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A Landmark Documentary Becomes a Ballet

By: Susan Reiter
Date: Apr 19, 2017


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Taking Titicut Follies to the stage


As collaborations go, this one is quite unexpected. The venerable and prolific documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman is joining forces with – wait for it – James Sewell, the contemporary ballet choreographer. Add in Lenny Pickett, a mainstay of the New York music scene who's the longtime bandleader for Saturday Night Live, and the possibilities seem especially wild.

The result of this long-gestating partnership will be unveiled next week, when Sewell's full-evening dance Titicut Follies, inspired by Wiseman's now-legendary film of that title, premieres at NYU's Skirball Center.

The 1967 documentary, in which the filmmaker trained his camera on the inmates and staff of a Massachusetts prison for the criminally insane, launched his career. He had previously been a law professor. "One course I taught was Psychiatry and Law," he says. "I'd had experience visiting prisons and mental hospitals and prisons for the criminally insane. I used to take students on field trips, so they could see where their clients would end up if they didn't represent them properly. One of the places I took them was Bridgewater prison. That's how it all got started."

He's gone on to make over 40 documentaries using his distinctive approach (no narration, no talking heads) and often focusing intently on the workings of an institution. Twice he has turned his attention to dance: in 1995 he made Ballet, about American Ballet Theatre, while 2009's La Danse focused on the Paris Opera Ballet.

But observing through the camera lens is quite different from actually creating a new dance work. With Sewell, whose company is based in Minneapolis, Wiseman is fully immersed.


He's credited as the project's dramaturg, and Sewell says his input has been invaluable: "He's helping me by making choices about what works and doesn't work. If things resonate for him, I know I'm on the right track. And if there's something that feels too didactic, or not right, I'll have to make a shift. He's been my touchstone."

The two men were brought together by NYU's Center for Ballet and the Arts, whose founder and director, Jennifer Homans, got to know Wiseman after reviewing one of his dance documentaries. CBA provides Resident Fellows with the time and opportunity to research and develop projects in ballet and related fields, and Wiseman became one of the inaugural Fellows in 2014.

"I got tired of seeing ballets that had nothing to do with the contemporary world," Wiseman says. "I said to Jennifer I thought a ballet could be made out of Titicut Follies. The goal would be to see if you could transform the movements and gestures – the tics and obsessional behaviors of psychotic people – into the traditional ballet sequences. She thought that was a good idea and gave me the names of some choreographers. I looked at their work, and I liked James' work a lot, so I called him and asked if he was interested. It went from there."

Sewell recalls the surprising invitation: "My first thought was, 'I have absolutely no idea how to do this.' So I called him back and said yes! I'm always looking for things that challenge me, that terrify me. I knew that making this piece would require me to grow into an artist I wasn't yet. I would have to expand and change."

He continues, "Certainly I wasn't able to figure out an effective way to translate every scene in the film. I didn't think that was necessary. What we're trying to do is create something that feels like we've gone through this journey in the way that the movie does – not to re-create the movie, but rather to get some kind of an equivalent, or a reaction to it."

Sewell emphasizes Pickett's contributions as well. The composer was brought into the mix by Wiseman, with whom he had earlier collaborated on Welfare, the Opera. "Lenny was the perfect person for this project," Sewell says. "He has a great dramatic sense. He's been able to adapt the sound so that it feels indigenous to the setting, in a way that's quite fascinating."

At 87, Wiseman could easily be resting on his laurels. Just last November, he received an honorary Oscar, and the Film Forum is currently screening his early films. (Titicut Follies itself will be shown several times, with both Wiseman and Sewell on hand to introduce select presentations.)

Instead of simply reflecting on his remarkable career, however, Wiseman sounds elated to have entered unfamiliar creative territory. "It's been an extremely pleasant experience," he says. "James is very welcoming and forthcoming. We've had interesting discussions, and we've become friends as a consequence of the opportunity to work together on a ballet."


TDF Members: At press time, discount tickets were available for 'Titicut Follies.' Go here to browse our current offers.

Susan Reiter regularly covers dance for TDF Stages.

Top photo, featuring Andrew Lester, by HECCO.

Susan Reiter covers dance for TDF Stages.