Never lost your head in dance? Well, has Central West Ballet got a show for you.
The Modesto dance troupe presents what’s become a Halloween tradition with its “Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” based on the Washington Irving classic tale of a headless horseman, teacher Ichabod Crane, his romantic interest Katrina Van Tassel and the man who stands in between, Brom Bones. The ballet will be performed Oct. 26-27 at the Gallo Center for the Arts, kicking off Central West’s 30th anniversary season.
CWB Artistic Director René Daveluy wrote the score and co-choreographed the ballet, hoping the troupe could create another seasonal sensation along the lines of its annual Christmas mainstay “The Nutcracker.”
And while the first year felt like a risk, it’s paid off, according to Daveluy and troupe Ballet Mistress Leslie Ann Larson, who are preparing for the program’s third season.
“You just kind of cross your fingers and hope that people are going to come and want to see it and they did, they really did,” Larson said of the fledgling presentation in 2015. “It was sort of word-of-mouth spread and the first show was very well sold and then the second (night) sold out. And then last year it was the same thing; opening night was really well sold and then the second show, we were actually turning people away.”
The post-Revolutionary War period tale of a rural New England schoolteacher chased by the angry spirit of a headless horseman is a classic told for generations. With both spooky and comedic undertones, it was the perfect choice when Daveluy and Larson were looking for a Halloween tale to bring to the stage.
“It’s so fun for us to produce and it’s so fun for our dancers to dance and it’s so well known because it’s an iconic, famous novel and a nice piece of literature, so a lot people have already read the story, so they know what they’re coming to see,” Larson said, something audiences prefer to an unknown entitiy.
“You have a sense of what you’re buying into,” Daveluy added. He choreographed the piece with longtime collaborator and Salt Lake City’s Ballet West Academy Principal Faculty member Jan Clark Fugit.
“It’s a great blend of literature and dance because we have live narration. So it was great for me to get through the story and distill it down to scenes in which the narration complements the ballet and the dancing,” he said. “So that was a great adventure to do – and being our third time now, it’s just getting better and better.”
Some scenes were added to give more opportunities for the 25-member cast to dance, including a large barn dance that also allows several students, ages 11-14, from Central West Ballet’s Academy to participate. Otherwise, the production sticks to Irving’s short story, with the hapless schoolteacher Ichabod Crane trying to win the heart of Katrina Van Tassel over the conniving Brom Bones. Central West Board President Hugh Rose III again will narrate.
It’s told in multimedia on stage as well as with special effects to add to the spooky nature of the tale. Daveluy said the production has been a community affair with everything created locally, including the costumes. “The Headless Horseman costume is pretty smart,” he said, “so it really looks like he has no head.”
Having well-crafted special effects – which also includes a mechanical black steed – is key for the audience’s experience.
“The multimedia gives each scene something special to look at and everybody, of course, expects to have a good time seeing this specter, this Headless Horseman. And it all culminates into Ichabod’s (ultimate) fate to have to meet the ghost,” Daveluy said.
The original gamble on the Halloween story sought to attract a fresh audience for the professional ballet troupe that’s been in the Modesto region for three decades.
“Every ballet company, their bread and butter is ‘The Nutcracker,’ you’re guaranteed to have an audience there,” Daveluy said. “You have to find ways to survive and we thought, for quite a few years we were thinking, that there has to be a Halloween (option).
“At Halloween time a lot of people dress up their houses and they have parties, they really like that time of year and it’s a change of seasons, so there’s all this energy,” he said. “And people seek a kind of a thrill like that, and ‘Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ was the answer, certainly, to get a different audience that would be in this kind of mood.”
In addition to its Modesto performance, CWB will hit the road with “Sleepy Hollow” to perform at the Grand Theatre in Tracy, where the company has an ongoing partnership.
The troupe also hopes to get audiences in the mood to celebrate its 30 years of bringing ballet to Modesto. Daveluy and Larson plan to mark the milestone with a gala on Feb. 8 to honor the tradition of the now professional company that began in in 1987 as Bravo! Repertory Dance Theatre, an amateur group for students. The name was changed 10 years later to Central West Ballet.
“I think the 30th anniversary, the meaning for it all … is really celebrating the generations of dancers who have really given their hearts on Modesto stages throughout the years,” Daveluy said. “We’ve been here long enough to have seen generations of dancers pass through the company, dancing their hearts and never losing that wonderful spirit.”
After “Sleep Hollow,” the company offers a season of full ballets and other programs. Here’s the rest of the 2017-18 slate; all will be performed at the Gallo Center except the May 12 program:
“The Nutcracker,” Dec. 8-17
“Nutcracker in Jazz,” Dec. 14
30th Anniversary Gala, Feb. 8
“Cinderella,” March 23-24
“Creations,” May 12 at Grand Theatre, Tracy
“Music Meets Graffiti,” June 1-2 with the Modesto Symphony Orchestra
Legend of Sleepy Hollow
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 26-27
WHERE: Gallo Center for the Arts, 1000 I St., Modesto