Maybe you’ve seen Tim Burton’s slasher version of “Sleepy Hollow.” It’s the one where the town magistrate’s head goes spinning atop his neck as a headless horseman’s axe digs into his jugular. There’s a scene like that in Ballet Arkansas’s version of “Sleepy Hollow,” which played last weekend at the UA Pulaski Technical College Center for the Humanities and Arts (CHARTS). The ballet’s final showdown comes about as close to a bloodbath as dance can go. It’s all thunderclaps and strobe lights as the headless horseman and the ballet’s hero tumble across the stage, punching it out like Christian Bale and Heath Ledger in a Hollywood action sequence. This is the moment all the fog machines have been building toward, but the scene has very little to do with what makes the ballet scary.
The scenes that are truly terrifying in Michael Fothergill’s adaptation of “Sleepy Hollow” are from a different kind of movie. In this second film, the gun never fires, the bomb does not go kaboom. Instead, there is the slow-burning horror of a woman seated in a chair, eyes locked on empty space, never moving an inch as two male dancers battle beside her. Or the quiet terror of another woman who suddenly goes still, her elbows hovering at inhuman angles, like a mechanical doll waiting to rev up again. Watching the expression on these women’s faces, the total emptiness there, is like watching a razor approach an open eyeball in a Buñuel film. The scary thing is not the razor: It’s the fact that no one is screaming.
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Sometimes Fothergill’s female dancers are young girls who leap and twirl through the forest, and sometimes they are inanimate furniture, ghoulish set pieces to the scene playing out centerstage. Their faces turn green in the sickly stage light, and they look like nothing so much as those portraits of dead people in old houses, of people who died in terrible ways and have now come back to haunt the place.
In these scenes, Fothergill draws his horror from the routine, the mundane, the resignation of every woman onstage, but primarily of the young heroine living under her father’s careful watch. “Sleepy Hollow” opens on these two weaving in and out of each other — Katrina Van Tassel (danced on opening night by Isabelle Urben) disentangling herself from her father, Baltus Van Tassel (danced on opening night by Paul Tillman), again and again. As they circle each other, one of Katrina’s suitors hops up and down at the most remote corner of the stage, his leaps and twirls landing like so many dead leaves, noticed by no one. This is not the kind of ballet that climaxes with a pas de deux between young lovers.
There are maybe half a dozen romances in “Sleepy Hollow,” all of them threatened by the headless horseman stalking the countryside. I lost track early on, because the plot summaries moving across the set’s multimedia display were longer than the Washington Irving story on which the ballet is based. There’s no chance of following them and it doesn’t matter very much anyway, because the ballet isn’t about falling in love. The dances between lovers in the woods, usually the main event in classical ballet, feel like fluffy interludes to Fothergill’s real concerns.
I was more interested in the cult of women surrounding Katrina’s father in one of the ballet’s early scenes, their scarves pulled tight as nooses around their necks, their movements all sharp angles and furtive kicks. Though the headless horseman had yet to enter the scene, their dance carried its own subtle horrors. As the women joined their hands in prayer, they completed the tableau — a vision of Puritan America, and all the quiet terror of living in rural New York in the late 18th century, where you might starve or freeze or bleed to death. Walking in formation, the dancers moved like people repressing a continuous scream.
When the headless horseman does enter the scene, all the subtlety of Fothergill’s choreography vanishes and his dancers transform into stuntmen. The headless horseman who runs through the woods, whacking his sword against the stage, is a layover from an older kind of ballet: an archaic world where dancers say things like “I want the girl!” by waving their hands in an elaborate mime. In these moments, it’s easy to lose the dancers in the set’s elaborate multimedia display: projected film reels of the horseman sprinting through the woods, a camera spinning in on his face. The footage doesn’t work well — it’s too melodramatic, too slasher— but it’s fitting that the videos dominate Fothergill’s action scenes, because we’re no longer in the territory of ballet.
The story that ballet is suited to tell, and which Fothergill tells so well, is another kind of horror story — a Puritan tale where the axe never falls, and each new horror is repressed in an unbreakable sense of ritual and order. This is the kind of horror movie where the most terrifying thing is the event you never see, the bloodbaths taking place just out of view, visible only in the unnatural tilt of the heroine’s pirouette, her head drooping out of line.
Fothergill’s choreography, at its best, runs close to some of ballet’s most basic steps, drawing the Puritan ethos out of the form’s discipline and repetition. His more striking choices play on fundamentals, twisting them just enough to make them feel grotesque and strange. In one scene, Katrina totters on her toes, her legs spread in second position. The moment is hardly anything — just a transition between steps, a standard formation — but the way she bends her knees turns the movement into something awkward and horrible. The angle of her leg is painful to watch, and for the instant she’s wobbling there, you understand her position exactly, what it means to live on taught nerves.
For a moment, we’re watching a different kind of horror movie, one where the most sinister element isn’t the horseman slashing through the woods. In this alternative movie, there is no main event, only a satin pointe shoe covering a bloodied toe. It’s an image that carries its own kind of gore.