Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman in Ballet: 'Sleepy Hollow' at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

In February, I went to Washington D.C. to watch The Washington Ballet's 'Sleepy Hollow' premiere edition at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. I have been a Board Advisor for The Washington Ballet for the last two years and was curious what new thing can ballet do to an iconic literary piece.

'Sleepy Hollow', the ballet version, turned out to be very innovative and creative with several strong playful and exciting scenes. My favorite scenes were watching the actors fall in celebration in the first and second acts. The first act took place at the school, and the second act highlighted a particular scene where the directors designed imaginative horses that illuminated green light. This was accented by a thin shade of filming which passed through as the horses carried the main actors in slow motion against the backdrop of gigantic zombie-looking horses riding in the background.

'The Sleepy Hollow' is based on a short story, 'The Legend of Sleepy Hollow', written by Washington Irving in 1820. Featuring a ghostly tale of a decapitated horse, it was the first excellent American ghost story to be written.


Septime Webre (center) with Olivia Lipnick (left) and another cast in the production

Septime Webre, Artistic Director at The Washington Ballet, transformed the 'Legend of Sleepy Hollow' from a mere ghostly tale into 'Sleepy Hollow', a poetic ballet about guilt. Webre made a 'grown-up backstory' to complement the tale that was originally narrow in order to create a more logical explanation of how Ichabod Crane was haunted by the Headless Horseman. This addition of the retribution sequence makes the 'Sleepy Hollow' ballet a unique production.

The 'Sleepy Hollow' is the third ballet production to be featured by The Washington Ballet under its American Experience Project. " 'The Legend of Sleepy Hollow' is a story that is very efficient and fascinating with fodder that enhances its theatricality," says Septime Webre, who has been in the ballet for 15 years. Through the American Experience Project, The Washington Ballet endeavors to translate American Literature into ballet performances. Previously, The Washington Ballet produced 'The Hemingway: The Sun Also Rises' and 'The Great Gatsby'.


'Sleepy Hollow' premiered at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

The Sleepy Hollow production took more than a year to complete and combined the efforts of various artists. Webre worked with Liz Vandal, a costume designer, and Matthew Pierce, a New York composer, to create a highly compelling and entertaining ballet. Both Matthew Pierce and Liz Vandal partnered in 2012 to produce 'Alice in Wonderland', which comes back to The Kennedy Center of performing arts this May.

Vandal, who has previously worked for Cirque du Soleil, designed all the ensembles for 'Sleepy Hollow' including the costume for the Headless Horseman that features a life-sized horse and a flying cloak. She is famous for her ability to mix body movement with costume. Each costume is cut from stretchy, breathable fabric and can be adjusted to fit the bodies of various dancers.


Backstage with Olivia Lipnick

'The Sleepy Hollow' combines dance and puppetry. With the assistance of Puppeteer Eric J. Van, performers make use of multimedia tools to create videos of shadow puppets through projection design. The ballet features a team of puppeteers who animate the gigantic zombie-like horses and dance characters including a town lunatic who frightens other ballet performers. The skeletal puppet horses are inspired by the extensive modern equine Deborah Butterfield sculptures. Each puppet has 3 parachute backpacks that dancers fasten themselves to, with the top of the horse having a 'saddle' that one actor rides. The dancers had to practice varying movements to ensure all parts are safe, comfortable and working.

As the artistic director, Septime Webre had to share his vision with both the puppeteer and dancers to enable dancers to understand their moves. "Each role needs incredible physical and mental commitment. I encouraged the dancers to read the "Sleepy Hollow" story as well as watch the movie to get a sense of its emotion and atmosphere," says Septime Webre. 'The Sleepy Hollow' is part of Septime Webre's legacy in a season where the company is also producing the 'Swan Lake' for the first time. 'Swan Lake' will feature Brooklyn Mack and Misty Copeland as lead dancers.


Bruce Lipnick watched her daughter Olivia perform in this production.

I thoroughly enjoyed this production. Imagine if we can do so at the comfort of our own homes, here in the United States, or wherever we are in Europe, Asia or Africa. Bruce Lipnick, a Patron of the Arts and father of one of the cast in this production, is offering a solution for arts enthusiasts. His startup company called Ver-on-Demand is collecting videos of ballet, musical concerts, opera and live performances, and will be offering them online by 2015 on a subscription basis. People worldwide will be able to enjoy them, like this ballet production, in the comfort of their own homes.