The Joyce Theater, New York, NY
August 11, 2015
Sunset, o639 Hours, which premiered last year at BalletX’s home theater in Philadelphia, arrived in New York Tuesday night, and is one of the jewels in the crown of this year’s Joyce Ballet Festival.
One can complain that the story of the final accomplishment and tragic death of American aviation pioneer Edwin Musick is too obscure to form the backbone of a ballet. And one can argue that the story is so thin, even when propped up by balletic license, that the reimagined story is really not a story at all, but a collection of set piece scenes and stock choreographic staples that somehow provide the updraft for the ballet’s flight. But when all is said and done, what remains in the memory is how extraordinary a ballet Sunset, o639 Hours is.
Sunset is a rarity; an evening length, thoroughly original, story ballet, made even rarer by being created for a contemporary ballet company. But as novel as it may be, what really matters is that it’s different, coherent, moving, and thoroughly entertaining, thanks to the efforts of its co-creators, choreographer Matthew Neenan (who also co-founded BalletX) and composer/musician Rosie Langabeer; as well as four inventive and capable musicians (including Langabeer), and the ten talented and charismatic BalletX dancers who seemed to enjoy dancing to Neenan’s choreography as much as I enjoyed watching them.
Edwin Musick was an aviation pioneer, and the chief pilot of the nascent Pan American Airways. He is best known for flying the first trans-Pacific flight, the China Clipper, from California to Manila, but also inaugurated airmail flights from Key West to Havana and, at the end of 1937, from San Francisco to New Zealand. He made the cover of Time Magazine in December, 1935, and reportedly was the most popular aviator of his time. Musick and his crew actually completed the San Francisco-Auckland flight and returned safely to San Francisco, but he was killed on another flight of the Samoan Clipper ‘airboat’ on the last leg of another flight to Auckland in January, 1938, some six months after Amelia Earhart’s disappearance. Unlike Earhart, who remains embedded in popular culture, Musick has been forgotten.
Neenan and Langabeer have taken this interesting and tragic but not-very-exciting story, eliminated some extraneous facts, invented some emotional hooks, and grafted it all onto it a multi-stop travelogue; a non-narrative Tales of the South Pacific (James A. Michener’s novel that was adapted for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific). It works not only because the concept and the choreography by Neenan and the execution by the BalletX dancers is so good, but because in the truest sense of the words it is an ensemble piece that is dependent for its success on its musicians and the creative team behind it’s set, lighting, and costumes.
It begins before it begins. As the audience files into their seats, dancers are already on stage. The sensation is akin to the activity a traveler might see upon arriving at an airport, before a flight’s departure. Musick, portrayed by Zachary Kapeluck, initially paces nervously before his ‘crew’ gradually assembles – all while a lone woman in casual dress stands atop the theatre’s left balcony, reading something – presumably a letter. In hindsight, this woman is Chloe Felesina, who among other roles plays Musick’s wife. The house lights dim as the musicians rev up the plane’s ‘engines’, preparing for flight – and the dancers, the men dressed in shirts and ties, the women in gossamer dresses that make them appear lighter than air, become at once passengers, crew, airplane apparatus, and the outline of the plane as a whole. Ingenious.
The action segues to ceremonies at Auckland’s airport and greetings by New Zealand’s pompous prime minister, who comes across as a fawning, intoxicated fool. It’s a scene that perhaps should have been reconsidered, but the action soon shifts to a New Years’ Eve celebration in an Auckland night club – the first of Neenan’s set pieces that are the ballet’s anchors.
The sets and particularly the musical accompaniment deliver the ’30s mood effectively – abetted by Andrew Mars pitch-perfect rendition of a band crooner, complete with a stylishly nasalized voice. Neenan’s choreography and the BalletX dancers convert what might be a relatively mechanical series of duets into an extraordinary display of style superimposed on ballet technique. There’s intricacy, variety, and seamless transitions from solos to duets and trios – nothing ever looks repetitious or canned, and seeing pointe work that not only exemplifies ballet competence but that fits in with and enhances the story is breathtaking. The action continues with similar results, but looks different, at each of the South Pacific islands where the Samoan Clipper lands.
Two scenes are indicative of the ingenuity and audacity of the production. When the celebration ends and the plane prepares to depart for the return trip to Samoa en route to San Francisco, Neenan and Langabeer concoct a desolate Auckland runway populated by native birds. It sounds like a dumb idea – but it was carried out so effectively that I marveled more at the dancers’ abilities to mimic birds, and the sounds the composers and musicians created, than at the strangeness of it. When the engines begin to rev, the scene suddenly becomes no longer strange, but an effective visual and aural representation of the intrusion of contemporary invention on pristine native virtues. This theme is carried over to the arrival in Samoa, where the islanders greet the visiting aviators, and send the audience into intermission, with an authentic-sounding a Capella indigenous song that feels like it came straight out of National Geographic via Hollywood, but that the company turns into something more compelling, exciting and intimate than it has any right to be.
Act II continues the travelogue, with the Samoan Clipper arriving in Honolulu – and the loveliest of dreamed duets between Musick and his wife (Kapeluck and Felesina), with which Neenan and his dancers hit a soaring emotional home run.
Each of the BalletX dancers brought a distinctive personality, competence, and energy to the performance, but it is Felesina who is the soul of the ballet. She reminded me a bit of Sara Mearns, but with more of a dancer-next-door quality that is at once effortlessly magnetic, commanding, and engaging.
When the ballet ended, the full house exploded. Opening night audiences aren’t reliable indicia of a ballet’s worth, but in this case, they got it right. I joined the standing ovation. The last time I did that was at a performance of Christopher Wheeldon’s Swan Lake by the Pennsylvania Ballet. Maybe there’s something about the creative air in Philadelphia…