Interpreting the written word through dance has become something of a trademark for Washington Ballet Artistic Director Septime Webre. Since 2010, he and his team of collaborators have turned iconic novels like The Great Gatsby and The Sun Also Rises into bright and sumptuous ballets that appeal to both readers and dance aficionados through the company’s “American Experience” initiative.
For his latest literary adaptation, however, Webre moved away from the hyper-realist tales of the Lost Generation to bring one of the U.S.’s first big literary works to the stage: Washington Irving‘s 1820 short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” And while Fox’s current television adaptation of the tale amps up the sex appeal of awkward schoolmaster Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman, Webre’s take focuses on on the beauty of upstate New York thanks to a collaboration between the ballet’s production team and curators from the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
When asked why he chose to bring Sleepy Hollow to the stage, Webre, who wanted to incorporate more fantastical elements into his work, said he sought to “combine this 19th-century whimsy and a really fascinating time in our country’s history.” His lifelong fascination with ghost stories and the unknown—-dramatic elements he says are dangerous and sexy—-clinched his decision, as did the American Art Museum’s collection of Hudson River School paintings, which allowed the production team to imagine what a town like Sleepy Hollow would have looked like when Irving was writing.
Last spring, as Webre and libretto authors William Lilley and Karen Zacarias conceived the visual language of the ballet, they turned to Eleanor Harvey, a senior curator at the American Art Museum, for information about the Hudson River School, a landscape painting movement from the mid-18th century that highlighted the exploration and expansion of the nation in its infancy. Harvey first pointed them towards a more obvious source: John Quidor‘s 1858 painting “The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane” (top).
While Quidor worked in the same area at the same time as the Hudson River School painters, he focused his attention on more historical and literary subjects; his takes on Irving’s works developed from his friendship with the author. This particular painting taps into the fantastical elements of the story that first attracted Webre: the eyes of several creatures peek out from the central tree and a snake-like appendage extends from the trunk. The diagonal division between light and dark on the canvas helped inform the ballet’s lighting design for the clash between Crane and the Horseman.
Additional landscapes from Hudson River School painters served as a point of departure for set and projection designs. John Frederick Kensett‘s “Along the Hudson” captures the area around Sleepy Hollow in late summer, near when the story takes place. James Hamilton‘s “Scene on the Hudson (Rip Van Winkle)” shows a similar area in autumn and includes a detail of another Irving character drinking the draft that will send him to sleep for two decades. To extend Irving’s short story into an evening-length ballet, the dancer playing Crane will tell the tale of Rip Van Winkle to his pupils during the show.
Crane’s piety will be represented in a prologue featuring the witch-hunting Puritan minister Cotton Mather, whose words inspired Crane’s belief in the supernatural. For schoolroom details, designers looked to the American Art Museum’s collection of Shaker furniture and an alphabet chart from around the same time.
Sleepy Hollow‘s not all ghosts and machismo, though: The ballet involves a love story, and Webre got an idea for the beautiful Katrina van Tassel, who toys with the hearts of Crane and Brom Bones Van Brunt, from John Valentine Haidt‘s “Young Moravian Girl.” Not only will the women’s costumes resemble the austere brown and white ensemble worn by the girl in the portrait, but the image will also be enlarged and projected onto the Eisenhower Theater’s stage, immersing the audience in the image and the Hudson Valley circa 1790.
As for the horses in the climactic chase with the Horseman, thank the production team behind the 2007 play War Horse for introducing simplified puppet structures to represent large equines. In this case, Harvey showed Webre Deborah Butterfield’s “Monekana,” a horse-shaped sculpture that looks like it’s made out of driftwood but is actually more than 3,000 pounds of bronze. The onstage version will weigh a fraction of that and be controlled by some of the nearly 50 dancers who will perform the ballet. What Webre won’t reveal until the curtain rises is how he and his team have designed the story’s most iconic image: the horseman who places a jack-o-lantern where his head used to be. To see that bit of stage mystery, audiences will have to watch the dancers in action.
Image courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum