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Main | FIVE DAYS ON LESVOS: THE RICHARD WYLLIE INTERVIEW »
Tuesday
May092017

RUSSIAN FEST DIRECTOR RECALLS BOLSHOI FILM PREMIERE

The Moscow premiere of director Valery Todorovsky’s latest film, The Bolshoi, quickly became the hottest event ticket on the 2017 Russian film calendar. On April 17, 1400 of Moscow’s most esteemed dignitaries sat enthralled as the film unfurled upon the grandest of stages, that of the magnificent Bolshoi Theatre itself. For only the second time in the venue’s 237 year history, cinema took centre stage, albeit to tell the fairy-tale story of a ballerina’s rise to stardom; Todorovsky’s shoot had been the first allowed to film within the walls of The Bolshoi Theatre. In the audience that night was Nicholas Maksymow, the Festival Director of the Russian Resurrection Film Festival, Australia's prestigious annual showcase of Russian film culture. SCREEN-SPACE welcomes Nicholas as guest columnist, as he recalls that Moscow night when modern cinema met centuries-old tradition…

Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre houses one of the world’s oldest and most acclaimed ballet and opera companies. Designed by architect Joseph Bové, it’s opening in 1825 gained world-wide recognition and continues to do so to the present day. The Bolshoi is the latest offering from renowned Russian director Valery Todorovsky (The Lover, My Stepbrother Frankenstein, Hipsters) and provides not only a rare glimpse inside the majestic venue, but also examines the pure artistry of classical ballet. (Pictured, above: Maksymow, left, with director Valery Todorovsky at The Bolshoi Theatre)

Bolshoi is a trademarked brand and the producers needed to pre-screen the film for approval by the Theatre's board to use the title. As Todorovsky himself has said, the name Bolshoi (from the Russian for ‘grand’) not only represents classical ballet, it is synonymous with Russian classical ballet itself. (Pictured, right; lead actress Magarita Simonova in The Bolshoi

Not since the 1925 premiere of Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin has The Bolshoi Theatre served as a grand movie palace. Attending the premiere of Todorovsky’s latest were the Russian Minister of Culture, Vladimir Medinsky, the Deputy Prime Minister, Olga Golodets, and such Russian A-listers as actor/director Fyodr Bondarchuk and Chelsea Football Club owner, Roman Abramovich.

Never in history has the actual stage been used for a film; the crew was given six days to film on the historical dance floor, an impressive achievement given the intricate and grand art form that is classical ballet. Seeing the dancers perform on the renowned stage with such grace and watching it in an actual ballet theatre made it very easy to forget one was watching a movie and not live ballet!

Todorovsky’s narrative is a simple story of ballet dancers striving to be selected for the Bolshoi Theatre Company that evolves into a captivating coming-of-age journey. Our protagonist is Julia Olshanskaya, played as a youngster by Katya Mainulina, a reserve for Russia’s Olympic Team in Rhythmic Gymnastics, before maturing into Margarita Simonova, a dancer with Warsaw’s Grand Theatre. The similarity between the two girls was striking in terms of their physical traits, appearance and behaviour.

Julia is a provincial girl from a poor family who dances on the streets of her mining town. Her big break comes when former ballet dancer Pototsky (Aleksandr Domogarov) sees potential in the starlet and arranges an audition at The Moscow State Academy of Choreography. Julia’s new life is one of exhilarating highs and depressing lows, as she strives to overcome the difficulties placed in front of her by teachers with their own personal struggles. Life and career choices present a challenge to our ballerina, with her only ally in this maze being her mentor Beletskaya (played wonderfully by an old master of stage and screen, Alisa Frendlich), who instils an inspiring willingness in her student to succeed but also prove she has talent.

The film is unique in how it deviates from the increasingly common formula of a force-fed story that feels predictable. Yes, we do have the perfected scenes of rich kids versus poor kids, kids with real talent versus kids with mothers who think they can buy their way to fame. If such elements seem familiar, Todorovsky’s storytelling is not. These scenes are intertwined with a narrative of the past and the present, which ultimately helps viewers engage with the characters on screen.

The exploration of complex themes and issues, such as the struggle of dementia, is subtle and powerful.  These scenes are humorous, yet touchingly sad; anyone who has a family member suffering from this cruel condition will recognize the authenticity of these scenes. Frendlich captures here character’s suffering brilliantly; her portrayal could have been taken from a real-life aged care facility and edited straight into the film. (Pictured, left; The Bolshoi director Valery Todorovsky)

Aside from a core cast of professional actors, Todorovsky chose to assemble 70 professional ballet dancers and children studying ballet to play the principal characters in the film, a decision that surprisingly pays off. Todorovsky described the process of finding non-actors as the most difficult casting audition of his life.  "It was necessary to first find professional ballet dancers who could play dramatic roles,” he told the premiere audience. “Then we had to find those who would play the characters in childhood. We searched everywhere, visited every city in which there is a ballet school and theatre, so as to ensure the best got to the audition and to achieve a perfect match.” 

Moving and entertaining, The Bolshoi is a majestic treasure that succeeds on the big screen. In its portrayal of young lives chasing the dreams a ballet academy offers, it exhibits an empathy that is lacking in many films of today. It allows the audience to feel a part of academy life, just as it does for the dancers in the film. Valery Todorovsky has a knack for separating the significant moments in the lives of his characters when growth, obstacles and talent are all juxtaposed.  We saw this in Vice (2007), a fictional expose of youth caught in the underworld of drugs and crime, and more recently in the lively and colourful musical, Hipsters (2008). (Pictured, right; a scene from The Bolshoi)

No more fitting score than the music of renowned Russian composer Tchaikovsky could have been chosen to complement the dance action. The director beautifully sums up the film’s score as being reflective of the different phases of the lives of his characters.“Childhood is the Nutcracker, youth is Sleeping Beauty and adulthood, Swan Lake,” says Valery Todorovsky. “Tchaikovsky was not chosen by me, he was chosen by the Russian Ballet.”

Nicholas Maksymow
Festival Director, RUSSIAN RESURRECTION FILM FESTIVAL.

The Bolshoi will be released theatrically in Russia on 11 May 2017 and will premiere in Australia and New Zealand as part of the Russian Resurrection Film Festival from 26 October 2017.

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