Some ideas are so daring that it’s best to simply go with them.
Just ask James Sewell. During the fall of 2014 he received a surprise invitation from Jennifer Homans, founder and director of the Center for Ballet and the Arts at New York University. The assignment? To choreograph a ballet inspired by Frederick Wiseman’s startling documentary “Titicut Follies.” Released in 1967, the film exposed abusive conditions at a state prison for the criminally insane in Bridgewater, Mass.
A longtime ballet fan who has made four movies about the dance form, Wiseman first approached Homans about helping him find a choreographer to adapt “Titicut Follies.”
“I got tired of seeing ballets about relationships,” explained Wiseman during a February rehearsal with James Sewell Ballet in Minneapolis. “There is a lot more going on in the world.”
After Homans shared a video of Sewell’s work, the 87-year-old director knew he’d found a kindred artistic spirit. They started talking and discovered that their working styles meshed. “James is amazingly open,” offered Wiseman. And then he added, with a touch of self-deprecation: “I’m just the kibitzer.”
Sewell, 55, initially had no clue how to approach the challenge, but felt compelled to give it a try. Along with Wiseman, he eventually landed upon the goal of capturing the inmates’ unusual physical movements through ballet. He also hoped to tell their stories in a non-exploitive manner. Some had committed heinous crimes, so there were victims to consider. But others had zero convictions to their names.
“We’re using the art form of ballet, which is based in being beautiful, to portray the greatest ugliness of humanity,” explained Sewell. “This piece will be pushing buttons all over the place. Some people will be offended. I can’t control that. All we can do is be true to the subject.”
“Titicut Follies, the Ballet” premieres Friday at the Cowles Center in Minneapolis and moves to NYU’s Skirball Center for the Performing Arts on April 28.
Watching the unwatchable
For Sewell, “there are moments in the film when you need to look away, and there are moments in the ballet where you have to look away.” For example, both iterations feature a certain inmate who is mercilessly taunted by guards. Well-known Twin Cities dancer and choreographer Myron Johnson will portray the bullied man for the stage.
There’s even a little humor — of the darkest sort. “There are a lot of sequences in the movie I think are funny,” said Wiseman, “not at the expense of the inmates but rather the middle-class professionals. Their quality of thought is so ridiculous.” Both film and ballet feature a doctor administering a forced feeding who absent-mindedly flicks his cigarette ash into the inmate’s food funnel.
Then again, the ballet relies more on capturing emotions stirred up by the movie rather than re-creating specific scenes.
“I have no interest in literally reproducing the movie,” said Wiseman, whom Sewell considers both dramaturge and co-choreographer on the production. “The issue is whether the ideas or feelings can be transferred.”
There’s a nightmarish duet between a pedophile and his daughter that uses audio from a real therapy session from the film. There are dancers moving with frantic urgency, followed by moments of eerie calm — especially when a patient is prepped for another forced feeding. Even Steven Rydberg’s scenery and costumes — which include startling blank-faced masks — capture the spirit of the gritty institutional setting and grainy monochrome footage.
Composer/saxophonist Lenny Pickett picked up on Wiseman’s goal of capturing the film’s message rather than its mirror image. The former member of Tower of Power and current musical director of NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” said by phone from New York that he went for an “expressionistic” approach in creating the ballet’s score. He used instrumentation from the film (primarily horns) to capture the project’s surreal, off-kilter mood.
Historic banned film
The film’s title refers to the facility’s annual talent show, with songs and dance routines performed by the inmates. The movie includes footage from these bizarre performances by the blank-faced or bewildered inmates (just one of many ways the institution thrust them into awkward or demeaning situations).
Wiseman, a lawyer, spent nearly a month filming at Bridgewater, where he often brought his law students from Boston University to observe a complex aspect of the justice system.
Although Wiseman secured all the necessary permissions while shooting, the state of Massachusetts ultimately went to court to block the film’s release, citing patient privacy. Just as likely, Wiseman argued at the time, was that the state hoped to prevent outcry over inhumane treatment by the facility’s guards, social workers and psychiatrists.
In 1968, a judge ordered all copies of the film destroyed. Wiseman appealed that decision to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court and, as a result, only medical, legal and social worker professionals or their students could legally view the film for more than two decades. “Titicut Follies” became the first film banned in the United States for reasons other than obscenity or national security. It was finally released publicly after yet another court decision in 1991.
Despite being banned for 22 years, the film inspired reforms in Massachusetts and beyond. It helped officials recognize that people with mental illnesses should never be warehoused.
Today, “Titicut Follies” is significant for its legal legacy as well as its fly-on-the-wall documentary style. The cinematic achievement is one reason Wiseman received a 2016 honorary Oscar for his distinguished career. And it partly explains why Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival will honor Wiseman with special screenings next month.
The late New York Times critic Vincent Canby, who saw “Titicut Follies” in ’67, called it “calm, cool and ultimately horrifying.” Star Tribune critic Colin Covert, who saw it many years later, noted that Wiseman’s approach went beyond conventional journalism to show the details of a real-life systemic breakdown.
Adapting the film’s troubling message has been a challenge for every artist involved in the new ballet. But Sewell, for one, was prompted to think about his stagecraft in entirely new ways. “I tended to be a literalist,” he confessed. “But I’ve been pushed to be more metaphorical.”
He paused and gestured affectionately toward Wiseman, whom he now considers a close friend. “This guy won’t let me do it any other way.”
Caroline Palmer is a Twin Cities dance critic.