BalletX to premiere evening-length work
BalletX, Philadelphia’s premier contemporary ballet company and the resident dance company of The Wilma Theater, will conclude its 2013-14 Season with a full-length world premiere ballet by BalletX Co-Artistic Director Matthew Neenan entitled Sunset, o639 Hours. Presented during Summer Series 2014 on July 9-13 at The Wilma Theater, Sunset, o639 Hours is inspired by a true story from early 20th century aviation history, and features original music from award-winning New Zealand composer Rosie Langabeer.
On January 2, 1938, American pilot Captain Edwin Musick embarked on a seemingly insurmountable journey. Pushing the limits of his aircraft and crew, he traversed 4,000 miles of open ocean, completing New Zealand’s first airmail delivery to Hawaii only to perish tragically on his dangerous voyage home. Captain Musick’s story provides the framework for a ballet that celebrates innovation while exploring themes such as the spirit of risk, sacrifice and cross cultural exchange.
Neenan says, “Captain Musick was on a mission to deliver mail to an isolated region of the South Pacific during a time when mail was the only connection people had to their loved ones. His bravery in the face of such extreme danger, set against the magical backdrop of the South Pacific, are major inspirations for Rosie and me in the creation of this ballet.”
Neenan originally became captivated by Captain Musick’s story through conversations he had with his friend, composer and native New Zealander Rosie Langabeer. Preparations for Sunset, o639 Hours began in 2013 when he and Langabeer spent three weeks in the summer traveling throughout New Zealand gathering information on Captain Musick and researching Pacific and Maori culture.
While there, the duo made audio recordings of natural and urban sounds that would eventually be incorporated into the ballet’s score. They took photographs of the landscape to provide inspiration for award-winning Philadelphia artist and set designer Maiko Matsushima and New York City-based costume designer Christine Darch. Neenan studied performances of traditional Maori dance to use as choreographic elements throughout the ballet, and even took vocal lessons to be able to participate as Langabeer created a sonic world for Sunset, o639 Hours that employs the dancers’ voices.
With Sunset, o639 Hours, Neenan and Langabeer will create for audiences the experience of being transported to a distant and isolated land as they follow a fictionalized account of Captain Musick’s final journey. The ballet begins the moment you step inside The Wilma Theater. Audiences will travel back in time and follow Captain Musick’s journey as it begins in the USA, continues on to New Zealand, Samoa and Hawaii, and ultimately ends in a world filled with the spirits from the tragic crash of the Samoan Clipper. A distinctive soundscape that combines traditional sounds from each of these lands will fill the theater.
To break down the traditional lines between the dancers onstage and the musicians in the pit, Langabeer and her ensemble of four musicians will play live on stage, interacting with the dancers who will also vocalize and sing. The dancers will embody characters central to the story, like the Captain himself and his aircraft, as well as majestic birds and other natural elements that are unique to the South Pacific. Celebrating risk and innovation, both in plot and through this unique collaboration, Sunset, o639 Hours promises to take audiences on an emotional and sensory journey unlike anything they have experienced before.
Sunset, o639 Hours marks the second time Neenan and Langabeer have collaborated on a project. In 2011, they worked together on Neenan’s first full-length world premiere for BalletX, Proliferation of the Imagination, a vaudeville ballet that was co-produced by The Wilma Theater. Hailed by The New York Times as having “one of the most appealing and singular voices in ballet today,” Neenan co-founded BalletX with Christine Cox in 2005. In addition to his work with BalletX, Neenan is also the resident choreographer for Pennsylvania Ballet and is a highly sought after choreographer who has been commissioned to create work for The Washington Ballet, Colorado Ballet, Ballet Memphis, Milwaukee Ballet, Oregon Ballet Theatre, Tulsa Ballet and Sacramento Ballet, among others.
BalletX has toured and performed Neenan’s choreography at The Joyce Theater, Jacob’s Pillow, Laguna Dance Festival, Spring to Dance Festival in St. Louis, and Vail International Dance Festival in Colorado, which the company will tour to again shortly following Summer Series 2014.
For more information on BalletX or Sunset, o639 Hours, visit www.balletx.org. Performances run July 9-13 at The Wilma Theater on 265 South Broad Street in Philadelphia.
Photo (top): Daniel Mayo and Chloe Felesina in rehearsal for Matthew Neenan’s world premiere of Sunset, 0639 Hours. Photo (left): Andie Yorita and Zachary Kapeluck in rehearsal. Photos by Bill Hebert, courtesy of BalletX.