Earlier this spring, I spoke with three of the four-man team responsible for Titicut Follies: The Ballet. These artist shared thoughts on the Frederick Wiseman film that inspired their project – a film that was banned until the late 80s – and the facility that inspired that film – the Bridgewater Institute for the Criminally Insane. The infamous compound was located in Massachusetts and had four sections: a prison for the criminally insane; an institution for alcoholics; an institution for sex offenders; and an institution for “defective delinquents.”
This creative team, which included Wiseman himself, sought to create a ballet that captured the “extraordinary, jarring, funny” qualities they saw in Wiseman’s film and “broadened the scope of balletic subject matter.” Their goal? To come up with an expression, not a literal replication, of the film; an art piece that focused on atmosphere and aesthetics.
Photo by Sara Rubinstein
I had the opportunity to witness the world premiere of their project at Cowles Center on March 31, 2017. The ballet moved in between a talent show setting, vignettes sourced from the film’s material, and scenes lifted directly from other ballets, including La Bayadere and Afternoon of a Faun. When I reflect on this piece overall, the first words that come to mind are “exploitative” and “cartoonish.”
Putting its fascinating history aside, I’ve got a lot of questions–for the creators, dancers, and funders involved in the creation of Titicut Follies: The Ballet–about choreography that purports to distill only the aesthetic qualities of traumatic events, for example, an instance of rape.
Is an announcement that a piece like Titicut Follies contains “mature content” adequate? Aren’t we in trigger warning territory?
When contemporary audiences see highly traumatic events play out before them, how do they benefit? Should they be given an opportunity to respond candidly to what they saw in a supportive, well-facilitated setting? I was expecting a talk-back of some sort; not all of those in the Cowles audience had attended the Filmmaker in Conversation event at the Walker Art Center two days before the ballet premiered.
Do contemporary artists benefit when they are required to simulate highly traumatic events onstage? Are they equipped with the coping skills needed to face the associated artistic and psychological challenges?
Often, company dancers are cornered with a catch-22: breach a contract or perform brutal, disgusting choreography. They are in a vulnerable situation. But, are they also, somehow, complicit? There are whistleblowers in other lines of work. Shouldn’t dancers also speak up?
How does simulated rape broaden the scope of balletic subject matter? What about a dramatized force-feeding? Or the image of a man crouching and cowering, pant-less, his shirt smeared with brown stains? Rather than expanding its scope, this production demonstrated the limitations of ballet. My sense, after seeing this production, is that ballet is ill-equipped to tackle these kinds of topics and stalled at mere simulation.
The lighting and scenic design were strong, providing a clear and captivating backdrop. But why accent them with cliché make-up design – ghostly white faces with darkened circles under dancers’ eyes? How does that serve a work of art that, according to its creators, expresses ideas and feelings from a film subjects who are mentally ill?
Deanna Gooding caught my eye. She’s a strong, earnest mover, whether alone or in a group. But why have her perform a duet depicting an incestuous, pedophilic assault set to a sultry saxophone tune? What was the contrast meant to imply? Many of the physical movements, tableaus, and gestures were disturbing: an assailant inhaled and closed his eyes as he manipulated a dancer depicting an assaulted child into inverted positions, the bottom half of her leotard completely exposed; another dancer kneeled and faced her assailant as he swayed from side to side and tipped his head back. What purpose did these serve, beyond sensationalism?
Did this piece need an apotheosis during which a dancer performs fouetté turns while removing her shirt?
And was there any space or time given to contemporary voices from the marginalized communities depicted in the rehearsal rooms or on the Cowles stage?
Whether or not artists are happy about it or want to acknowledge it, art is made within a human community, a society. Making art in society comes with certain responsibilities to your fellow citizens of the globe. When artists fail to fulfill those responsibilities, they should be held accountable. I am not suggesting that artistic expression should be censored. That move goes against the very spirit of art. Plus, in the United States at least, it would be illegal. What I am suggesting is that artistic expression – especially artistic expression that surrounds traumatic content – should be mindful and thorough.