You can't help but marvel at the access that the British film-makers behind Bolshoi Babylon were able to gain to such a sacred Russian institution as the Bolshoi. They were making their film in the immediate aftermath of the shocking January 2013 acid attack which nearly blinded Sergei Filin, the Bolshoi Ballet's artistic director. This was a period of utter turmoil at the theatre – a time of scandal and recrimination.
The film captures the tensions within the Bolshoi as Filin's assailant Pavel V Dmitrichenko (a dancer at the Bolshoi) is arrested, a new general director, Vladimir Urin, is appointed, and Filin himself returns to work. The Bolshoi stands for Russia in miniature in this film. The in-fighting reflect what appears to be going on in the country as a whole.
At the same time, the film-makers portray backstage life at the Bolshoi in revealing and intimate detail.
The scenes of the ballet performances themselves, filmed from the wings, are magical. The dancers make very personable and frank interviewees, talking openly about the insecurity of their working lives – their rivalries, bitterness and thwarted ambition.
One of the "ballet masters," the veteran Boris Akimov, in his 50th year at the Bolshoi, sums it up best when he points out: "The world of theatre is cruel. It looks beautiful from the outside. When you see the stage, there is beautiful movement and love and romance – but underneath everything is boiling."
The film may not fill you with admiration for Filin himself, who is a charismatic but very divisive figure, but it certainly induces a sense of awe about the work of the company itself.