The Minnesota Ballet’s original production of “Sleepy Hollow” has dueling love interests, multiple dance-offs, a red-eyed steed ridden by a scientific anomaly — and an unlikely origin story: The professional company’s route to Tarrytown has ties to Mudville.
“I think we have a rich history of storytelling in America,” artistic director Karl von Rabenau said after a recent rehearsal at the Depot, “And I would like to start to bring those to life.”
In the early 1990s von Rabenau danced in the Pittsburgh Ballet Theater’s original production of “The Mighty Casey” based on the famous baseball poem by Ernest Lawrence Thayer and its sequel.
“It got me thinking about what we can do,” von Rabenau said.
“Sleepy Hollow,” the Minnesota Ballet’s first full-length, mask-free, staged production since the 2019 “Nutcracker," is at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at Marshall Performing Arts Center at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Members of the audience must wear masks and have proof of a full-course COVID-19 vaccination or a negative test from the past 72 hours.
“I think that we have an opportunity to start to bring in new generations to come and see dance,” von Rabenau said. “I think the story ballet is the easiest way to do that.”
Now, if they can do justice to the amazing headless horseman they have, he added, a nod to the haunting figures created by Jeff Brown.
Working on the ballet
“Sleepy Hollow” is based on Washington Irving’s story of a season in New York’s Hudson Valley. Ichabod Crane (Reinhard von Rabenau), the new teacher in town, is drawn to Katrina Van Tassel (Ximena Azurmendi, Brianna Crockett) — but so is the ever-plotting Brom Bones (Sean Michael Sullivan), who tells the tale of the Headless Horseman to jangle his rival.
Karl von Rabenau began his work on the new ballet in March 2020 — around the same time the company’s take on “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” was postponed before it even opened because of COVID-19.
He started with music, like American composer Virgil Thompson in the first act, 17th-century music for a harvest festival scene, and a Dvorak finale. He studied reels, jigs and minuets, he said, and the difference between the New England variety and Virginia style.
At a recent rehearsal of Act II, arms were repositioned and a poignant moment with Brom Bones was reconsidered. Karl von Rabenau himself took on the role of the Headless Horseman, which he said he hopes to not be doing during the performance. The stage was a whirl of bodies, more than 20 masked dancers in coordinated weaves.
"One of things I find incredibly enjoyable when I'm watching dance is movement," von Rabenau said. "It's one of the things I've been working on most with dancers: If you are still for too long it's not correct.
"Whenever we listen to a piece of music, we feel the difference when it's held, when it's sustained or chopped. You feel the rhythm that's happening. I want to translate that to movement. When it's well-done, it's breathtaking."
'Ready to perform'
"Midsummer" was to mark von Rabenau's debut with the Minnesota Ballet, a moment that has still yet to happen. His predecessor, Robert Gardner, had been with the company for 27 years and has since gone on to lead the Rochester City Ballet in New York.
When Shakespeare was shelved in 2020, the new artistic director said they secured the School of the Minnesota Ballet and offered virtual classes. Then they found a way to have smaller in-person classes. They did a lot of cleaning, he said.
Months later, the company got creative with socially distanced performances.
They created a prerecorded and localized take on the "The Nutcracker" that incorporated historic places like the Congdon Estate and the Depot. It aired on CBS3 and was available for download. The 2021 spring performance, "Dancing Through," was a collection of classical and contemporary dance performed by dancers in masks for a limited audience.
This past month, the ballet held its earlier-than-usual fundraiser, the "Celebrity Dance Challenge."
"Sleepy Hollow" is also a sort of debut for the dancers, many who have yet to be seen locally in a full production story ballet, and one who has but not for years.
"It's been a long time coming to be back in Duluth," said Reinhard von Rabenau, who left the local company six years ago to dance in Florida and returned last year. "The Minnesota Ballet has always felt like home."
He's found a young, talented group, he said, with a mix of artistry.
"Everybody has really been itching to have the opportunity to express ourselves," he said.
Azurmendi joined the Minnesota Ballet as an apprentice in 2020, but spent part of the pandemic period in Florida, where she lived before coming to Duluth. This is her first starring role, a character she described as the "town sweetheart."
She said she has enjoyed the development of her character, specifically her finale.
"We're all very excited. We're ready to perform," she said.
If you go
What: Minnesota Ballet's "Sleepy Hollow"
When: 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday
Where: Marshall Performing Arts Center, UMD