BalletX soars over the Pacific in its Summer Series

A high-flying rehearsal photo from 'Sunset, o639 Hours.' Photo by Bill Hebert.

BalletX is hard at work preparing for the debut of this July’s Summer Series 2014. The show features a full-length world premiere ballet, Sunset, o639 Hours, choreographed by BalletX co-artistic director Matthew Neenan. The piece is inspired by a true story from early 20th-century aviation history. It also features original music from award-winning Philly-based composer Rosie Langabeer, a New Zealand native.

Sunset, o639 Hours is the classic true story of one hero risking his life for the benefit of others. On January 2, 1938, American captain Edwin Musick and his team flew over 4,000 miles of open ocean to deliver mail from New Zealand to the residents of Hawaii. This went down in history as New Zealand’s first completed airmail delivery to Hawaii. While Musick heroically delivered the mail to Hawaii, unfortunately, he died in an explosion on the flight back home.

“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,” Neenan says. “His bravery in the face of such extreme danger, set against the magical backdrop of the South Pacific,” was a “major inspiration” for the ballet’s creators.

Inspiration in New Zealand

Sunset, o639 Hours is a reunion of sorts for Neenan and Langabeer. The two first collaborated on Neenan’s first full-length world premiere for BalletX back in 2011. In 2013, Neenan and Langabeer developed a mutual interest in Captain Musick’s touching story. They decided to create the show with a strong foundation of research, going straight to the source. Neenan and Langabeer spent three weeks traveling throughout New Zealand, gathering information on Captain Musick and researching Pacific Maori culture. The artistic collaborators made audio recordings featuring the natural and urban sounds found on their trip. These sounds were later incorporated into the ballet’s score and used as inspiration for Neenan’s choreography. They also took photos of the landscape to inspire award-winning Philadelphia artist and set designer Maiko Matsushima and New York City costume designer Christine Darch.

Melding dancers, music, and sound

After gathering inspiration from the sights and sounds of their journey, Neenan and Langabeer began creating a multimedia piece to ignite the senses of audience members. The show will take audiences on the journey with Captain Musick from the US to New Zealand, Samoa, and Hawaii, and to a land of spirits that represents the tragic crash of Captain Musick’s Samoan Clipper. The Wilma Theater will also be filled with the live recordings captured by Neenan and Langabeer on their research trip.

According to BalletX, “To break down the traditional lines between the dancers on stage and the musicians in the pit, Rosie 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 portray central characters such as Captain Musick, his aircraft, majestic birds, and other natural elements that are unique to the South Pacific. BalletX promises a show “celebrating risk and innovation” that takes audiences on a sensory trip they’ve never experienced before.

BalletX’s Summer Series 2014, featuring Sunset, o639 Hours, is coming up Wednesday, July 9 to Sunday, July 13 at The Wilma Theater, 265 South Broad Street, Philadelphia. Performances run on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday at 8pm and Saturday and Sunday at both 2pm and 8pm. For tickets and more information, call 215-546-7824 or visit balletx.org or wilmatheater.org.