Photograph by Sara Rubinstein
Titicut Follies performance
“How do you choreograph the ugliest aspects of human nature with a beautiful technique?” That was the central question James Sewell faced when filmmaker Frederick Wiseman first approached him about adapting Titicut Follies, Wiseman’s 1967 documentary about the harsh reality of the patients at the State Prison for the Criminally Insane at Bridgewater, Massachusetts, into a ballet. For both men, the answer was finding the beauty in brutality.
“The movements of psychotic people are interesting,” Wiseman says flatly. The boundary-pushing director of more than 40 documentaries including In Jackson Heights and Missile has been a longtime patron of ballet but was growing weary of typical troupes performing romances and fantasies. He also had a hunch that ballet could be pliable enough to tell a story as dark and difficult as Bridgewater’s. A few years ago, Wiseman crossed paths with Sewell when both were passing through New York University on fellowships. Wiseman says he liked Sewell’s work, showed him Titicut Follies—which turns 50 this year—and asked if he thought it could be translated into the language of ballet. Sewell said yes.
“Two and a half years ago when I said yes to doing this, I had no idea how I was going to pull it off,” Sewell admits. “But to me that’s the greatest gift as an artist: to be handed a project that you are going to have to grow into to pull it off. It’s terrifying and it’s thrilling.”
With the support of NYU’s Skirball Center for the Performing Arts and using the dancers of the James Sewell Ballet, Sewell (choreographer), Wiseman (dramaturge), and Saturday Night Live musical director Lenny Pickett (composer) dismantled the 1967 film and reassembled it onstage. In this new work, Wiseman notes, “we’re trying to deal with the ideas and abstractions of the film, but we’re not trying to recreate the film.” He goes on to add that Titicut Follies: The Ballet should be consumed completely independent of Titicut Follies the documentary, and be “a fictional creation that stands on its own.”
To do that, Sewell scrutinized how scenes from the film—like the inmates who appeared in the follies and Wiseman’s grander play on the notion of follies, patients being strip-searched and force-fed, for example—would translate into ballet. “What are some of the balletic equivalencies? What are things in the ballet cannon that can be adapted to the subject to give it a grounding within that vernacular?” Sewell questioned while choreographing vignette after vignette. “So the strip-search scene became the entrance into La Bayadère*.”
The performance is a layered sequence of tough scenes performed by blank-faced men in white institutional clothes with sepia-tone lighting that mirrors the starkness of the film and a musical score that provokes everything from humor to horror. The result is a parallel work that is at once both far from and close to the original.
“The movie spans a huge emotional range, and I can’t create that [exact] same emotional range [in dance],” laments Sewell, before adding what he can do for a group of people so medicated and listless they can often seem like zombies on screen. “Dance can address what’s alive inside these guys.”
Adds Wiseman, “I think it worked. But you’ll see for yourself.”
*La Bayadère (The Temple Dancer) is an influential 19th century ballet set in India about love, loss, and vengeance.
Titicut Follies: The Ballet. March 31–April 2, The Cowles Center for Dance & the Performing Arts, thecowlescenter.org
Filmmakers in Conversation, featuring a screening of Titicut Follies, followed by a dialogue with Frederick Wiseman and James Sewell. March 29, Walker Art Center, walkerart.org