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Russia's Crown Jewel and The Tainted Chalice of the Bolshoi

By: Jeffery Steel / Photographs Courtesy of The Bolshoi Ballet

  • Russia's Crown Jewel and The Tainted Chalice of the Bolshoi

Discover the Scandal and Intrigue of the Bolshoi Ballet

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For centuries, the Bolshoi Ballet has been Russia's Crown Jewel of culture and heritage, an institution reflecting the country's unsurpassed artistic tradition as surely as it mirrored its unbridled ambitions for global dominance. But the cherished ballet saw its seamy underbelly exposed on a frigid evening in 2013, when a thug enlisted by the company's lead soloist flung sulfuric acid at the face of the Bolshoi's artistic director, leaving him disfigured. What was revealed in the event's aftermath would forever color Russian and world perception of the Bolshoi Ballet. Moreover, the attack's impact would reverberate far beyond the cloistered world of dance, divulging in sensational detail grim parallels between the Bolshoi and the labyrinth of sex-fueled political and financial corruption that has long defined Russian society.

  • Russia's Crown Jewel and The Tainted Chalice of the Bolshoi

The Bolshoi's Former Artistic Director Sergei Filin

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The incident that snatched worldwide headlines in 2013 had been a long time coming. Some saw the Bolshoi as symbolic of Russia's infamous dark side, a netherworld of intrigue, insularity and unexplained disappearances of those challenging the dominant political regime. The attack on artistic director Sergei Filin is chronicled in the celebrated Nick Read and Mark Franchetti documentary “Bolshoi Babylon,” which depicts a toxic stew of personality clashes and internecine discord over the Bolshoi's direction under the former ballet dancer. No revelation proved more provocative than the charge by a one-time Bolshoi ballerina that the entire corps de ballet is viewed by the power elite as a “giant brothel,” one in which dancers as young as 13 are pimped to Russian philanthropists underwriting the company.

  • Russia's Crown Jewel and The Tainted Chalice of the Bolshoi

The Spectacle and Sacrifice of Prima Ballerina, Anastasia Meskova

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The prostituting of principal and soloist ballerinas to the Russian hierarchy is but one of the unseemly facts of life for Bolshoi dancers. Ballerinas dream early on of becoming vaunted members of the Bolshoi Ballet, only to learn that once they do, the excitement and glamor of their role is conferred along with equally heavy doses of excruciating pressure and backstage drama. One who has lived that life is Anastasia Meskova, whose euphoria at being named a Bolshoi ballerina turned to horror with the attack upon her friend and mentor, Sergei Filin. When interviewed about the documentary, Meskova described the churning internal strife as the "tainted chalice of the Bolshoi," a metaphorical illness from which recovery may or may not be achievable.

  • Russia's Crown Jewel and The Tainted Chalice of the Bolshoi

Bolshoi Supervisor Vladimir Urin, Viewing the Audence

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The Bolshoi has been described as a “battleground of wills,” and nothing better illustrates the frayed relationship between Sergei Filin and immediate supervisor Vladimir Urin, the general director imported by the organization to restore order following the attack. Prior to Urin’s hiring, the two endured an affiliation that extended deep into the past and was never cordial. At the Bolshoi, they referred to one another with barely-concealed repugnance. In one well-chronicled clash, Filin stood to speak at a meeting involving several Kremlin administrators. He was immediately admonished by Urin to take his seat and shut up. Predictably, Filin found himself unceremoniously fired at season's end. But Urin himself lacked security and expressed doubts as to how long he’d survive as general director.

  • Russia's Crown Jewel and The Tainted Chalice of the Bolshoi

The Bolshoi...a Labyrinth of Sexually Fueled Political Corruption

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It was perhaps inevitable that the skulduggery gnawing away at the Bolshoi from within would eventually become the subject of a page-turning expose. The 2016 W.W. Norton & Co. release Bolshoi Confidential: Secrets of the Russian Ballet by Simon Morrison casts an unflinching eye upon the scandal-ridden history of the company. Tarnished by incidents of murder, gang rape, arson and bombings, a double suicide in its ranks and the tortured lives of stardom-bound ballerinas. Benefiting from unprecedented access to both state-owned and private archives, Morrison's compelling and anecdote-rich account delivers convincing proof the looming presence of its scabrous overseer; the Kremlin impacts the Bolshoi in ways extending far beyond mere physical proximity.

If you’ve wished you'd been a fly on the wall during some of the Bolshoi’s more notorious contretemps, be assured a bonanza of bitchiness, backbiting and bitterness await you in the aforementioned British film “Bolshoi Babylon,” available through HBO on Demand. Documentarians Read and Franchetti never claims to have unearthed a smoking gun. All the same, they leave audiences with little doubt the corruption oozing into every strata of Russian society has also irreparably tarnished the reputation of the corps de ballet. For as enthralling as have been the Bolshoi's performances on stage, the dark drama that’s taken place behind the curtain in recent years has likely proven even more entertaining.

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