BalletX at Jacob’s Pillow offers an unusual story ballet
Dance Review by Larry Murray
As the audience takes its seats, a score of dancers are onstage, warming up and improvising some of the complex moves we are about to see. It’s the perfect appetizer that whets the appetite for more.
Most story ballets feature nymphs, poultry and sugar plum damsels, but choreographer Matthew Neenan’s long-form narrative ballet turns the usual fairy tale white ballets on their heads. Featured in a full length program at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, his Sunset, o639 Hours was created and set on his Philadelphia-based BalletX company and it is certainly a tale drawn from the twentieth century, not the nineteenth.
Sunset, o639 is an audacious work on so many levels. In the phantasmagorical performance that was performed in the Ted Shawn Theatre, the dancers were morphed from people into propellers, pistons and planes that scudded close to the floor of the stage, or soared skyward as the transpacific flights of the doomed pilot and crew were retold in movement. Looking carefully, one could see many traditional balletic combinations, but they were stitched onto totally new material that few have ever seen before. All this creativity is in the service of the story of the daring young men taking their flying machines across 5,000 miles of open water. The flight of Captain Edwin Musick ended badly, of course, and Neenan’s ballet captures the tragedy along with the moments of glory.
What makes this ballet work so well – beyond the intricate and innovative dancing – is the daring of some of the conceptions. Can you imagine the rapid movements of dancers en pointe suggesting a well oiled engine being revved for takeoff? Or using their arms as propellers? Or interconnected and writhing on the floor to emulate well oiled gears?
If the dancing was amazing, the blending of original music to bring the whole story to life is this dance’s crowning glory. The dance and the music are their own partners and they fit perfectly together. The choreographer has a long history of working with New Zealand composer-musician Rosie Langabeer. She and her quartet of musicians all play various instruments, including some that make the oddest sounds. At times they are on the sidelines, and at others they are integrated into the dance itself generating a multi-layered performance that seems half dream, half reality. We find ourselves in the middle of a nightclub on New Year’s Eve with a smoky chanteuse crooning a tune and shortly after we are in the middle of a Hawaiian luau, or a native Samoan ceremony. The integration of all the elements is magical, and while the story is not linear, the effect is one of drifting into and out of images and scenes. In fact the program describes the story not in plot lines, but rather in fifteen short scene descriptions such as “The Captain Yearns for His Wife,” and “Dec. 31, 1937: New Year’s Eve.”
The ensemble worked seamlessly together, with unforgettable moments, For example, the pas de deux by Chloe Felesina and Zachary Kapeluck in the second half was heartbreakingly beautiful, and certainly the highlight of the evening.
Overall, Sunset o639 made this trip to Jacob’s Pillow one of the most memorable of the summer.
BalletX performing Sunset 0639 at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, Ted Shawn Theatre, 358 George Carter Road, Becket, MA. July 20-24, 2016.