“When I realized I could handle a ballet about erectile dysfunction, I knew I could handle anything,” Septime Webre says.
The artistic director of the Washington Ballet hasn’t started choreographing Viagra commercials. He’s referring to his 2013 adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises.” On Wednesday, he debuts “Sleepy Hollow,” a full-length ballet based on Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” — “easy in comparison,” he says. It’s the third installment in his series of ballets adapted from works of American literature.
As in Irving’s 1820 short story, the central character is the easily spooked schoolteacher Ichabod Crane, who pursues the lovely Katrina Van Tassel while being terrorized by a headless horseman that may or may not be Van Tassel’s beau in disguise. To expand on the tale, Webre took a minor detail — that Crane’s favorite book is a history of witchcraft by 17th-century Puritan preacher Cotton Mather — and used it to create a prologue that introduces the major themes.
“Cotton Mather was the original witch hunter, and he introduces the fear and suspicion into the innocent, bucolic American landscape,” Webre says.
In Webre’s retelling, Mather catches three washerwomen in the midst of a lovely, pastoral circle dance. He accuses them of witchcraft and has them tried and executed during the Salem witch trials. (The real Mather played a less direct role in the 1692 atrocity.)
In 1790, the women return as ghosts, haunting poor Crane and borrowing a few of their steps from classical French ballet. Their dance “is a mash-up between Act 2 of ‘Giselle’ ” — in which vengeful lady ghosts torment a grieving lover — “and Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller,’ through a contemporary ballet lens,” Webre says.
For additional inspiration, Webre turned to the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
“I was searching for a visual language for ‘Sleepy Hollow,’ and an obvious place to look is the 19th-century Hudson River School paintings,” he says. “They really established, in our contemporary mind, what boundless, bucolic America looked like.”
The Hudson River School was an informal fraternity of New York-based landscape painters. At around the same time Washington Irving published “Sleepy Hollow,” they were painting America’s untamed forests in luminous green and gold. For both Irving and the Hudson River painters, America was a place of limitless potential, and danger.
“There’s light at the center of the paintings, but often around the edges there will be shadows, like something sinister is lurking just outside the frame,” Webre says.
Webre incorporated several Hudson River School paintings from the American Art Museum collection directly into “Sleepy Hollow’s” set. For instance, John Quidor’s 1858 “The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane” will be projected behind the dancers and subtly animated, sort of like the Hogwarts paintings in the Harry Potter books.
Ghostly horses will gallop through the painting and, later, appear on stage in the form of 9-foot tall puppets. These skeletal creatures were inspired by “Monekana,” a 2001 bronze horse sculpture by Deborah Butterfield that looks like it’s made of driftwood. (It’s also on display at the American Art Museum.)
The earth tones favored by Butterfield and the Hudson River School painters were too subtle for the costumes, Webre says. So costume designer Liz Vandal took her cues from early American portraiture, notably John Valentine Haidt’s “Young Moravian Girl,” from the mid-1700s.
“We are using that painting as the basis for the costume design for Katrina, though we have altered the colors a bit,” he says. “There’s a little red in her dress, and that red appears in almost all of the costumes throughout the ballet as a hint of blood, a reminder of the violence to come.”
With this collage of all-American art, Webre hopes to portray the country’s best qualities, our optimism and energy and can-do spirit, as well as the darkness around the edges.
“The idea of the unknown is dangerous and really sexy to us even today,” Webre says, citing the abundance of vampires and zombies in popular culture. “2015 will be [the year of] headless horsemen.”
Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW; Wed. through Feb. 22, $25-$145.
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