Director Nick Read Breaks Down Being Backstage at the Bolshoi
How did this film come about?
In January 2013, [co-director] Mark Franchetti and I were making a film about a prison in the north of Russia. We had a break in filming and the story [of Sergei Filin?s attack] broke. Mark was asked by the newspaper he writes for, the Sunday Times, to cover the story. He spent a couple of days there and was excited that there was potentially an interesting film there. The question was: Would it make a good feature documentary? It took us a while to answer that.
Did you visit the Bolshoi right away?
We managed to get in for a couple of days soon after the acid attack. The Bolshoi was under siege from the world?s media. That was fascinating, but we couldn?t get under the skin of the story. We had to be very patient because after Pavel Dmitrichenko was arrested, the shutters came down and there was no way they were going to let anyone inside. They were all in shock that one of their own was being accused of this heinous crime.
It wasn?t until seven months later when [general manager] Vladimir Urin was finally appointed after a lot of resignations and fallout from the acid attack that we presented our case. It was just days after Urin had come into the building but he very much wanted to make transparency a key principle of his new regime. We told him we wanted to make a documentary about the Bolshoi?s forthcoming season beginning in September 2013. We explained we?d have to address the acid attack, but we were going to do it responsibly and fairly. I think he respected our ambition, and he was as good as his word.
Did Urin give any stipulations about your access?
He had one stipulation for us, which was to be fair -- I like to think that we would be by nature as journalists and filmmakers anyway. There were no conditions. Remarkably for a documentary of this scale, five months filming across a nine-month season, there was no written agreement between us. This is a highly exceptional testament to Russians? almost pathological dislike of lawyers and legal agreements. On one level, this was a massive advantage; we weren?t bound by any restrictions. Access was completely unfettered and uncensored. But it was nerve-wracking as well because obviously without an agreement, if we rattled someone?s cage or said the wrong thing to the wrong person, we could have been kicked out.
Had you been to the Bolshoi before you began filming?
No I hadn?t.
What was your initial impression?
How vast it is. We got lost many times. The building you see at street level doesn?t give you any real indication of how labyrinthine it is. I kept getting lost even months in.
The first time I saw a performance from backstage, I couldn?t help but be overwrought by the dancer?s physicality, their extraordinary grace and athleticism. Backstage, I felt very privileged to see the dancers with their nervous energy come off stage absolutely exhausted, like an athlete who?s just ran 100 meters.
What was your take on the Bolshoi?s internal culture?
We posed ourselves the question from the beginning: How closely does the Bolshoi mirror Russian society, both political and cultural? There are hierarchies and people like Filin created their own group of loyalists around them, which would mirror Soviet behavior, speaking generally.
You see the corruption inside the building mirrored the corruption outside the building. At times the walls felt very thin. Other times, the walls of the Bolshoi felt very thick because, for instance, we were making the film when the Euromaidan protests in Kiev were kicking off and the disastrous conflict in eastern Ukraine was emerging. Inside the Bolshoi, it was as though it wasn?t happening. There?s one working public television inside the building and it was never tuned to the news. They?re artists.
Certainly, it?s a vast state institution and you never forget that it?s a state institution. The Bolshoi has a line in the state budget, so there?s a lot more oversight and interference, you might say, compared to any other theater.
Has the level of state involvement remained steady over the years?
I think the political interference was far greater prior to Putin coming to power. Putin?s very indifferent toward the Bolshoi. After a seven-year renovation of the building, there was a gala reopening, which was a massive social occasion. Putin chose to go and play ice hockey that night. That?s where it is in his list of priorities.
Did government interest increase after the attack?
Urin made it very clear that he wouldn?t take the job if there was going to be a lot of political interference, so they had to back off and give him a relatively free hand to stabilize the institution. The season we were there, I don?t think there was a tremendous amount of pressure and interference. Keen eyes are always on the building and I?m sure there were private meetings between the Kremlin and the Bolshoi administration -- just to make sure that ship was being turned around.
Please explain the New York Observer quote, which ends the film: "The Bolshoi came and the Bolshoi went, trailing clouds of wild approbation and disbelief. Will Russia ever change?"
We choose not to go into a lot of performance analysis and the critics, but there?s always this tension between tradition and modernizing. Many people feel that the Bolshoi -- especially their classical ballets -- are steeped in the past and they need the move forward, so I think the quote partially came from that. It also came from this sort of deep ambivalence that even in the pursuit of excellence, the Bolshoi is still tarnished by Putin?s Russia, and the corruption and scandal.
What do you hope viewers take away from this film?
I hope viewers take away an insight into the extraordinary dedication and determination of the dancers in their pursuits of excellence as well as the inner workings of one of Russia?s most sacred institutions. I hope they?re surprised by the extraordinary access we received at a time when relations between Russia and the West were at a very, very low point. There?s a small part of me that hopes that people who haven?t seen a ballet before might be persuaded to go to one. I know I?d be among them.