British director Nick Read was in Moscow working on a documentary film about a notorious Russian prison in January 2013 when a story broke: The artistic leader of the Bolshoi Ballet was ambushed near his home, the attacker throwing acid in the man's face.
The shocking incident made front-page news around the world and induced Read — along with producer and co-director Mark Franchetti — to point their cameras at the historic ballet company in full crisis.
Read and Franchetti's "Bolshoi Babylon," which arrives in theaters Friday and will be shown on HBO on Dec. 21, recounts details of the attack on Sergei Filin, his recovery and eventual return to the ballet, as well as the arrest and conviction of Bolshoi dancer Pavel Dmitrichenko.
But more broadly, the movie uses the scandal to dig into the Bolshoi's culture and to cast it as a symbol for all of Russian society. On the one side, there is the seething underbelly of theater jealousies, dueling cliques and dark politics. On the other is the exquisite beauty that takes place onstage, in ballets such as "La Bayadère," with its hypnotic Kingdom of the Shades scene that opens the movie.
These twin tracts of darkness and light, the sordid and the sublime, quite effectively submerge the viewer into a closed world. Gorgeously shot performances from "Swan Lake," the war horse "Spartacus" and others show the company looking far better than it usually does during visits here. Dance fans will recognize David Hallberg talking backstage in one scene with Filin; the American Ballet Theatre star was lured by the Bolshoi luster to be a guest artist for several seasons.
"Bolshoi Babylon" has no narration, but it's not needed. Interviews with key players in the dispute — Filin, theater director Vladimir Urin, principal ballerinas Maria Allash and Maria Alexandrova, and former artistic director Boris Akimov — draw you into what can be kindly described as a suffocating environment.
The most remarkable scene, though, comes at the end when Urin and Filin confront each other at a company meeting. I won't tell you who stands down. Just know that boot camp might come in handy if one wants to make it at the Bolshoi.
MPAA rating: None.
Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes.