“Heads will roll!” is the rallying cry at the Washington Ballet this week, where Artistic Director Septime Webre has begun rehearsals for his new ballet, “Sleepy Hollow,” which  premieres Feb. 18. But the Headless Horseman, galloping forth on a nightly quest for his noggin, isn’t the only spook in the full-length production inspired by Washington Irving’s short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”

 

(Creative direction: Design Army; video production: Dean Alexander)

Ghostly war widows rise from the grave to roam the night in a scene Webre describes as a cross between the romantic ballet “Giselle” and Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video. The unquiet spirits of three women burned at the stake as witches have a dance of death, too.

You can catch a glimpse of the moonlit madness in a trailer for the ballet, just released, which was shot at the National Arboretum with a few dancers, whatever costumes were ready at the time, giant fog machines, cranes and cameras speeding around on tracks. There are horses, too; though they didn’t gallop through the arboretum. They were edited in from a farm.

The only thing the film crew didn’t have was the ballet itself. Webre improvised some moves for his dancers on the spot because the trailer was filmed months before he started choreographing in earnest. The trailer “was a function of what we could practically produce in advance,” Webre said in an interview between rehearsals Thursday, “and where the heart of the story lies.”

That heart? Well, it bleeds. And screams. And smolders. (This is where the charred and kind of sexy witches’ ghosts come in.) Unlike his other ballets inspired by classic American fiction–”The Sun Also Rises” and “The Great Gatsby”–Webre didn’t have to choose what to leave out in this treatment. Rather, to fill out an evening he had to expand upon Irving’s compact tale of a haunted New York settlement in 1790, where plans by schoolmaster Ichabod Crane to wed a farmer’s daughter go gruesomely awry.

So in a prologue to the ballet, Webre works in the Salem witch trials of a century before, bringing the audience back to “the introduction of superstition into the previously bucolic American landscape,” he said.

Cotton Mather, the Puritan minister and noted witch-hater, condemns the three young women to flames. He is portrayed by  Washington Ballet veteran Luis R. Torres.

Mather, embodied by a ballet dancer: The irony is as thick as the smoke from his victims’ stakes. The joyless Mather hated dancing as much as he hated witchcraft. Dances “are an offense to the Godly,” he wrote in 1700, and “they that go to Dances shall be Reproved.” Thank goodness that nightmare didn’t last too long. Though it makes you wonder: Might his ghost haunt the Eisenhower Theater?

Setting Mather spinning in his grave wasn’t high on Webre’s mind during the filming of the trailer. There was plenty of stress in keeping the action going, and getting it rolling again after the inevitable technical mishaps. Mostly, Webre laments the cool shots that didn’t make the final cut. Like the one he proposed atop an 8-foot-tall tree trunk, which  would’ve made a great pedestal for a dancer with ice in his veins.

“I wanted to put the Horseman up there with his cape flying,” he said. Alas–or hooray?–they ran out of time.

The Washington Ballet performs “Sleepy Hollow” Feb. 18 (preview) through Feb. 22 at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater. Tickets start at $25; visit www.washingtonballet.org, www.kennedy-center.org, or call 202-467-4600.