Erie, sophisticated, physically astounding and quite beautiful, Sleepy Hollow (★★★★) is dance-theater at its magical best. Director Paata Tsikurishvili may have based the production on Washington Irving’s iconic tale of supernatural goings-on in rural Westchester County, but in his hands, it is a flight of storytelling fancy. This is a Headless Horseman with personality — dark, avenging, broken-hearted, and quite magnificent.
It’s not just the Horseman who comes to life here. Tsikurishvili creates a vibrant village of honest folk, living their joys, fears, and romances as they go about life amid their gloomy wood — and soon a deadly, supernatural threat. Capturing the potent moods, scenic and lighting designers Phil Charlwood and Brian S. Allard suggest — in the words of Irving — that a “drowsy, dreamy influence seems to hang over the land, and to pervade the very atmosphere.”
As with its Wordless Shakespeare series, the story here is told through dance, mime, and the extraordinary live and recorded music of composer Konstantine Lortkipanidze. This is by far Synetic’s strongest suit, one that avoids the pitfalls of gorgeous movers in need of voice training and the dead air needed to hear them. Here, the driver is music, the vision and the “voice” those of Paata Tsikurishvili and choreographer Irina Tsikurishvili. And in keeping with their roots, the ghosts of America’s Revolutionary War may haunt these shadows, but so do some stranger mysteries that feel far more European, where Irving was known to have travelled. Indeed, the horseman is a Hessian — one of the German mercenaries enlisted by the British to help quell the colonial uprising.
Synetic also always brings their art with a powerful sense of fun, entertainment and a mind-boggling inventiveness. The Synetic team seems able to do it all: classically-inspired dance, extraordinarily expressive movement, death-defying acrobatics and, on this occasion, some positively transcendent puppetry. But it is more than just spectacle. The Tsikurishvilis and Lortkipanidze bring the richness of a carefully structured, thoughtfully spun yarn that captures not just the eye, but the mind. This may be full of mesmerizing entertainment, but it is also full of allegory.
As for the cast, there are, without doubt, two star turns here. First and foremost is the extraordinary Scott S. Turner, who creates a Headless Horseman of extraordinary persona and presence. Turner moves with the kind of innate confidence and masculine grace that turns a guy in a homemade mask into a menacingly dark and spectacular spectral figure. Even more amazingly, without ever showing his face, Turner works the choreography to give this complex ghost an impressive array of emotions. He is angry, he is sad, he loves his horse, and he is even a little sexy. As the mortal soldier, Turner turns human, his gorgeously unconventional good looks convincingly Germanic, exuding all the last-ditch bravery, fear and trembling resignation of his young man. What great theater.
Matching him for charisma and adding his prodigious physical skill and expressive art is Vato Tsikurishvili as Ichabod Crane, the villager with a secret and a passion for local beauty Katrina Van Tassel. Tsikurishvili is a tremendous performer, bringing a phenomenal physical prowess, but also a keen sense of emotional detail. He plays it large, but he never goes overboard and never loses the opportunity for nuance.
That said, if there is a small quibble here it is that director Tsikurishvili goes somewhat off-piste with Crane as the finale approaches. Traumatized by the Horseman’s killing spree and Katrina’s rejection, Crane wanders trance-like in the forest trying to make sense of the ghostly curse. But the interlude is too long, and though it makes some contemplative sense and creates a calm before the fabulous finale, it argues with our understanding of this sensible, if brutal, man and slows the momentum. Still, it is a small price to pay for the jaw-droppingly imaginative moments that follow — and will not be spoiled here.
And the talents continue with McLean Jesse’s Katrina, who sits at the center of a love triangle with Crane and his erstwhile friend Brom. Delivered with warmth, intelligence, and dimension, this is a living, breathing woman and it brings real heft to her discoveries. A lovely dancer, McLean seamlessly works a rousing, complicated party dance, moving between her suitors, and then later delivers much credible expression in her pas de deux with Crane. As the unrequited Brom, Justin J. Bell brings phenomenal physical moves when called for and a credible empathy in his moments with the Hessian, even if his chemistry with Karina never quite convinces.
Mention must also be made of the truly sparkling performance of Maryam Najafzada as the Spirit. Dancing with beauty and integrity and emoting with silent, unselfconscious abandon, she is the heart of this piece. Finally, as always in a Synetic production, the ensemble is integral to the whole and here they bring tremendous skill and energy.
There is just nowhere else in this town for such otherworldly entertainment. So gather your friends, enjoy the Georgian wine, and let Synetic tell you a Halloween tale.
Sleepy Hollow runs to November 4 at Synetic Theater’s Theater at Crystal City, 1800 South Bell Street, VA. Tickets are $15 to $60. Call 866-811-4111 or visit synetictheater.org.