Deborah Bull

A marvel and a mystery

Simon Morrison may think he’s unlocked it. But it’s impossible really to define what makes a Bolshoi dancer, says Deborah Bull

In 2013, Pavel Dmitrichenko, disgruntled principal dancer of the Bolshoi, exacted a now infamous revenge on the company’s artistic director, Sergey Filin, for overlooking his girlfriend in casting the starring role in that most Russian of ballet classics, Swan Lake. The circumstances surrounding the acid attack, which seemed to combine ballet’s glamour with a murky underworld of intrigue, conspiracy, villains and victims, quickly became a contemporary metaphor for the Bolshoi itself. It’s irresistible as a lens through which to consider this intriguing institution at the heart of Russian politics, culture and life.

The 2015 film Bolshoi Babylon started from this point, and went on to capture the ensuing year, its crew and their cameras given full access to life backstage. This was unprecedented, but particularly astonishing at the time, given that the attack’s sting was still keenly felt across the theatre.

Bolshoi Confidential also takes the incident as its starting point, but makes the case that far from being an ‘awful aberration, the attack had precedents of sorts in the Bolshoi’s rich and complicated past’. Certainly the intensive archive research on which the book is based reveals the Bolshoi’s history to be a catalogue of lurid and vivid episodes, from the (vaguely comedic) incident of the apple thrown at Luisa Weiss by her rival’s fans, to the brutal executions of the Stalinist era. But how-ever devastating its impact on Filin himself, Dmitrichenko’s attack — petty in its genesis and amateurish in its execution — may, in the long run, turn out to play little more than a bit part in the Bolshoi’s history. Presenting Bolshoi Confidential through the prism of the 2013 incident might help to bring it to wider audiences, but the story it tells could easily stand alone.

The book’s neatly crafted introduction is structured like a Tchaikovsky overture, setting out the central theme, then presenting key characters that will feature in the chapters that follow.

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