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James Sewell working on ballet with filmmaker Frederick Wiseman

Posted by: Claude Peck under Behind the scenes, Culture, Dance, Minnesota artists, Movies, People Updated: September 3, 2014 - 3:14 PM
James Sewell of Sewell Ballet / Star Tribune photo by Tom Wallace

In what may seem like an odd pairing, James Sewell of the Minneapolis-based Sewell Ballet is working with veteran documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman on a new ballet based on an old Wiseman movie.

Wiseman's 1967 "Titicut Follies" documented the residents and inmates at Bridgewater State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Bridgewater, Mass.

This early Wiseman documentary ignited controversy when state authorities sought to prevent its release, saying it violated inmates' privacy. The legal case rolled through various jurisdictions, but the film was withheld from distribution for years. Wiseman went on to wide fame for his fly-on-the-wall documentaries on a variety of subjects, including high-school life, meat, public housing, boxing and, in two movies, the world of dance.

Fast forward to 2014, when a new Center for Ballet and the Arts is set to open at New York University. Wiseman is among the center's first group of fellows. He announced this week that as part of that fellowship he is planning a ballet based on the film, to be created by choreographer Sewell.

Sewell said Wednesday that he and Wiseman have been talking by phone about the project this summer, and that Wiseman is due in Minneapolis later in September for meetings and in-studio improvisation. Wiseman is a "visionary," Sewell said, "and it extends beyond his medium. We've synthesized how our worlds can connect."

Sewell said the ballet, which may retain the movie's title, is likely to require 10 male dancers, as well as other characters to potray the state hospital's doctors and nurses. Likely to premiere in Minneapolis about two years from now, the ballet will include music and possibly video from the original film, Sewell said.

"When I first saw the film -- so intense, so strange -- I thought, 'how could you make a ballet of this?' But the elements are all there -- humorous, poetic, horrifying, sad," Sewell said.

The movie's title comes from an annual variety show that Bridgewater officials and inmates staged at the hospital. "These violent criminals and mentally ill inmates would put on a show, singing Gershwin with pom-poms in their hands," Sewell said.

While funding and other details remain to be worked out, Sewell said he "could not be happier" about this collaboration, which "dropped in my lap." He hopes to find a way, in dance, to portray "the inner landscape" of the often abused, catatonic or disruptive Bridgewater population.

Wiseman, 84, just won the Golden Lion Career Award at the Venice Film Festival.

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