'Sunset, o639 Hours' - Matthew Neenan's Unlikely Hit Returns to the Wilma

by Lewis Whittington

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday November 16, 2016

When Philadelphia's premiere contemporary ballet company BalletX premiered Matthew Neenan's "Sunset. o639 Hours" in 2014, it became an instant and unlikely hit. A hybrid dance-theater-musical in two acts, it has enjoyed sell out houses at the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia at the Joyce Theater in New York. It continued to garner critical and audience praise in engagements at Vail International Dance Festival and the prestigious Jacob's Pillow. Now it returns to the Wilma Theater, with only one replacement from the original cast of dancers and musicians, to kick off BalletX's 2016-17 season.

The ballet, which tells the true story of aviation pioneer Captain Edwin Musick's fateful 1938 airmail flight across the Pacific to New Zealand, combines dance, text and music in equal measure. Dancer Zachary Kapeluck portrays Musick and leads the ensemble Andrea Yorita, Caili Quan, Chloe Felesina, Daniel Mayo, Edgar Anido, Francesca Forcella, Gary W. Jeter II, Richard Villaverde and Skyler Lubin who portray other real life characters.

A "dance-musical-theater" piece, it is an equal collaboration with New Zealand composer Rosie Langabeer and lyricist-singer Andrew Mars, musicians Isaac Stanford and Joshua Manchiz, who all also perform in the ballet. The "Sunset" team took five from their sound-check at the Wilma Theater last weekend to talk about the production.

Mars commented that the score and ballet elements "came together quickly over the course of a month. The process was easier I think because we knew the arc of the story."

It starts unconventionally with the BalletX troupe onstage in dance improvs that portray the private lives and loves of their characters whose fates are about to be revealed. The ballet depicts the crew's historic flight and landing in New Zealand, as well as the characters off-duty activities, and, finally, their fated flight home.

Langabeer's score is a musical mosaic of 30s jazz, musical exotica and orchestral soundscapes. "We chose the story partially because it would support what Andrew and I had been interested in musically... There are old-timey jazz, crooning, exotica... the irony is that as sad things are happening, it still looks like a relaxed paradise. The tension between those two states -- I wanted to reflect musically."

The orchestration includes piano, steel guitar, ukulele, bongo, bass, electric bass, and at one point the four musicians all play brass instruments and a variety of invented instruments created by Neil Feather that include an Anaplum, which Langabeer calls "a metal and magnet plum bob situation creating sound."

Mars, who sings his own haunting ballad "I Was A Diamond," said some of his songwriting "was new territory for me, particularly the way text weaves through. We wanted there to be a dynamic tension between the dance and the lyrics, without overstepping in a literal way." Langabeer believes that Mars succeeds in capturing the dramatic "context without singing 'about' the people or what they are doing."

The musicians said that working with Neenan was such a natural creative process. "Watching Matt create the movement, when he demonstrates something, for instance, everyone in the studio gets it right away."

Neenan's expansive choreographic vocabulary in "Sunset" incorporates the company's signature contemporary ballet aesthetic with jazz, folkloric and character dance idioms. Even though the show landed so fully formed onstage and has become one of BX's biggest hits, Neenan admitted that he has made a few choreographic changes. "I always like kind of touch things up a bit," he quipped in a phone interview this week, adding that even though the show is so different, it connects with people because "not only is it a true story, but people seemed entranced by the energy of the dancers, the musicians and definitely Rosie and Andrew's music and lyrics."

Choreographically Neenan admits that the show "is a very arduous show for the dancers, especially for Zach who plays the pilot, but for the other dancers too since they play all different roles. So it's a team effort. But they love that it's a piece that they can keep exploring and they know that I want them to do that."

Neenan and BX artistic director Christine Cox co-founded BalletX in 2005-6 and it has since emerged as one of the premier contemporary ballet companies in the US, now with a repertory of 50 commissioned works with many of today's most innovative choreographers.

BalletX 's "Sunset, o639 Hours" runs Nov. 16 - 20 at the Wilma Theater, Broad & Spruce Sts. Philadelphia. For complete season information visit the BalletX website.

Watch this preview of >"Sunset o639 Hours":

Lewis Whittington writes about the performing arts and gay politics for several publications.