‘Sleepy Hollow’ at The Washington Ballet

‘Sleepy Hollow’ ballet premieres at the Kennedy Center:  D.C. Ballet shakes up expectations

Yes, even classical ballerinas let their hair down once in a while. They relish tossing off those stiff upper body movements and taping their feet to a syncopated beat rather than a traditional waltz. Mainly, though, ballet dancers (the guys and the gals) enjoy shaking up the expectations of serious balletomanes, especially during this winter of our discontent.

For honoring traditions while insisting on the freedom to grow and develop artistically, no classical troupe can top the Washington Ballet – kicking off the 2015 season at The Kennedy Center now through Sunday with a new ballet version of Washington Irving’s American Gothic tale, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

In a word, the full-length Sleepy Hollow ballet is a “tour-de-force.”

Artistic Director Septime Webre has a knack for chasing away those winter doldrums, quicker than you can say, “Wake up Ichabod Crane from that ghastly dream.” Catch this work during its too brief run, and we promise that your heart will be beating faster, your feet keeping time to the fiddles, and your spirit soaring high above the rafters of The Eisenhower Theater.

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There hasn’t been so much excitement in the air at the Washington Ballet since his 2011 adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, followed by Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Sleepy Hollow is the third installment of Webre’s series of ballets adapted from works of American literature.

Let’s hope the director continues to seek out other historic biographers…perhaps an adventure with Jack London or John Steinbeck or Louisa May Alcott – would love to see the Washington star ballerinas in Little Women! More importantly, let’s consider just how valuable Septime Webre has become in our sometimes too parochial dance community. He jumps in where others fear to tread.

Moments before last night’s world premiere of Sleepy Hollow, Webre bounced onto the Eisenhower Theater stage as he has done so many times before. Dressed all in black (was that an omen?), Washington Ballet’s Artistic Director thanked supporters, then warned the audience, “Expect to be frightened. There are ghosts, witches, and, of course, a headless horseman.”

As in Irving’s 1820 short story, the central ballet character is the easily spooked schoolteacher Ichabod Crane (danced by Jared Nelson, the go-to-guy when you need solid dramatic interpretation). Add the witch hunter Cotton Mather, three washerwomen who are accused of being witches – those aforementioned ballerinas with the long, flowing hair – and you have an extended plot that allows for some expansive dancing for the company’s fine corps de ballet.

Maki Onuki kept us riveted with her leaps and twitches, before and after the Salem burnings, then as ghost who haunts our hero. Together with the dazzling Kateryna Derechyna and Aurora Dickie, the trio reminded this writer of the Willies in Giselle and the zombies in Michael Jackson’s Thriller. These were the moments where we all had to catch our breath.

The ballet began and ended as a dash through early American history – good and bad. Lots of drama, adventure, laughter, childish pranks, and crazy antics kept both young and old delighted throughout the two-act show.

The story centers on a love triangle involving pretty school girl, Katrina Van Tassel, (Xiomara Reyes alternating with Maki Onuki), Ichabod Crane (Jared Nelson or Corey Landolt), and Boston’s macho character Brom Bones (last night a sensational performance by Jonathan Jordan but look forward to Miguel Anaya over the weekend).

Guest artist Xiomara Reyes possesses that enviable quality of fine musical timing and the ability to quiet things down during the hectic scenes. I first saw this petite ballerina perform in Cuba, more recently with American Ballet Theatre where she will retire later this year. Let’s hope the Washington Ballet finds a permanent place for her in the future – perhaps a tie-in to Septime Webre’s Cuban roots.

All the dancers were topnotch, especially Morgann Rose and Luis R. Torres, now listed as Studio Company and Trainee Ballet Master. Stage Combat Consultant Brad Waller deserves praise for no injuries with those swinging swords, and the Witch Image Carmen Salta by Design Army and Dean Alexander earns my praise. Despite some minimal glitches in the technical delivery, the ballet ran smoothly and mostly on time.

Composer Matthew Pierce created an original score that featured Gaelic lyrics, performed by a choir standing behind the Washington Ballet orchestra. Artists who collaborated with Webre in the past contributed to the production with horse puppets a la War Horse, realistic depictions of the 19th century Hudson River School paintings, and phenomenal lighting and projection designs with a special nod to costume maker Liz Vandal – from Revolutionary War attire to feathers and head (and headless) pieces.

I can’t close this review without a mention of star dancer Brooklyn Mack who recently racked up awards at international ballet competitions. His portrayal of Major Andre/Headless Horseman was phenomenal. Multiple turns, daring leaps, more pirouettes than you could count, he brought down the house too many times to count. I kept wondering if his solo was specifically choreographed or the director allowed him show off those steps that earned his accolades.

Running Time:  Two hours with a 15-minute intermission.

The Washington Ballet performs Sleepy Hollow at The Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater-2700 F Street, in Washington, DC through Sunday, Feb. 22, 2015. For tickets, call the box office at 202-467-4600, or 800-444-1324, or purchase them online