a focused approach to the daily lives of those in the company.
It’s usually deplorable when a film is critiqued for what it fails to be, particularly when the film is not intended to be as such, but when Bolshoi Babylon could have been so much more, it is hard not to. The film is stretched far too thin, hovering around political intrigue, rivalry, and the lives of the members of the company without providing any real moment of insight.