PORTLAND – Portland Ballet premiered its much-anticipated “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” on Friday to a full and enthusiastic house at the John Ford Theater at Portland High School.

The piece is the debut story-ballet venture for choreographer Nell Shipman, Portland Ballet’s associate artistic director. Shipman commissioned the score from Kirt N. Mosier, a Missouri-based teacher, professor and composer, enlarging upon his existing “Two Scenes from the Hollow.” Mosier joined the audience on Friday.

This type of collaboration, with a 14-piece orchestra conducted by Robert Lehmann for the performances, is a shining opportunity for a choreographer. Composing movement along with existing music can be very satisfying; having influence over the shape and tone of the music can be heavenly, and often results in an organic marriage of music and movement. Portland Ballet should be applauded for making this level of creative process possible for all the artists.

The choreography played best for the two male leads — Portland Ballet’s Derek Clifford as schoolmaster Ichabod Crane and guest artist Joseph Jefferies as local tough guy Brom Bones — and for the corps of female Specters, whose eerie interludes provided both the ballet’s finest dancing and its most reliable mood evocation.

Shipman’s choreography for the two men and for strong female lead Morgan Sanborn (as love interest Katrina Van Tassel) showed good personality development and emotional nuance. Their costumes — conceived by Shipman — underlined the love triangle, each featuring red trim, the only bright color among the costumes.

Clifford minced and postured in his flirtation with the women of the town, and was delicately ostentatious with the girls in his schoolroom. He partnered Sanborn with grace and care, portraying a gentle wooing.

Jefferies’ partnering was much more self-oriented, intended to emphasize his own prowess rather than bring out the loveliness of his partner.

This personality contrast was most amusingly portrayed in a “show-off” dance by the two men with Sanborn as audience.

Jefferies executed dashing leaps and impressive multiple turns, while Clifford’s showing off consisted largely of intricately fussy turns of the ankles and wrists.

Themes in the score enhanced character differences. Ichabod’s was gentle and delicate with woodwinds and a classical flavor. Brom’s was based on an evocative beat on the djembe drum (played by percussionist Nancy Smith) and horns, with an overlay of menacing strings, for a darkly festive effect.

For the Specters, Mosier composed mythical, hypnotic interludes with a French horn providing a mournful tone.

In precise tune with this music, Megan Buckley, Caroline Shelton, Andrea Tracy, Rachel Willis and Deborah Zelie performed brilliantly varied and lithe leaps and extensions. Their dancing, in intricate patterns, conveyed menace with a seductive touch.

The Specters’ most important, mood-setting contributions came during Clifford’s solitary reading scene, when they danced around him apparently invisibly, and later during the climactic chase scene, when their twisting hand movements evoked the silhouettes of branches in a dark forest.

In future productions, Shipman might consider some edits, such as creating more vignettes for the corps of Townswomen and some tonal variety for their costumes, to give greater artistic texture.

The Headless Horseman costume could use improved realism and creepiness. Brom’s red boots effectively connected him to the Horseman, showing that he was the one tormenting his rival, but his black ski mask didn’t adequately convey headlessness.

A truly headless costume could be considered, especially with Jefferies (an alum of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, the famed troupe of powerful male dancers on pointe) in the role.

“Sleepy Hollow” concluded to a rousing ovation from the audience and bows from the choreographer and composer. Especially with continued development, this piece could easily become a seasonal classic for the Portland area and beyond.

 

Jennifer Brewer is a freelance writer, teacher, musician and dancer who lives in Saco.