Turning ‘a Nightmare of Ghoulish Obscenities’ Into a Ballet

The ballet — which is to have its premiere this weekend in Minneapolis, where Mr. Sewell’s company, James Sewell Ballet, is based — had an unusual genesis. Mr. Wiseman, 87, said he had grown fascinated by dance and movement while making documentaries about American Ballet Theater, the Paris Opera Ballet and a boxing gym. But he said he found the subjects of most ballets less than compelling.

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Watch ‘Titicut Follies: The Ballet’

An excerpt from James Sewell’s ballet


By JAMES SEWELL BALLET on Publish Date March 30, 2017.


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“I got sick and tired of seeing ballets about relationships, or mythological forests 10 centuries ago,” said Mr. Wiseman, who recently won an honorary Oscar for his half-century of filmmaking. (Film Forum in New York presents a Wiseman retrospective April 14-27.) “Of the ballets I saw, very few of them were about the contemporary world. So I thought why not take an extreme subject — like psychotics in a prison for the criminally insane — and see if something resembling a classical ballet could be made out of their behavior, their movements, their tics, convulsions and obsessions.”

He shared his idea with Jennifer Homans, the dance critic and historian who in 2014 founded the Center for Ballet and the Arts at New York University; the center serves as a sort of think tank to dream up new directions for ballet, foster academic and artistic work, and connect dance to other fields. She invited Mr. Wiseman to be in the first class of visiting fellows, and put him in touch with Mr. Sewell — whose work has grappled with other dark subjects, including Abu Ghraib, the prison in Iraq where Americans tortured detainees.

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