Metro Weekly

Getting Headless: Sleepy Hollow

Sleepy Hollow is part of the Washington Ballet's 10-year American Experience project

Septime Webre thinks he knows what the next supernatural pop culture craze will be.

“Vampires were so 2013, and zombies were so 2014. And 2015, I predict, is the year of the Headless Horseman.”

Septime Webre's Sleepy Hollow
Sleepy Hollow

It’s certainly so for the Washington Ballet, currently presenting the world premiere of Webre’s Sleepy Hollow at the Kennedy Center. This adaptation of Washington Irving’s classic ghost story offered new challenges for Webre, a veteran choreographer who has been the company’s artistic director since 1999. For starters, there’s that Headless Horseman haunting Ichabod Crane.

“It’s the first time I’ve had to choreograph for a man with no head,” says Webre, who concedes “it’s been a challenge,” yet declines to reveal how he worked it out. Ultimately, it proved less of a headache than his 2013 Hemingway adaptation. “My last ballet was The Sun Also Rises, which is to some degree a ballet about erectile dysfunction. So if I can handle a ballet about erectile dysfunction, nothing scares me.”

Sleepy Hollow, to be performed to Matthew Pierce’s original live music, is part of the company’s 10-year American Experience project. Aimed at creating ballets out of American literature classics, the project started in 2011 with The Great Gatsby. “Our American narrative has not really been told in ballet, [which] is a European cannon, generally.” Webre knew he didn’t want another 20th century modernist work as the third in the series. But Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, published in 1820, also offered another stylistic challenge. “America’s first great ghost story,” as Webre puts it, is “a very efficient, 20-page short story that packs a wallop.” To turn it into a full-length ballet, he’s had to flesh out the story, with some top-caliber assist from William Lilley and Karen Zacarias. Among three main additions, the librettists have taken a shot at the identity of the headless horseman. In the ballet’s telling, it’s the British spy, who Crane offed in retaliation for killing his father on the battlefield.

Yet another challenge: How to end the ballet? “The book kind of just ends,” with no real sense of resolution. Webre struggled with this, until he found his aha moment in reviewing some of the frightening tales, from ghost stories to scary movies, he was weaned on. While again declining to show his hand, Webre says: “My favorite scary movie is Carrie [and] we have an ending that is inspired by it.”

The Washington Ballet’s Sleepy Hollow runs to Sunday, Feb. 22, at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater. Tickets are $56 to $145. Call 202-467-4600 or visit or

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