Behind every performance masterpiece, there are gifted artists who have pure love for what they do: Tchaikovsky and Petipa for Swan Lake; Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins for West Side Story. SUNSET, O639 HOURS by BalletX is a masterpiece of dance. It was created by composer Rosie Langabeer, who loves music and adores her motherland New Zealand and its beautiful cultures, and choreographer Matthew Neenan, who loves ballet and has an obvious appreciation for its beauty.
When they decided to collaborate, Langabeer, a highly acclaimed musicologist from Aotearoa, New Zealand, wanted it to be beautiful and something that made the viewers cry. Neenan spent a month with her in New Zealand, and the pair decided to make a ballet about Captain Edwin Musick—a famous aviator and a pilot for Pan Am who died in a plane crash in Samoa in 1938. Working with musician Andrew Mars, Langabeer created an ultra rich and whimsical soundtrack for the full-length ballet, introducing a wide variety of sounds played by four unbelievable musicians via their voices, their bodies, and various of musical instruments: jazz, jungle animals, Samoan chants, the sounds of the engine and the mechanics of a plane, and a recorded archive of the speech by a mayor praising Captain Musick in 1938 for his successful inaugural flight between the U.S. and New Zealand.
Matthew Neenan completed the ballet with an innovative choreography demonstrating his appreciation to the basics of the classical ballet.
The performance begins while the audiences are still chatting in the lighted theater. Like musicians before an orchestral concert, the dancers onstage prologue steps and movements. Gradually, they tune up as the audiences gets ready, and the story starts.
As with Langabeer’s score, Neenan introduces varieties of dance styles into the ballet. The dancers swing to jazz music at the scene of a new year’s party. The next moment they become birds in a rainforest, then a plane flying in the sky.
Neenan also brings in some methods that have been used for other ballet masterpieces. Zachary Kapeluck, the captain, and Chloe Felesina, his wife, dance a duet in the captain’s dream. The sensual and beautiful movements express the captain’s love and longing for his wife. The same movements are repeated in a later scene after the plane crush, this time to express the wife’s lamentation and longing for her dead husband. This repetition is reminiscent of such classic ballets as Giselle and Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet. The contrast reminds the viewers of the joy and the love that was lost and highlights life’s unavoidable cruelty and unbearable sorrow.
In the same duets, Kapeluc and Felesina turn their heads to the audience instead of looking into each other’s eyes when their movements and poses show intimacy and affection for each other—a technique seen in The Afternoon of a Faun by Jerome Robbins. The dancers’ interaction with the audience through their eyes allows us to experience the pure and intense emotion that the the captain and the wife may be feeling.
Each dancer is stunning. Kapeluck danced his captain subtly and steadily. His interpretation of Captain Musick adds deeper character to the historical person who was well-known but did not disclose much to public. Felesina is just magnificent in her role. A beautiful and exciting dancer, she knows how to act and live the role. Not a few viewers teared up during her dance in the last scene. She expresses a sadness and cruelty that makes us want to come back to the theater to experience the beautiful ballet again.
Like other masterpieces of ballet, SUNSET, O639 HOURS grows by itself and lets the dancers grow. It is a ballet to share with your special someone, someone you adore, love and treasure.
[The Wilma Theater, 265 S Broad Street] November 16-20, 2016; http://balletx.org/seasons/fall-series-2016/