The dance world is swarming with side “projects” launched by ballet dancers with extra time on their hands. The Joyce’s Ballet Festival featured one of these: The Ashley Bouder Project, as well as several other small groups that provide dancers from major companies with something to do during their off-season. They have found varying degrees of artistic success. Former Pennsylvania Ballet dancers Christine Cox and Matthew Neenan built BalletX from this model before it was trendy, and the relative maturity of their now-established company (though it is only ten years old) shows in Neenan’s quirky and stunning Sunset, o639 Hours.
A collaboration with New Zealand-born composer Rosie Langabeer, Sunset documents the first airmail service from New Zealand to the US in 1938. On the flight back to New Zealand, Captain Edwin Musick’s Samoan Clipper exploded mid-air, killing everyone on board. No traces of the bodies were ever found. Strange source material for a full-length ballet.
Communication is at the center of this narrative, the increasing connections that come with modernization and the possible consequences. It translates into ballet surprisingly well. The physical properties of the “flying boat” and its stops in tropical Samoa, Kingman Reef and Honolulu during the jazzy and drunken 30s also provide a selection of rich movement languages for Neenan. Though largely ensemble-driven, the piece often features Zachary Kapeluck and the fiery, exquisite Chloe Felesina as the Captain and his wife. Traveling across the Pacific, Neenan’s cast executes the mechanics of the Clipper with broad propeller arms and meticulous formations, celebrates the New Year at a bar in Auckland with the best drunk ballet I’ve ever seen, and imitates tropical birds, poking at one another with their beaks and frantically fluttering their articulate hands and fingers.
The Captain’s cargo drives the piece, with fictionalized letters read aloud throughout. Because we know that the airmail service was suspended for several years after the tragedy, hearing the outcome (and importance) of this service out loud raises the stakes of the crew’s journey. In one letter, the wife of a crewman tells him about the newly-opened Golden Gate Bridge, and details her experience working in a factory that produces frozen meals “that you can cook in your own oven!” Excitement about modernization lingers in the piece, but it is often overcome by fear.
Another letter demands that Samoan land be surrendered to the Native Land Titles Administration. Gary W. Jeter II, the dancer who gives the order, arrogantly steps on Caili Quan’s back to cross the stage, with no regard for her body lying flat on the floor. Shortly afterwards, the cast exuberantly sings a native Samoan song while Kapeluck performs a virtuosic solo as the Captain. It is one of his few moments of dancing alone, and suggests doubt and turmoil regarding his role in carrying messages of colonization.
A diverse company tells this story, thankfully. The women in particular are diverse in their movement quality, and Felesina is a standout among them. Midway through Act 2, she appears in the Captain’s dream. They dance the most gentle pas de deux, for he is careful not to allow her apparition to disappear. When he does lose her, Felesina’s eyes unfocus from his and it is clear that she is not real, but a conjuring of his mind. Her subtlety is one of this company’s greatest assets.
Other crew members also long for someone from home. Words and movement become a jumble as letters are exchanged between husbands, wives, lovers, and friends. The moment of incoherence foreshadows the noisy nonsense that advances in communication will bring, as well as the moment of the crew’s death. As the piece climaxes, the dancers again enact the mechanics of the failing plane. When the Clipper gives out, words explode as much as bodies do. The sounds of hundreds of letters spill into the void, and the Clipper’s cargo is lost along with the voices of the dying crew, fighting to be heard in their final moments. Their voices have an afterlife, though; one of Neenan and Langabeer’s best and boldest choices is to have the dancers accompany the Captain and his wife in song for their final pas de deux. “Oh, my love – I will always look for you – In the deep blue of the skies,” they sing.