Legend in the making: Portland Ballet prepares 'Sleepy Hollow' world premiere

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PORTLAND — Black and red ribbons outline the cream-colored antique lace hand-stitched onto each of the 11 dancers’ costumes hanging from a ballet bar in the back room of Portland Ballet’s Forest Avenue studio.

In the hallways, on the dance floor and in the dressing rooms, there’s a flurry of activity as costumes are fitted, hair is pulled back and slippers laced. The dancers are preparing for a run-through of a ballet that will see its world premiere on the John Ford Theater stage at Portland High School on Oct. 29.

Portland Ballet commissioned “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” from composer Kirt Mosier of Kansas City, Mo., after choreographer Nell Shipman heard his set of two short orchestral works based on the famous story by Washington Irving of Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman.

“I found a piece online that he had written,” Shipman said. “So I called him up and said ‘I love this. Can you write 60 more minutes?'”

When Mosier agreed, Portland Ballet set about finding funding to pay for the commission. After months of looking, several private donors agreed to foot the bill and the publisher of Mosier’s original works agreed to allow Portland Ballet to use the new composition free of royalty charges.

“It was like it was meant to be,” Shipman said.

Because the funding wasn’t in place until April, Mosier, who is a public school music teacher, did not begin working on the piece until then.

“To compose a full-length ballet, or even 60 minutes, is a feat in and of itself,” Mosier said. “But they wanted it done by July. It was very challenging.”

Despite the challenge, Mosier said his process of fluid composition rather than sketching and then orchestrating, saved him time and he was able to complete the ballet by June 10, 2010.

At that point, he made videos for Shipman to use during rehearsals that included digital music files and descriptions of when certain characters should enter and exit. They sent many e-mails back and forth, working together to put the final touches on the composition and the dance.

“I think we only spoke on the phone a couple times,” Shipman said.

The music will be performed by a 14-member orchestra made up of many Portland Symphony musicians and conducted by University of Southern Maine professor Robert Lehmann.

The work is written for traditional orchestral instruments, including strings, woodwinds and brass, as well as a diverse collection of percussion instruments — even an African drum called a djembe.

Mosier described the music as occasionally angular, but very tonal, with moments reminiscent of Russian composer Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

“I wanted to write something that resonates in my soul,” Mosier said.

Shipman said she hopes this family-friendly new work will take a permanent place in Portland Ballet’s repertory, next to the ever-popular Victorian Nutcracker.

“There’s a lot of humor in the show. It’s entertaining,” she said. “We want ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ to be a part of the local tradition here.”

Performances are on Friday, Oct. 29, at 8 p.m. and Saturday, Oct. 30, at 2 p.m. at Portland High School. The Saturday afternoon performance will also include a children’s costume parade at intermission, so young viewers can come dressed up and participate in the action. Tickets are $20 for students, $30 for adults if purchased in advance on brownpapertickets.com, and $35 at the door.

Emily Parkhurst can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or eparkhurst@theforecaster.net

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Dancers of the Portland Ballet corps rehearse for this weekend’s world premier of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” a new composition by Kirt Mosier, with original choreography by Nell Shipman.

The corps dancers of the Portland Ballet rehearse for the upcoming performances of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” an original composition by Kirt Mosier with choreography by Nell Shipman. Nearly 30 dancers will take the stage for two family-friendly hour-long performances this weekend at the John Ford Theater at Portland High School.

Dancer Liz Avantaggio has her costume fitted by Mary Stride while lead principal dancer Morgan Sanborn, left, and dancer Kate Smedal wait in the wings. Each costume, custom-made with antique lace and ribbons by local artisan Jenny Frank, will adorn the dancers of Portland Ballet’s world premiere of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” a new composition by Kirt Mosier, with original choreography by Nell Shipman.