A Trip to the 1930’s in BalletX’s Sunset o639 Hours

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photo by Bill Hebert

by Gary L. Day for The Dance Journal

BalletX filters the past through its creative perspective in its season opening performance, Sunset 0639 Hours, unveiled last Wednesday, November 16.  In it, choreographer Matthew Neenan and composer Rosie Longsbeer bring to vivid life the era of the 1930’s in and around the Pacific, that happy yet troubled time which was anticipating the coming of World War II.

This full-length ballet tells an episodic story of life in and around the Pacific basin—New Zealand, San Francisco, Hawaii—and the travels and adventures of a group of airmen as they journey from one side of the ocean to the other.

Dancers are already on the silent stage as the audience enters, going through motions that could either be choreographed or improvised. While the dancers were interesting to watch, having them onstage pre-show seemed an unnecessary flourish, as it didn’t add to, or even anticipate, what was to come.

However, things rapidly got more interesting when the lights went down and the program actually started. a recorded soundtrack crept up, a mix of ambient and industrial, quite random, but which made sense when the full company of five men and five women dancers began movement that made it clear that these people were on an old-style propeller-driven airplane. Recorded voices explained that they were on a mail run to New Zealand, at the time a very isolated spot that up til then could only be communicated with by mail delivered by sea.

As they segued to the next segment, live musicians entered the stage with a brass fanfare, and swiftly shifted into a swing/jazz motif. This was clearly a jazz nightclub, and the male dancers, in very tightly tailored suits that looked like naval air uniforms, shifted to an energetic jazz dynamic, matched by the women, who, while also jazzy, had an overlay of sexy sultriness. The tosses and leaps and twirls found in swing dancing of the 1930’s were used to great effect.

The story line shifted through several sequences. Among the highlights was a highly energetic and athletic piece portrayed a beach party in Hawaii, and a lovely duet that illustrated a bittersweet exchange of letters between one of the airmen and his girlfriend back home in San Francisco. But then war rears its ugly head as the languid music of the duet descends into a cacophony of noise, and the full company returns to the stage to show us the human cost of the upcoming conflict.

Neenan’s choreography is diverse, not only pulling inspiration from the various popular dance styles of the time, but also integrating them seamlessly, especially in the more intimate moments where grace is needed. While Neenan is not a choreographic firestorm of drama, his style is effective in telling the narrative. As skillfully executed by the company’s talented and elegant dancers. his choreography is graceful, elegant and sophisticated. Sunset o639 Hours is an engaging trip through the past, told through a creative and effective modern choreographic perspective.

Sunset o639 Hours, presented by BalletX, plays through November 20 at the Wilma Theater, Broad and Spruce Streets in Philadelphia. For ticket information, call 215-546-7824, or visit BalletX.org.

About Gary L. Day

Gary L. Day is a produced playwright, director/producer and critic who has been covering the arts in Philadelphia since the Clinton administration. In addition to The Dance Journal, he also writes for the Broad Street Review and the Philadelphia Gay News. He has worked as an editor, an illustrator and a bar manager. He is also an expert on all things Star Trek and Captain America.

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