To the outsider, the world-renowned Bolshoi Ballet company is synonymous with creativity, beauty and athleticism. Bolshoi – which means “big” or “grand” in Russian – was founded 240 years ago and is described as “the country’s best asset”, writes Francine Wolfisz.
But a different reality exists away from the stage. For some who work there, it is one of political meddling, backstabbing, jealousy and dysfunction – ingredients that bubbled to a head when three years ago, artistic director Sergei Filin was viciously assaulted in an acid attack that left him partially blind and scarred.
Dancer Pavel Dmitrichenko was arrested and jailed for six years after a trial that uncovered bitter rivalries and shocking allegations that Filin handed out roles in exchange for money and sexual favours.
With its reputation lying in tatters, the newly-appointed director Vladimir Urin sought to restore order and pledged a new era of greater transparency.
That included allowing a film crew full access backstage for the first time in the ballet company’s history – and the resulting documentary, Bolshoi Babylon, which opens in cinemas tomorrow (Friday) – is a gripping and tantalising look at the inner workings of this Russian icon.
Having tracked the shocking scandals that engulfed the Bolshoi with interest, Simon Chinn knew “it was too good an opportunity to pass up”, when directors Nick Read and Mark Franchetti approached him to help as one of the film’s executive producers.
Chinn, a double Academy Award winner for Man On Wire and Searching For Sugar Man, decided to come on board after hearing their “compelling” idea for a documentary.
The 46-year-old, who is the son of Sir Trevor and Susan Chinn, says: “The attack on Filin was a truly shocking story when it happened.
“The idea that this rarefied artistic institution could also be the focal point of such barbaric behaviour was a compelling idea for a film – there was this extraordinary juxtaposition of high art on the one hand and corruption and moral depravity on the other.
“Somehow, it also felt like a uniquely Russian story. You just couldn’t imagine something like this happening at the Royal Ballet!
“So we hoped we could tell a layered story about this famous ballet company engulfed in a scandal of its own making and, through it, also to offer a unique window into modern Russia and the challenges it faces adapting itself to the modern world.
“That was a very enticing proposition.”
Over the course of the 2013/14 season, the film crew were given access to dancers, managers and backstage workers, though Chinn admits getting them to appear on camera was “a process of continual and careful negotiation and persuasion.”
The general sentiment throughout this difficult year of transition and scandal was one of disappointment and shame.
“The world of theatre is cruel,” notes ballet master Boris Akimov. “It looks beautiful from the outside, but inside it’s boiling.”
Meanwhile principal dancer Maria Alexandrova, keenly points out: “There are no pots of gold here – only physical hardship.”
She adds: “I work in the Bolshoi, but not the one I dreamt of. There’s a sickness here now.”
Russian Premier Dimitry Medvedev is however more upbeat, describing the Bolshoi as a seminal part of national culture and the country’s “secret weapon” in selling Russia to the world.
For Chinn, the most powerful revelations come through the open hostility between Filin, newly returned after recovering from his injuries, and new Bolshoi chief Urin.
“Through this you begin to understand what a divisive figure Filin was within the Bolshoi and get to glimpse something of the nature of the place and how things got so very bad.
“I think the film shines a light into an extraordinary institution and asks big questions about leadership.
“Urin is a contradictory figure in the film – on the one hand he appears like a classic Soviet style leader, strong and authoritarian.
“On the other he is a moderniser, someone who understands the importance of transparency and good management to an old organisation trying to adapt to the modern world – things the younger and more outwardly ‘modern’ Filin is less capable of.
“I think the conflict between the two men – in its very complexity – in some ways represents the intersection between old and new Russia.”
The talented producer, who lives in Tufnell Park with wife Lara and their three children, adds that the story was well-suited to being made into a documentary.
He explains: “I think at their best, documentaries deliver narrative and emotion as well – if not better – than any other form of filmmaking.
“Although I think it’s a bit of a myth that documentaries have a greater purchase on “truth” than other forms of filmmaking, they can nevertheless offer an emotional immediacy in factual stories that it’s sometimes hard to find in factually-based drama, however well done.”
With Bolshoi Babylon set to open in cinemas tomorrow, Chinn is looking ahead to his many other projects in the pipeline, which include the release of Louis Theroux’s My Scientology Story – which received rave reviews after its premiere at the London Film Festival in October – and a new documentary series for Netflix later in the year.
Bolshoi Babylon (PG) opens in cinemas on Friday.