For centuries, a mysterious rider has haunted the American imagination, populating literature, film and other art forms with his demonic presence. That figure – the lone rider who stalks cold autumn nights – is the Headless Horseman. And he is riding again this October.
Fortunately for local arts patrons, this Headless Horseman is only a Ballet Arkansas dancer and not a vengeful spirit.
That won’t make the experience any less thrilling or engaging, though. “Sleepy Hollow,” the opening show of Ballet Arkansas’ 2019-2020 season, is designed to evoke wonder with its mix of dazzling ballet choreography, innovative multimedia techniques and unique production design.
Most of all, the show is about stepping out of comfort zones – both for the audience and for Ballet Arkansas itself. Michael Fothergill, executive director of Ballet Arkansas, says “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” was chosen as a source text to show the broad possibilities that ballet has to offer.
“At BA, we are all about thinking ‘outside the box’, and it made sense to present something original at the top of the season to reinforce that,” he says.
Written by Washington Irving, the story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” concerns a schoolmaster named Ichabod Crane who is angling for hand of young Katrina Van Tassel, the daughter of a wealthy Sleepy Hollow powerbroker. After a harvest party, Crane finds himself in the woods surrounding Sleepy Hollow, where he comes face-to-face with the Headless Horseman.
Since being published in 1820, the story has been interpreted and reimagined numerous times. The story has inspired whole television series, movies, music, radio shows and more. Despite the frequent adaptations of the story, Ballet Arkansas is determined to put its singular stamp on the legend, infusing it with deeper meaning and characterization.
Why keep coming back to a 19-century text? Ballet Arkansas dancer Paul Tillman, who is performing both Ichabod Crane and Baltus Van Tassell, says the story remains vital because of the unsettling atmosphere it evokes and the singular figure of the Horseman.
“The imagery in Washington Irving’s “Sleepy Hollow” is what makes it timeless, the eerie town and of course the Headless Horseman,” he says. “The Sleepy Hollow story is shrouded in mystery and intrigue, which makes it a story that is so fun to tell because there are many ways to interpret it.”
That spooky and mysterious vibe is perfect for the October season, Catherine Fothergill, Ballet Arkansas’ associate artistic director, says. “Of course, it is perfect for Halloween, but also it has some ambiguity in the story, so there’s a lot of room for the audience to kind of interpret the legend. It gives a lot of opportunities to build a narrative, relationships, opposing contrasts,” she says.
One way the Ballet Arkansas team is building the narrative is through the use of innovative multimedia techniques. Partnering with CranfordCo, a Little Rock-based digital advertising and marketing firm, Ballet Arkansas has created custom videos and photography that will be projected behind the dancers to deepen the story and provide more context.
“Our version is told through stunning multimedia and 360 sound. In other words, when you come to the theater to see the production, you are in for a real experience! Video of our dancers will be projected onto the screen, and scrolling text will fill patron in on the storyline. This is no ordinary presentation of a ballet, it is innovative, and interactive,” Michael Fothergill says.
The multimedia components are not merely designed to relay information. While the projections will provide necessary background information, Catherine Fothergill notes that most adaptations of “Sleepy Hollow” are different and the projections will help audiences have a baseline. But the deeper purpose is to “enhance” the experience so that the audience has a greater involvement with the story.
“These projections will allow the audience to be transported into Sleepy Hollow and really help set the scene,” Tillman says. “Audience members who know the tale will get the chance to see a more in-depth look at each character’s story and what drives the Headless Horseman.”
Local Little Rock locations, including the Historic Arkansas Museum and Allsopp Park, serve as the backdrops for the projected videos and photos. Catherine Fothergill says the local touches are a fun way of connecting the show to Arkansas audiences.
Ballet Arkansas did not stop with the multimedia components. Catherine Fothergill says the production team has gone all out for “Sleepy Hollow,” building new production materials to use for the show. She also notes that the production will be incorporating unique sound effects that will be layered with the music to increase the immersive nature of the performance.
“We going all out for this one. We’re building new sets. We’ve built new costumes,” she says. “We’re very excited for this one.”
“Sleepy Hollow” will feature brand-new choreography, designed by Michael Fothergill himself. In the run-up for the show, the dancers had approximately six weeks to prepare – learning their dance choreography, characterization and motivations.
Michael Fothergill says the choreography will express the “Sleepy Hollow” story in a way that is relatable to modern audiences, taking full advantage of BA’s talents.
“In ballet, we typically do not speak while on stage. This forces us to imagine new ways to communicate theme to our audiences. With that said, the choreographic telling of the tale, while beautifully constructed, must serve a point. It must tell a story in a relatable way, one that resonates with our audiences. We have adapted our tale to suit the confines of our company. We have 15 professionals so we’ve found unique ways to maximize their stage potential while drawing out the dynamics between characters.”
Tillman says the new choreography will reveal new aspects to a oft-told story that will likely surprise even those who are familiar with the legend. This process of discovery, he says, was one of the exciting parts of the preparation process.
“During this process of putting Sleepy Hollow together, I have learned a lot about each of the characters and their motivation. It has revealed an even more sinister plot then I thought previously, which adds a layer of characterization that is exciting to delve into,” he says.
Michael Fothergill echoes Tillman, saying that the show is not necessarily what audiences may expect. While the story remains intact, the ballet impresario says that the deeper veins of the story will be mined, exposing the darker undercurrents running through the story and characters.
“They will likely see the story unfold in ways which they had not imagined before. Characters’ deepest (and sometimes darkest) motivations are explored in a way that fuses fresh, new life into the tale,”
“Sleepy Hollow” is running Oct. 18-20 at UA-Pulaski Tech CHARTS Theater in North Little Rock for four public performances and one student matinee performance. Performances will be held Friday, Oct. 18 at 7:30 pm; Saturday, Oct. 19 at 2:30 pm and 7:30 pm; and Sunday, Oct. 20 at 2:30 pm. Tickets range from $25-35 and can be purchased here.
Images courtesy of Melissa Dooley Photography and Ballet Arkansas