The 16th June 1961 and 17th January 2013 are two indelible dates in the annals of Russian ballet. Two events that left the world gobsmacked — the escape of a Cold War fugitive and an acid attack by a subordinate on his boss — all enhanced in strangeness and sensational interest because they came out of the ballet world, a world largely closed to the rest of us. By a coincidence that’s as informative as it is lucky, two gripping documentary films emerge right now which tell these stories with dramatic effect, but also suggest a cultural link between the defection of the Kirov’s bad boy Rudolf Nureyev and the ghastly assault upon the Bolshoi Ballet artistic director Sergei Filin.
Chaos is implied in both situations, whether the hyper-incompetent Soviet surveillance state that Richard Curson Smith’s Rudolf Nureyev — Dance to Freedom for the BBC elucidates, or the appallingly unruly state of affairs inside the modern Bolshoi itemised in Nick Read and Mark Franchetti’s Bolshoi Babylon for cinema release. But chaos caused largely by a habit of mind not seriously modified by time.
The Bolshoi film follows the return to work of the scarred and part-blinded ballet director Filin, and his inevitable crash to the ground in the ruthless world of Russian powerplay. Attacked on moral grounds during the trial of his attacker, a resentful Bolshoi dancer, Filin emerges as an enigmatic and controversial character, as the documentary attempts to explain the ‘why’ of events, whereas the Nureyev film details the ‘what’ and ‘how’. Why is always going to be difficult with the obscure, emotional, fatalistic Russians.
Bolshoi Babylon opens with a solemn Russian voice asserting that chaos in the Bolshoi is entwined with chaos in the state. This mantra was widely cited in the world’s media after the attack, indicating the apparently comfortable belief that Russia is a special case, that beneath beauty there must always be pain and corruption, and it is pointless to resist.
However, the filmmakers secured their access under a man who doesn’t believe that, the Bolshoi Theatre’s new general director Vladimir Urin, who they introduce on camera from inside a taxi like a troubleshooting Sir John Harvey-Jones, proclaiming his goal of clearing the Augean stables of such fatalism and introducing western-style transparency. For Filin, Urin’s appointment while he was away receiving medical treatment was ominous. Filin had worked under Urin before, and had left on bad terms..
Read and Franchetti (the Sunday Times Moscow specialist) have woven a careful, expert tapestry of actuality and interviews going a long way to explain the conflict between good management practice and the professional narcissism and ambitiousness that it appears have been allowed to fester in the Bolshoi Ballet, with its Kremlin puppetmasters and oligarch sponsors. One sidelined soloist complained how her earnings depended heavily on whether the ballet director cast her to perform or not, while two older ballerinas whom Filin used to partner when he was the Bolshoi’s star male dancer articulate their ambivalence about how their former colleague has changed now he’s their boss.
There are brief but valuable glimpses of the charismatic troublemaker Nikolai Tsiskaridze (looking remarkably sloppy in class), and amazing footage from the Moscow trial of Filin’s assailant, the soloist Pavel Dmitrichenko, whose popularity as the trade union rep for less well-paid dancers is noted.
Regrettably we hear more about Filin’s alleged management shortcomings than about his determination to wrench the Bolshoi Ballet artistically into the present, away from its stranglehold by conservative old guards and politicians, exemplified by a Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev interview. Some glistening Soviet performance footage (shots of Thatcher, Reagan, the Queen, at the Bolshoi Ballet) tellingly illustrates the nostalgia that the Russian majority feel for the simple days when everyone knew their place, and Soviet Russia ruled the world.
In an astonishingly lucky climax the cameras are present at a company meeting where the general director bad-temperedly slaps Filin down like a child in front of taken-aback dancers. Cut to Filin’s dignified admission to the cameras that he knows he should never have taken the Bolshoi Ballet job. His boss, it’s reported, is delighted with the film.
The dramatic reconstruction of Nureyev’s 1961 defection, Rudolf Nureyev — Dance to Freedom, is based on Diane Solway’s excellent 1998 biography, rounding up the surviving views of the superstar’s old mates and witnesses, beefing up the unfamiliar Russian side of the tale.
The dramatised episodes impersonated and danced by an unexceptional Bolshoi Ballet cohort are useful only as narrative signposts — Nureyev’s blistering brilliance remains only in snatches of film and above all in lore. As the Paris ballerina Ghislaine Thesmar says, he was a kamikaze personality, death-defying in his dancing and his rudeness to authority.
The cost of that rudeness was shared by the brave Soviet ballerina Alla Osipenko, a startling, moving witness. On the French side there is an equally mesmerising revelation in the voice of Clara Saint, the rich society girl who was pivotal in the defection — with, as she points out, huge slices of luck.
On the contrary, declared two ex-KGB officers: Nureyev’s defection was deliberately engineered by the Communist party high command in order to discredit KGB chief Shelepin by exposing security bungles. Thus we are back inside the Russian labyrinth, where man’s will to alter circumstances doesn’t exist, and where the most spontaneously human events are moves pre-planned by commie masterminds. That’s the fatal mindset Urin is still contending with at the Bolshoi.