- Taking Off
Is it a bird? A plane? The aerodynamics of dancing might not look as superheroic as the miracles CGI makes possible in summer movie blockbusters, but it’s even more miraculous to see athletes launch themselves through space live on stage, without the aid of performance-enhancing digital drugs. To have seen Edward Villella sailing off into the wings—backwards—as Balanchine’s Puck over forty years ago, or to watch Daniel Ulbricht duplicating the feat today, or to witness Robert Fairchild’s hang time as he gracefully and precisely lands a jeté—such moments let us imagine that gods still dwell among us. In the performing arts, nothing creates the virtual exhilaration of flying so much as watching dancing, and, like birds and airplanes, dancers require the antagonism of gravity in order to create the illusion of escaping it. In summer 2016, the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, the great Terpsichorean Berkshires escape, offered programs that took off in a number of ways, including one evening-length dance about flight itself.
It’s hard to imagine a premise less promising for ballet than the pioneers of transpacific airmail aviation, but choreographer Matthew Neenan and composer Rosie Langabeer have made that the theme of Sunset, o639 Hours, a 70-minute collaboration from 2014 that Philadelphia company BalletX brought to the Pillow in July. Langabeer, a New Zealander, fronts the Sunset Club, a versatile Philadelphia quartet that energizes the show with its lively playing onstage at the Ted Shawn Theater, which has no orchestra pit. Her compositions range from a delirious mashup of the US and New Zealand national anthems (played by a four-piece brass mini-band, snaking among the dancers, to celebrate the arrival of Pan American Airways’ Samoan Clipper in Auckland) to Samoan chant, Hawaiian slack-key guitar, and 1930s-style swing numbers and ballads, all heard in pastiches that recall such musical encyclopedists as David Byrne and [End Page 135] Van Dyke Parks. In a friendly, slightly edgy tone, co-composer Andrew Mars sings his own eccentric lyrics for several numbers. In addition to Langabeer on keyboards, Josh Machiz plays bass and Isaac Stanford aids the evening’s musical metamorphoses on a variety of steel guitars. They make excellent dance music.
The score also includes some forays into concrete music, thanks in part to “instrument inventor” Neil Feather. Electronic roars, clicks, and whirrs accompany Neenan’s most ingenious choreographic innovation, BalletX’s transformation into the Samoan Clipper on its inaugural 1937 New Zealand flight (the initial trans-Pacific airmail delivery took place in 1935, into Manila, flown by the same pilot, Captain Edwin Musick). As the engines rev, the ten dancers fall into formation, Gary W. Jeter II up front as a propeller, Zachary Kapeluck behind him as Captain Musick, and the remainder of the company deployed as wings, fuselage, and tail. The men, arms lowered, rotate their forearms outward in opposing directions while keeping their upper arms immobile, and the women extend their arms outward, modeling wings and ailerons. Neenan sustains this remarkable stunt just long enough to let us enjoy watching it cruise, reprising it in new contexts and different orientations—facing front, facing right, on a diagonal—as the Clipper flies into Samoa and Hawaii, then crashes tragically between Hawaii and Pago Pago after developing an oil leak.
Although Sunset, o639 Hours proceeds chronologically, from the initial Auckland landing on December 26, 1937, to the death of the crew eleven days later, Neenan, who in 2005 co-founded BalletX with current director Christine Cox, has not created a strictly narrative dance; rather, its lyric structure displays his company’s skills while evoking the allegorical qualities of human flight. The lyricism emerges most strongly in a segment called “People > Birds > Planes,” in which, to electronic twitters and clucks, the cast ingratiatingly mimes a variety of bird motions, then gradually evolves into the industrial steel bird for its flight to Samoa. Readings from actual letters carried on the flight recall a long-ago world with scant instantaneous communication. The texts, alas, are fairly mundane love and lovelorn letters, save for a communication from New Zealand’s Native Land Titles Administration to...