by Lewis Whittington for The Dance Journal
Choreographer Matthew Neenan unveiled his BalletX summer program Sunset, 0639 Hours, a long-form narrative ballet, to a sold out opening night at the Wilma Theater Audiences have come to recognize many dance idioms from the prolific Neenan between his choreographic residency at Pennsylvania Ballet and his as co-directorship, with Christine Cox, of BalletX. With Sunset, he taps new creative veins, steering literally clear of all his choreographic safe zones.
Neenan created the choreography in a real-time collaborative relationship with New Zealand composer-musician Rosie Langabeer. Neenan has used Langabeer’s music in shorter concert works over the years and they had previously collaborated on the ‘vaudeville ballet’ Proliferation of the Imagination performed at PIFA in 2011. Langabeer and her quartet of musicians, who all play various instruments, are onstage with the dancers during the ballet.
Sunset tells a real life story of the events and people involved in a tragic incident in aviation history when Captain Edwin Musick and his crew were on maiden flights of the first Pan Am airmail service to New Zealand in the late 30s. The risk of flight of those aircraft, over 4000 miles, tested the stamina of both the crew and equipment. The story chronicles their stops in New Zealand, Samoa and Hawaii before the final disastrous return flight.
The ballet begins with BX dancers onstage as the audience ambled in are the crew of the flight, in idiosyncratic dance improvs, until Captain Musick, commandeers everyone and they take their positions for flight in mechanical formations of the plane is a nod to unison patterns of Busby Berkeley 30s musicals. The dancers mimicking propellers, gears and cabin positions strike as ponderous, too literal even for narrative foundation. Momentarily, you hear some choreographic gears grinding as loud as those old Pan Am turbines. But things soon lighten up with a comic scene when Neenan lands the plane and the Musick is greeted by New Zealand Prime Minister (whose voice is heard in an archival voiceover) danced with punch-drunk comic precision by Colby Damon.
Before long, the action moves to the middle of a club in on New Year’s Eve in 1937 and there is a hot band playing vintage martini lounge ballads and tangos and couples take the floor, the men in dinner jackets and the women in sheer lame gowns and point shoes. Each couple moves forward with different show dance flashes, some inlays of lindy, tango, Charleston and even a ballet slipper time step or two. This tableau is one of the many examples in this piece of Neenan at his most whimsical and witty.
The music gets very dreamy and sultry, as the dancers on the floor get drunker. From here, Neenan completely uncorks Sunset. The choreography has a distilled refinement that shows some of this ensemble’s strongest artistic qualities. Meanwhile, Langabeer is at the piano and Andrew Marsh plays a shadowy trumpet, then they trade off verses of a torch song that is era transporting.
Musicians count it down to a New Year as the dancers reel around in partying slow motion, then move out of the frame, except for Richard Villaverde and William Cannon embraced in a slow dance. Suddenly it is the next morning and they are morphing, along with other dancers into indigenous South Pacific birds.
Later, on the Samoan beaches, there is a crew party, first the five male crew horsing around homo-gymnastically if not erotically, and are soon joined by female island dancers and they all end up in a goofily dreamy hula hand and hip dance. It is one of Neenan’s divertissements that divert the impending sense of doom. In subtler ways too, Neenan consistently explores balletic expression, writing fragmented phrases on pointe blended into other styles, for instance.
Neenan gives all of the dancers unique solo work that build their characters, but it is Chloe Felesina plays Musick’s wife, waiting for him to return, that is central to the story. In the first of two fantasy sequences, The Captain Dreams of His Wife, Felesina and Kapeluck perform will be considered one of Neenan’s most powerful pas de deux. And like the café duets, is exemplar of Neenan’s different processes in the studio while developing work and dancer synergy and naturalized theatricality. The ballet’s dénouement depicted in the Final Flight and Ocean Ghosts scenes, are elegiac, and involve set designer Maiko Matsushima floating abstract sculpture, which suggest wind sheers or fusillade fragments, and work a bit of their own magic.
Christine Darch’s dance couture kept giving with second-skin flight crew uniforms that looked great in motion, booty unitards for the beach scenes and in vintage designs of sheer lame for the women’s’ NYE gowns. Drew Billiau’s deft panoramic lighting design is so much an integral part of the ballet’s visual narrative.
Neenan is clearly inspired by Langabeer’s protean musical template of lush ballads, ultra-lounge effects, and acoustic sound fields. Aside from being a cooler than cool ballet score, inventor Neil Feather devised an array of organic electronica instruments like the Anaplumb, a tall instrument of long piano wire, attached to a spring, attached to a bowling ball suspended over a magnet that makes ghostly drone sounds.
There is hardly any creative droning from Neenan in Sunset, o639 Hours a deliberately risky dance flight that racks up more than a few choreographic miles of previously uncharted territory.