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Titicut Follies

A pallid, but oddly beautiful, ballet version of a staggeringly hard-to-watch 1967 documentary filmed by a master.

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James Sewell Ballet in a scene from “Titicut Follies” (Photo credit: Ian Douglas)

Joel Benjamin

Joel Benjamin, Critic

There is an insurmountable obstacle at the center of the James Sewell Ballet’s Titicut Follies which had a short season at the NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts.  Based on the infamous documentary by the legendary Frederick Wiseman, the ballet version avoids any true-to-life representations of the disgusting, inhumane and deplorable conditions under which inmates at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution in Bridgewater, Massachusetts,lived. Sewell preferred to stage a suite of divertissements, meant to parallel the movie, that were anything but difficult to watch.  Although this is a well-meant compliment, it also is the reason this Titicut Follies was a total success.

(The title, Titicut Follies refers to a show the inmates staged each year. “Titicut” is an American Indian name for a local river.)

The original film is brazen in its guerilla-style filmmaking, a good deal of which was surreptitiously produced right under the noses of the Institution’s officials.  To anyone who knows or watched the original 1967 film, James Sewell’s choreographic rendition would seem tame, certainly lacking the shocking visions of naked men abused and humiliated by sadistic guards, ridiculously backward psychologists and a nutritional staff intent on starving the patients.  (Images abound of skeletal men wandering aimlessly.)  The film begins with the eponymous follies, the men singing and dancing to a bizarre version of “Strike Up the Band” and showing off their other talents, only to quickly descend into a vision of hell on earth.

Somehow, a cast of beautiful ballet dancers—lithe, healthy and clean—cannot evoke the damaged inhabitants of this prison for the criminally insane, many of whom were misdiagnosed.  Watching Sewell’s “athletes of god” go through their paces, spinning, leaping, partnering and acting, was pleasant and not at all unsettling.  Even the costumes by Steven Rydberg (who also designed the sets that framed narrative projections) were scrupulously made, flowing, if blandly colored, except for the some colorful allusions to other ballets.

James Sewall Ballet in a scene from “Titicut Follies” (Photo credit: Ian Douglas)

Sewell’s ballet is often lovely.  He choreographed eccentric versions of La Bayadère, had Nijinsky’s Faune, from Afternoon of a Faune, partner a dizzy Odette from Swan Lake.  Lenny Pickett’s original music hinted at those famous original scores as well as providing bouncy and bluesy support for Sewell’s 90-minute ballet.  The images simply weren’t dark enough, nor failed to come close to shocking.

Sewell’s choreography is varied and often effectively dramatic, particularly to those not familiar with its source material.  One scene followed another accompanied by Pickett’s score and bits of spoken word such as a shrink speaking to a patient and even sounds of dogs growling (guard dogs?).

It is amazing that Wiseman, who, according to a post-performance Q & A, collaborated closely with Sewell, would have signed off on such a pale, naïve interpretation of his intensely appalling images captured in his documentary.

James Sewell Ballet in a scene from “Titicut Follies” (Photo credit: Ian Douglas)

Just as it is virtually impossible for anyone to reproduce the intense suffering of Holocaust victims on stage or screen, Sewell and his collaborators fought a very good, but uphill battle to finding proper images to communicate the inhumane morass that surrounded the inmates.

His ballet had some dark moments as ballets go, including simulations of forced sex, rough partnering, aggressive behavior, forced marching, mindless robotic gestures and using one of the dancers as a puppet (a sly reference to the Fokine/Stravinsky Petroushka, continuing Sewell’s witty use of famous ballet source material).  Nevertheless, this was a ballet, a beautiful ballet, danced by Sewell’s 11 marvelous company members, all totally at one with his style of physical language in steps from ballet, modern dance, mime and everyday movements.

Michael Murnane’s lighting was instrumental in defining the drama and mood of the ballet.

Titicut Follies (April 28 – 30, 2017)

NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, 566 LaGuardia Place, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-998-4941 or visit http://www.nyuskirball.org

Running time:  90 minutes with no intermission

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Joel Benjamin
About Joel Benjamin (254 Articles)
JOEL BENJAMIN was a child performer on Broadway and danced with leading modern dance and ballet companies. Joel has been attending theater, ballet and opera performances ever since childhood, becoming quite opinionated over the years. He was the founder and artistic director of the American Chamber Ballet and subsequently was massage therapist to the stars before becoming a reviewer and memoirist. He is a member of the Outer Critics Circle.

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