by Susan Yung
A Stark Documentary Transformed into Dance
James Sewell Ballet
Skirball Center for the Performing Arts | April 28 – 30, 2017
Generating new movement ideas is difficult for choreographers, particularly when creating full-length dances. It’s so challenging that most of the big ballet companies continue to rely on narrative staples from centuries ago. Enter the Center for Ballet Arts’ Jennifer Homans. Homans connected film documentarian Frederick Wiseman with choreographer James Sewell; the collaboration united the artists’ distinct fields in a novel well of inspiration. Wiseman’s harrowing 1967 documentary, Titicut Follies, became grist for a new ballet performed by Sewell’s company. It takes cues and a basic framework from the black and white film, shot at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution for the Criminally Insane. Some dialogue from Wiseman’s film has been extracted and woven into the jaunty, whimsical, and brooding score by Lenny Pickett.
The real-life correctional institution, which is still in operation as Bridgewater State Hospital, actually organized an annual musical revue in the early 20th century called “Titicut Follies,” depictions of which bookend the ballet. A uniformed guard acts as a kind of emcee. (One could compare his role to the absolute authority of a ballet master or teacher, the dancers would-be inmates.) The performers are dressed in filmy beige tunics and flowing pants designed by Steven Rydberg; the women disguise their hair under brown beanies or wigs. The cast has a uniform androgyny. The movement is essentially ballet-based; développés and port de bras are interwoven with the ticks and affectations of various inmates, such as scratching, rapid walking, or scrubbing the floor. At one point, all eight inmates sink to the floor, limp. The guard, an attention-seeking ham, takes the limelight and tries different styles to elicit more applause—tap, hip-hop, a series of fouettés.
A strip search scene is, against the odds, an elegant interpretation of the “Kingdom of the Shades” scene from La Bayadère, in which the entire corps enters one by one in a snaking chain of arabesques and willowy back arches. In Follies, the dancers perform the basic repeated phrase in a circle, as the guards remove tops and pants from passing inmates’ extended legs and arms. It’s a mesmerizing and inventive blending of ballet tradition and the stark act of strip searching. Another cue from ballet history appears in a birthday party scene, when the male inmate celebrant, in red toe shoes, takes party hats from each of the four hostesses—akin to Aurora receiving flowers in the “Rose Adagio” from The Sleeping Beauty. Still another historical quote evokes Nijinsky’s Faun, obsessed with a passing swan.
Some scenes are outright bleak: an enactment of a father raping a daughter, the subduing of a man wrapped in a padded mat having a psychotic episode. In another horrifying yet inventive section, a man wears restraining cuffs on both arms and legs, essentially becoming a puppet. Four staffers pull him every which way. They place a mask on his face attached with a hose; some liquid is forced into him this way. Is it a narcotic, or perhaps some sort of execution? While historic psychiatric treatment is a tough subject matter to watch, and there’s no telling how realistic the interpretation is, such grueling procedures are certainly a source for some creative movement. In another section, a man—head eerily hidden by a beige full-head mask to match the leotards covering his body—strides powerfully across the stage before clashing with others, mock-fighting them, leaving three scattered, inert bodies. The primitivism of the latter section brought to mind Paul Taylor’s 3 Epitaphs, in which the dancers’ faces are hidden, their assertive muscularity carrying the dance. In fact, Taylor has taken as subject matter a number of difficult, even sordid topics. Titicut Follies feels akin to his darker oeuvre, manifested in dance dramas such as Big Bertha and From Sea to Shining Sea.
In the final scene, the “Titicut Follies” sign reappears, having been absent since the opening scene. In place of the sign, the setting had been conjured episodically by Rydberg’s elegant projections of institutional walls, doors, and windows, supplemented by scrims and strategic spots of color (with highly effective lighting by Michael Murnane). A pair of vaudevillians with canes, top hats, and sparkly vests does an entertaining shuffle sequence before attempting to choke one another, which turns into a playful round of limbo. Death is never far away, even in play.
Pickett’s music is played on plinky piano, sax, xylophone, and other quirky instruments. It’s a bit odd sounding, sometimes accompanying a vaudevillian or Carnivalesque mood. (The sections that incorporate spoken lines evoke the cadence and tone of some of Steve Reich’s topical projects, like The Cave.) The music for the final section, depicting the death of an inmate, evokes a New Orleans second line, with its simultaneous celebratory and macabre notes. In the final tableau, a woman lies atop a dancer’s horizontal back, perpendicular to the tall priest, to form a cross. It’s another instance of infusing simple shapes with loaded meaning.
With its undercurrent of mental illness, and the stark (if filtered) realities of how the institution deals with it, Titicut Follies probably will not become a staple for conventional balletomanes. On the other hand, in their romanticized forms, the themes of madness and tragedy are prominent in ballet: one of ballet’s beloved heroines, Giselle, goes mad in front of our eyes. In another, Manon gets deported as a prostitute, losing her life of opulence and dying in a swamp (albeit finding true love beforehand). In Romeo and Juliet, she feigns death to avoid an arranged marriage, and in the end many people die. Mental desperation to the point of tragedy can be found throughout the ballet canon—framed in the context of unrequited love and not, usually, a matter unto itself. In any case, the team behind Titicut Follies should be commended for taking a bold approach in crafting a fresh ballet, whether or not it finds its way to a broader audience.
Susan Yung is a New York-based culture writer.