Issue 59 (2018)

Valerii Todorovskii: The Bolshoi (Bol’shoi, 2017)

reviewed by Tim Harte© 2018

bolshoiValerii Todorovskii’s The Bolshoi begins with a long shot of a large modern-day ballet studio, in which a group of dancers are just wrapping up their rehearsal. Entering on the left is a lone female figure who silently goes about her pre-dance routine, with only the subdued sounds of the hall audible as split-leg stretching ensues. In his opening shots, Todorovskii lingers on the young woman’s reflection in the studio’s large mirror that shows her flexible body so elegantly spread out on the wooden floor. Highlighting the impressive pliability of the dancer’s body, the filmmaker and his cameraman, Sergei Mikhalchuk, seem to revel in the very basics of ballet. The warm-up routine, meanwhile, continues as both Todorovskii and the dancer move to the practice barre, where Mikhalchuk’s tracking camera glides toward its subject and takes in the elegance of even the most straightforward of ballet exercises. A subsequent close-up will hint at slight psychological distress on the face of the dancer, but Todorovskii’s own opening routine proceeds apace as he moves effortlessly back to the past with a dissolve showing young girls practicing at a similar barre, followed by smooth tracking shots of what appear to be these same dancers practicing as young adults. It is an opening that, like the stretching and practice routine of the film’s female protagonist (Margarita Simonova), is not particularly showy, yet it exudes an authenticity, grace, and beauty well suited to the film’s behind-the-scenes look at the Russian ballet.

bolshoiAs is evident in the opening and subsequent scenes of The Bolshoi, the central aesthetic conceit of the film, its tour en l’air if you will, comes with Todorovskii’s use of professional dancers in many of the film’s central roles. Evoking Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1948 classic The Red Shoes, which likewise featured ballet dancers in lead roles, The Bolshoi aims for accuracy of a purely artistic, kinesthetic sort. Whereas many a film devoted to ballet, for instance Darren Aronovsky’s recent The Black Swan (2010), relies on lead actors untrained in dance, Todorovskii has made authentic dance an underlying principle of The Bolshoi by giving the lead role of Iuliia Ol’shanskaia to Simonova, a Latvian-born dancer now dancing professionally in Warsaw, while the role of Karina, Iuliia’s sometimes friend and sometimes rival, falls to Anna Isaeva, a graduate of the Bolshoi Ballet Academy (the Moscow State Academy of Choreography, or MGAKh, as it is also known). Toward the end of the film, moreover, the French dancer Nicolas Le Riche takes a successful turn as an aging French dancer nearing the end of his career. Todorovskii, in fact, has sacrificed very little dramatic rigor by casting these able-bodied dancers, none of whom had previously appeared on screen, in such prominent roles, while much is gained by infusing the film with genuine dance—and genuine pliability—that continually impresses as the action shifts effortlessly from drama to dance and from dance to drama. 

Also contributing to the conceptual rigor of The Bolshoi is the fact that Todorovskii shot a good portion of the film on site in Moscow at the actual Bolshoi Theater (the production team was given access to the Bolshoi and its premises for a fortnight). By filming on location at the Bolshoi and by casting performers so adept at dancing, Todorovskii has imparted to The Bolshoi an earnest appreciation for ballet and Russia’s revered balletic traditions. While not as rigorous in execution as Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark (Russkii kovcheg, 2001) and its cinematic exploration of the Hermitage Museum and Winter Palace, The Bolshoi follows Sokurov’s lead by taking a Russian cultural institution and celebrating it in a creative, on-site fashion intended to measure up as best it possibly can to the artistic standards of its subject matter.

bolshoiJumping back and forth between various time periods, The Bolshoi shows a younger Iuliia (Ekaterina Samuilina) auditioning for a spot at the Bolshoi’s academy, having been taken under the wing by Vladimir Pototskii (Aleksandr Domogarov), a former star of the Bolshoi who has succumbed to alcoholism. Despite his drinking, Pototskii is alert enough to spot a diamond in the rough when he encounters the wayward Iuliia, a delinquent from a poor family barely able to make ends meet in the provincial mining town of Shakhtinsk. Shepherded through the Bolshoi academy by the strict pedagogue and former star Galina Mikhailovna Beletskaia, played delightfully by Alisa Freindlikh as a grand dame of sorts in the ballet world, Iuliia faces a series of challenges that potentially thwart her success. From not comprehending the French terms used at the academy to being falsely accused of stealing a pair of earrings belonging to the increasingly forgetful Beletskaia, Iuliia must persevere in the cutthroat world of Russian ballet. As various critics have noted, The Bolshoi offers a modern variation on the Cinderella tale, for the impoverished Iuliia will ultimately get her big chance to appear on the hallowed stage of the Bolshoi. 

Much of the narrative intrigue and chronological layering in The Bolshoi revolves around the friendly but fierce rivalry between Iuliia and Karina. The young Karina (Anastasiia Plotnikova) will help the neophyte Iuliia get her French footwork down while as somewhat older students they compete with friendly, alcohol-infused gusto when it comes to carrying out a dizzying number of fouettés, but the plot takes a darker turn when Karina’s over-involved mother (Irina Savitskova) offers Iuliia a generous sum of money if she will relinquish to Karina the title role of Aurora in an academy performance of Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty. Iuliia initially rejects the bribe, but a trip home to Shakhtinsk convinces her to do otherwise—a decision that will have a lasting impact on the careers of both Iuliia and Karina, and on the denouement of The Bolshoi, when Iuliia, with help from Karina and the aging Frenchman, is given the chance to leap from corps de ballet to prima ballerina at a performance of Swan Lake. As in any good fairytale, the Cinderella-esque Iuliia will soar. 

bolshoiAction of a more metaphorical sort comes in the somewhat contrived mention of an audacious leap once made from one Moscow rooftop to another by a much younger Beletskaia. Her students at the academy ponder whether such a leap was physically possible and in fact occurred. Iuliia, gathering with her classmates on the rooftop where this leap allegedly took place and also somewhat distraught that a young male academy student (played by the dancer Andrei Sorokin) prefers Karina to her, comes close to attempting the dangerous jump herself, but she stops at the last minute. A certain suicidal impulse appears to be at play here. Iuliia, not surprisingly, will attempt the jump again, thus lending weight to the impression that this daring act signifies an important leap of faith in one’s abilities. Whether Todorovskii himself succeeds in making his own artistic leap across rooftops remains to be seen, however, given the inherent complexities and challenges of capturing the world of ballet on screen. 

bolshoiTodorovskii’s recent work in the television medium, in particular his production of the series The Thaw (Ottepel’, 2013) and his direction of over half of this popular series’ episodes, appears in certain negative respects to inform some of the artistic choices he makes in The Bolshoi, as the transitions from one episodic subplot to another or from flashback to the present day and back again come across as better suited to the televised serial format than the big screen, feature-length format. And whereas the lighthearted musical interludes of Todorovskii’s Hipsters (Stiliagi, 2008) afforded the filmmaker some leeway when it came to a loose narrative structure and spontaneous artistic irreverence, the formal elegance of the Bolshoi Ballet and its hallowed traditions make certain plot twists awkward and ungraceful by comparison. Nevertheless, the filmmaker’s appreciation for the ballet ultimately shines through in The Bolshoi. Like The Thaw and Hipsters, The Bolshoi exudes a certain nostalgia for a Soviet past in which the arts carried so much weight and significance in Russian society. The action of The Bolshoi may transpire in the present and near-present, but the Russian ballet’s storied traditions loom over so much of the film’s imagery and events.

Todorovskii’s film, however, runs the risk of being overshadowed by all the well-publicized scandals that have plagued Russia’s most famous ballet in recent years. Be it the acid splashed in the face of the Bolshoi’s artistic director Sergei Filin or, more recently, the house arrest of artistic director Kirill Serebrennikov in anticipation of his new, homo-erotically charged ballet Nureyev, the Bolshoi Ballet has not lacked for drama. While The Bolshoi hints at some of this recent intrigue and the political meddling in this most famous of Russian institutions (at one point Beletskaia pays a visit to the Kremlin to ensure that her promising student Iuliia be given the role of Aurora), the darker side of dancing casts a long shadow over the relatively benign plot of the film. Hence, it is a sanitized depiction of the Russian ballet that emerges, albeit an appealing one, which—in fairytale fashion—allows viewers to set aside all the scandal. Like any good ballet, the film both entertains and impresses, especially through the dancing of its leading actors and Freindlikh’s memorable performance. Following Todorovskii’s own lead, we can revel in the all the balletic tradition and artistry engagingly brought to screen.

Tim Harte
Bryn Mawr College

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Works Cited

Zintsov, Oleg; Anna Galaida; Petr Pospelov. 2017. “Fil’m Valeriia Todorovskogo ‘Bol’shoi’ ne izbezhal baletnoi fal’shi.” Vedomosti 10 May.

Sulcas, Roslyn. 2017. “‘Nureyev’ Opens at the Bolshoi After Delay and Much Speculation.” The New York Times 10 December.


The Bolshoi, Russia 2017
Color, 132 min.
Director: Valerii Todorovskii
Script: Anastasiia Pal’chikova
Cinematography: Sergei Mikhalchuk
Production Design: Vladimir Gudilin
Music: Anna Drubich, Pavel Karmanov
Cast: Margarita Simonova, Anna Isaeva, Alisa Freindlikh, Valentina Telichkina, Ekaterina Samuilina, Aleksandr Domogarov, Nicolas Le Riche
Producers: Valerii Todorovskii, Anton Zlatopol’skii, Maksim Koroptsov
Production: Marmot-film, Telekanal Rossiia, Valerii Todorovskii Production Company

Valerii Todorovskii: The Bolshoi (Bol’shoi, 2017)

reviewed by Tim Harte© 2018

Updated: 2018