Fifty years on, the disturbing 'Titicut Follies' movie becomes a ballet

"Titicut Follies: The Ballet" is based on a 1967 documentary.
"Titicut Follies: The Ballet" is based on the classic 1967 documentary about a hospital for the criminally insane in Massachusetts.
Sara Rubinstein | James Sewell B

This weekend in Minneapolis, the James Sewell Ballet presents the world premiere of a piece based on a movie about a Massachusetts hospital for the criminally insane.

Frederick Wiseman's "Titicut Follies" rocked the world of documentary filmmaking 50 years ago. Now, as choreographer James Sewell takes his company through a rehearsal of its latest ballet, it's clear the ballet will also be something very different.

Sewell and his company have been developing their "Titicut Follies" piece for two years. And they have been doing it with the help of Fred Wiseman himself.

Wiseman, 87, says Sewell has taken on a major challenge.

Jadyn Reddy and Austin Lam improvise a scene exploring the violence.
James Sewell Ballet company members Jadyn Reddy and Austin Lam improvise a scene exploring the violence underlying "Titicut Follies."
Euan Kerr | MPR News

"I am really impressed with the way he can translate some of these ideas into classical dance steps," he said.

This story begins in 1966, when Wiseman began filming inside Bridgewater Hospital in Massachusetts. His documentary, "Titicut Follies," is challenging to watch even now, a half-century after it was first shown.

The unnarrated black-and-white film opens as inmates perform in a variety show. Dressed in marching band uniforms but dulled by anti-psychotic drugs, they sing tunelessly. It's unsettling, but it's just the start.

Over the next 84 minutes Wiseman shows a bleak life at the hospital. There are strip searches, forced feedings and what he describes as incompetent medical care.

"The most horrible things you can say about doctors, psychiatrists, was true of them," he said. "Yet at the same time many of the prisoners had committed some of the worst acts imaginable."

There were murderers, child rapists, even cannibals.

While no one raised any objections during the weeks Wiseman filmed at the hospital, "Titicut Follies" was essentially banned in the United States when it came out in 1967. The argument was that it invaded patient privacy, although there was clearly official embarrassment at the hospital conditions shown in the film. It was only 22 years later, in 1989, that Wiseman was able to get the courts to lift the restrictions.

"Titicut Follies" launched Wiseman's documentary career, and he has made a string of films since, including two about ballet companies. He's a dance fan, but it bothered him that most ballets are about relationships, with little else of the real world.

Fred Wiseman, left, sits next to James Sewell as they watch rehearsal.
Filmmaker Fred Wiseman, left, sits next to James Sewell as they watch a rehearsal of "Titicut Follies: The Ballet."
Euan Kerr | MPR News

A few years ago, the Center for Ballet and the Arts at NYU offered Wiseman a fellowship to develop a ballet based on one of his films. He immediately turned to "Titicut."

"One of the things that interested me was to see whether out of the sometimes distorted and repetitive and obsessive movements of psychotic people, a classical ballet could be made, " Wiseman said.

He talked to many choreographers before choosing Sewell. Having never seen the film, Sewell sat down to watch.

"And my first reaction was, 'I have absolutely no idea how to turn this into a ballet,'" he said. "So of course I said yes."

That launched two years of development: an exercise in using classical ballet to examine mental health, crime and punishment. Wiseman regularly traveled to Minneapolis to watch rehearsals and give advice.

There are many challenges: getting the balance between portraying the prison's terrible conditions while acknowledging the inmates' horrible crimes. Also, Wiseman maintained a mantra: This should not be a re-creation of his film, but a work in its own right.

Don't be literal, he said. This is a ballet.

Dancer Andrew Lester tries on a mask used during the force-feeding scene.
Dancer Andrew Lester tries on a mask used during the force-feeding scene. Like the original Titicut Follies film, the ballet is disturbing in its depictions of the inmates at the Bridgewater Hospital.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

The Sewell Ballet dancers are classically trained and very experienced. By improvising on classical pieces, Sewell developed scenes depicting life in the mental hospital. Composer Lenny Pickett, best known as the leader of the Saturday Night Live Band, wrote the music.

It's disturbing, but it's recognizably a ballet. It will play at the Cowles Center in Minneapolis Friday through Sunday, and then move to New York at the end of April. Wiseman and Sewell will appear at the Walker Art Center Wednesday evening for a screening of the film itself.

Wiseman said he's learned a great deal from the process. "I think it's coming together very well, but what do you expect me to say?" he asked with a laugh.

The "Titicut Follies" ballet will live on. Sewell said his company will continue to perform the piece as part of its repertoire.

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