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HBO Documentary Explores Dark Underbelly Of Russia's Bolshoi Ballet


When acid was thrown in face of the artistic director of the Bolshoi ballet nearly three years ago, it was more than just a brutal attack on a high-profile figure. It was a reflection of Russian society, according to a new documentary called "Bolshoi Babylon," which premieres tonight on HBO. NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: The documentary begins with stunning, close-up images of Bolshoi dancers performing.

As we watch their taut, porcelain bodies and intensely focused expressions, we hear the ominous words of a former member of the Bolshoi's board.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Russian).

BLAIR: He says the Bolshoi has sacred meaning in Russia, and that the art of ballet is closely connected with the Russian character.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Russian).

BLAIR: "The acid attack on the ballet director," he says, "means the country is sick, not just the theater."

"Bolshoi Babylon" is the work of filmmakers Mark Franchetti and Nicholas Read. Franchetti has been a Moscow-based journalist for 18 years. He won a British Press Award for his coverage of the 2002 Moscow theater siege in which 130 hostages were killed. He's covered Russian politics and the war in Ukraine.

MARK FRANCHETTI: That acid attack tells you much more than just infighting gone sour within the company. It very much reflects the way Putin's Russia works, that you have different clans that are sort of fighting over big spoils and influence.

BLAIR: The characters in this story are straight out of an international thriller. There's Sergey Filin, victim of the attack. Through footage of the handsome Filin performing, we see why he was one of the Bolshoi's popular soloists before becoming the company's artistic director. We see the horrific images of the burns on his face, which made headlines around the world.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Well, the doctors say it's too early to predict whether Sergey Filin will fully manage to regain his vision.

BLAIR: There's lead dancer Pavel Dmitrichenko who's now serving time for ordering the attack. We learn that both of his parents were dancers and that he aspired to one day lead the company. We hear from principal dancers and the Bolshoi's ballet master. But the film also zooms out and explores the significance of this company to the Soviet Union and now Russia.

President Nixon attends a performance. So does Fidel Castro. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev tells the filmmakers the Bolshoi is the government's secret weapon. Co-director Nicholas Read.

NICHOLAS READ: Dancers were - you know, during the Cold War were used as a sort of instrument of trying to achieve some - you know, a new dialogue with the West. So they've been used as this sort of tool of soft power.

BLAIR: And that's partly why the dancers were surprised the Bolshoi gave the filmmakers access to performances, rehearsals and meetings for an entire season. They visited dancer Anastasia Miskova at her home.

ANASTASIA MISKOVA: (Speaking Russian).

BLAIR: Speaking from NPR's Moscow bureau, Miskova told me the Bolshoi rarely opens its doors.

MISKOVA: (Through interpreter) We don't do this in Russia. In Russia, it's - everybody - people just trying to put, like, the masks. They're trying to have the mask on their face, not - they're trying not to show the real face.

BLAIR: If there's a hero in this story, it would be Vladimir Urin, the man brought in to straighten out the beleaguered company. As general director of the Bolshoi, he's a Kremlin appointee. It was his decision to allow the filmmakers in. Mark Franchetti says it was a rare gesture for the head of a Russian institution as prestigious and politically connected as the Bolshoi, especially at a time when Russia's relations with the West are at an all-time low.

FRANCHETTI: We were filming when the whole Ukraine crisis broke out and when relations between especially Russia and America, but overall with the West, plunged to their worst since the Cold War.

BLAIR: In many ways, "Bolshoi Babylon" shows the conflicts and contradictions within this major ballet company and within Russia itself. The film might not get at the whole truth of what happened, but it gets us much closer to what life is like inside this historic institution where ambition, jealousies and power aren't just happening on stage. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Elizabeth Blair
Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.