A Conversation with the Creators of "Titicut Follies: the Ballet"

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Frederick Wiseman’s film Titicut Follies (1967)–shot in the Bridgewater Institute for the Criminally Insane– inspired a new, full-length dance work choreographed by James Sewell to an original score composed by Lenny Pickett. The project was made possible after Wiseman received a Fellowship from The Center for Ballet and the Arts at New York University, an organization that aims to “encourage new work that strengthens the relevance of ballet in contemporary life.”

Photo courtesy of James Sewell Ballet.

Photo courtesy of James Sewell Ballet.

{DIYdancer}, Alejandra Iannone: What is the history of the film that inspired this ballet?

Frederick Wiseman: I am a product of the pre-film school generation. I got my start in film in my 30s; after completing law school and beginning a career in the legal profession, I realized that I didn’t like law, law school, or teaching law. I thought, ‘I’d better do something I like,’ and began to work in film, first assisting with others’ productions and eventually focusing on projects of my own.

Frederick Wiseman. Photo credit John Ewing.

Frederick Wiseman. Photo credit John Ewing.

I had been a regular visitor to Bridgewater while teaching law, bringing my students on field trips there (in addition to regular state prisons, parole boards, medical examiners, and probation hearings) to expose them to the actual practice of the criminal justice system. The institution had four sections:  a prison for the criminally insane; an institution for alcoholics; an institution for sex offenders; and an institution for “defective delinquents.” Prison inmates ranged from individuals with physical and psychological conditions who had committed no crime but were nonetheless transferred to Bridgewater because the staff knew how to work with those conditions (in most cases, this was actually false); others who were accused of crimes but deemed unfit for trial; still others who were convicted of crimes that seem to have no legal grounding (like a man who painted a donkey to look like zebra as a way to sell more ice cream, was collected and convicted of vagrancy, and sentenced to life in Bridgewater); and those that were convicted of other crimes like rape, murder, and harm to children. My film mostly documents the environment in the prison section, but also includes vignettes that pulled imagery and sound from all four sections of the institution. My intention was to make a movie. I don’t much like categories, I don’t think it’s my job to characterize. I just try to make the best movies I can.

Titicut Follies, 1967.

Titicut Follies, 1967.

AI: The creation of Titicut Follies: The Ballet began in 2014, with the support of The Center for Ballet and the Arts at NYU. What were the initial stages of the project like?

FW: Four of my other films are about dance. I’m a ballet groupie–I particularly enjoy Balanchine–and I think ballet is one of the most beautiful of the art forms. I haven’t seen as much so-called modern dance…I don’t know as much about that…but I am also a great admirer of Batsheva Company.

I’ve gotten tired of seeing dances about romantic relationships. Why doesn’t ballet, or at least what I have seen, saw, touch on other subjects?  Not that romantic relationships aren’t interesting, but there are other things going on. Can the net be enlarged? I thought that one way to broaden the scope of balletic subject matter might be to incorporate content that is an extreme other…the movements, obsessional behavior, and ticks of the inmates in Titicut Follies.  I wondered, can you incorporate movement like this and make a dance still recognizable as ballet?

I was connected to Minneapolis-based choreographer James Sewell, the artistic director of James Sewell Ballet. We talked, I went to Minneapolis. we got along, and James was interested. I knew Lenny from past collaborations. We were talking and I mentioned the project. He told me he would love to do the music. I think he is a great musician and James liked his music too. And then, there were three. Me, the kibbutzer (my formal title is dramaturg). James, the choreographer. And Lenny, the musician.

James Sewell. Photo courtesy of James Sewell Ballet.

James Sewell. Photo courtesy of James Sewell Ballet.

James Sewell: I got a call out of the blue and thought, ‘Wow, ok.’ I hadn’t seen the movie, so I wasn’t sure.  When I watched it, I thought, ‘This is extraordinary, jarring, funny. I have no idea how to make a ballet out of this.’ So, I said yes.  Artists need to stretch further in our process, do things that propel us forward.

Lenny Pickett: I am very familiar with Fred’s work and have collaborated with him in the past. Fred’s films take a time accumulation, then don’t progress. They’re like time capsules…they express, define moments in time.

AI:  How would you describe the process for this project?

JS: Our project development was intermittent until last November. I’ve never worked this way before and it was exactly perfect. Maybe I’ll try choreographing this way going forward. We worked together in the dance studio a lot. And, we worked together at the starting point too, determining which of the film’s scenes could be conceived of as dance.

Fred is more abstract in his approach, enigmatic to a certain degree. He’d sometimes say, ‘No, no, that’s too literal.’ Sometimes those suggestions were incorporated into the final product, but not always. When collaborating, things that you like get left on cutting floor. Detachment is important. This process differed from other collaborative projects I’ve choreographed because of how much I honor the source material. I wanted to work in deference to Fred’s vision and his power, having been there in Bridgewater, to build richness, feed my brain with images. I relied on Fred as my touchstone.

LP: This is the first time I’ve composed music for a ballet. I’ve composed for modern dance before. Its language is different that the language of ballet.

The way James uses the metrical formation of music is different from other dancers and choreographers I’ve collaborated with. I don’t know how much of that is ballet and how much of that is his idiosyncrasy. I worked pretty independently, with some exceptions.  Using Minkus as inspiration for the strip search scene came from James’ idea of using ballet repertoire. I listened to Afternoon of a Faun and The Dying Swan, which he also referenced. And a few things I composed several times…there was one duet that James changed. I adjusted that section four times. There’s been some back and forth of course…suggestions from Fred and James about content,  specific material from the film that they requested. And when Fred and James were deliberating over what elements of the film would be represented in the ballet, I had ideas about what would work musically.  In this project, I made the score working scene by scene. I watched the film many times, then transferred the audio from a scene into Logic. Using elements of the ambiance that I could make musical sense of, I would extrapolate. The ballet score isn’t a literal transcription of the film audio; it incorporates elements, like tempo, pacing, instrumentation… whatever felt relevant, felt like it would transfer over to dance.  I used some spoken material from film and layered it is as a rhythmic element.

AI:  Has anyone raised ethical concerns about the film or the ballet?

FW: I wanted to have people react to Titicut Follies as a film and react to the subject matter (i.e, conditions at Bridgewater, questions about the obligations of citizen and state to provide psychiatric medical services to those considered criminally insane). I hoped the film might educate people that were interested in the subject matter. I had no grand expectations for change. It was a rough road to production. Bridgewater’s then-superintendent, who was many of the inmates’ guardian, knew me from my previous visits with students and approved of my film concept. We petitioned for permission to create the film and our request was rejected more than one, without explanation, until a year and a half later when a phone call with the then-lieutenant governor of Massachusetts changed our luck.

You don’t parachute into Bridgewater in the middle of night and sneak away at dawn. I had the superintendent’s permission. And, I cannot speak for the residents, but I thought I had their permission. Many of them were competent to sign releases. I was always accompanied by a guard. The tape recorder, microphone, and video camera were always visible. No one had an objection. Legal action against the film was nonetheless taken by the lieutenant governor who had approved its creation. His political career was threatened by the film. He was responsible for the conditions it showed. The film was banned until the late 80s, when a judge ruled that it was protected under the First Amendment. No inmates or families ever called a lawsuit.

There is no need to consider ethical concerns in this ballet. It is a fiction.  We aren’t recreating scenes from the film. We tried to make dance expressions of ideas and feelings from film sequences, not literal representations. And no living person is identifiable. There’s only one person whose first name is used ad I think he is now dead.
Titicut Follies rehearsal. Photo courtesy of James Sewell Ballet.

Titicut Follies rehearsal. Photo courtesy of James Sewell Ballet.

JS: This isn’t a ballet version of a movie. It’s a reaction to the film, something that resonates with it. Take the strip search scene in the film, as they were going down the line checking the inmates’ pockets. I thought of the entrance of the Shades in La Bayadere. So we reimagined that. Arabesque, take off an article of clothing…even a waltz with the guards. Sometimes, the choreography does mimic a scene from the film. There’s a nose-picking scene; I’ve worked that directly into the choreography. It can come off as making fun. But, I can’t control that.  I am not painting a case, not trying to manipulate.
LP: This ballet is an expression, not a replication, of the film. It’s not terribly literal. The ballet, like the film, isn’t meant to elicit sympathy or explain the inmates’ lives. It’s an art piece. It focuses on atmosphere, aesthetics. No one has raised ethical questions about the ballet. But, the film languished for years. It’s seen its fair share of controversy and that’s not going to go away. We might get push-back.
AI:  Did you work with experts in the medical or correctional fields during the ballet’s creative process?
JS: No, but I have personal experience teaching body-mind integration classes in the Red Wing, MN prison system and to Twin Cities adults living in supportive housing. I also consulted with friends in the health care industry who have seen many things. I would ask, ‘Does this feel right?’
LP: We had Fred. He was at Bridgewater a lot, knew the administration, and knew the back stories of the people being filmed. My own observation is that we come up with diagnoses for convenience. Life stories and conditions are more germane. In the film, those stories are complicated. They are stories of immigrants, criminals, movement disorders, and misunderstood medical conditions.  But, addressing social concerns is not the project we are involved in. We are making an art piece with a large concern for aesthetics. We didn’t go into this to stir up controversy. We’ve been thinking about the project for a very long time, carefully considering its assembly. We wanted to make something beautiful. But, of course, we aren’t taking Peter and the Wolf and making a ballet here. Titicut Follies cannot be completely divorced from the social realities it reflects.

Titicut Follies makes its Minneapolis premiere on March 31st, 2017. Click here for tickets. 

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  • […] Earlier this spring, I spoke with three of the four-man team responsible for Titicut Follies: The B…These artist shared thoughts on the Frederick Wiseman film that inspired their project – a film that was banned until the late 80s – and the facility that inspired that film – the Bridgewater Institute for the Criminally Insane. The infamous compound was located in Massachusetts and had four sections: a prison for the criminally insane; an institution for alcoholics; an institution for sex offenders; and an institution for “defective delinquents.” […]

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