In Jan. 2013, Sergei Filin, artistic director of Russia's celebrated Bolshoi Ballet, was attacked by an unknown assailant who threw acid in his face. The Bolshoi's ballet company had long been part of the nation's identity, but this mysterious and vicious attack thrust it into the limelight for all the wrong reasons, pulling back the curtain on the scandals and infighting plaguing the iconic institution.
When one of their own – male soloist Pavel Dmitrichenko – was arrested and charged with the crime, it revealed a company defined by personality clashes, power struggles and professional jealousy, something Bolshoi insiders had known for decades.
Featuring backstage footage, breathtaking performances and illuminating interviews with Bolshoi dancers and power players, Bolshoi Babylon examines a storied cultural institution struggling to survive tempestuous politics inside and outside theater walls.
"The Bolshoi has such a sacred meaning for Russia, because the art of ballet is closely connected with the Russian national character," said chairman of the board Alexander Budberg. "[The attack] means the country is sick, not just the theater." Once seen as "the country's best asset," visited by delegates and politicians ranging from Fidel Castro to Ronald Reagan, the Bolshoi has had its share of internal strife, which reached its apex in the Jan. 2013 attack which left Filin with third-degree burns and partially blinded him. "It's hard to believe this could happen in the world of art," said first soloist Anastasia Meskova, in tears just after the attack. "It's a shocking tragedy for all of us. It's incomprehensible."
Meanwhile, the media and police began investigating the scandal as stories of backstabbing and intrigue made international headlines. After male soloist Pavel Dmitrichenko was arrested, police claimed he had convinced a neighbor to target Filin in retaliation for passing over his girlfriend for the lead role in Swan Lake. Though Dmitrichenko denied ordering the attack, the arrest revealed a fault line in the divided company. In court, some dancers testified for Filin and others on behalf of Dmitrichenko, yet in the evening, "These two opposing sides danced together in the same performances," recalls Boris Akimov, a former Bolshoi artistic director.
After a tumultuous period of public outcry and bloodletting, during which several dancers resigned or were fired, the Kremlin appointed a new director, Vladimir Urin of the Moscow Stanislavsky Theater, to restore order. The start of the 2013 season finds Filin returning to the Bolshoi to resume his duties, but his well-known stormy history with Urin spells new potential conflict.
By the end of the season, however, many are thriving under the Bolshoi's regime change, touting a new fairness in casting and a push for transparency. With their status and esprit de corps undermined by scandal, many in the company are desperate to leave behind controversy and focus on the grueling regimen of rehearsal and performance that usually defines the life of a dancer. Away from political intrigue and backstabbing, the extraordinary talent and drive of the artists keep the prestige of Russia's most famous theatre intact. Dedicated to a life of obsession and discipline backstage, they continue to chase the dream of perfection onstage. "Here the stage is everything," explains prima ballerina Maria Alexandrova, "That's our religion, our God. This place unites us all."
Bolshoi Babylon is directed by Nick Read; producer and co-director, Mark Franchetti; executive producers, Simon Chinn and Maxim Pozdorovkin. For HBO: senior producer, Sara Bernstein; executive producer, Sheila Nevins.