On January 11, 1938, pilot Edwin Musick and his crew died when their plane exploded in mid-air shortly after completing the first airmail flight between the United States and New Zealand. The context and repercussions of this event inspired Sunset, o639 Hours, with which BalletX is inaugurating its 11th season.
The rich, multilayered story ballet, choreographed by Matthew Neenan with a musical score by Rosie Langabeer, had its world premiere at the Wilma Theater in 2014. Since then BalletX has presented Sunset at several prestigious venues - including the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival and New York's Joyce Theater - to critical acclaim. So this is a welcome chance for local audiences to revisit the piece.
Fifteen short scenes flow together seamlessly, showing off the physical technique, acting ability, and stylistic range of BalletX's dancers. At various points they portray airplanes and exotic birds (the avian duet featuring Richard Villaverde and Gary W. Jeter II is priceless). The dancers also perform a stylized Lindy hop and a traditional Samoan chant.
But, ultimately, this piece is about the human need to communicate - via touch, memory, and (in the pre-Internet era) handwritten letters. This theme is heightened by Maiko Matsushima's elegant set: a half-dozen irregularly folded forms suspended above the stage and beautifully lit by Drew Billau. Miraculously, a number of the actual letters carried on Musick's plane were recovered; several are recited here, to accompany danced vignettes.
One of the most beautiful - and emotionally wrenching - segments of Sunset is the exquisite pas de deux between Captain Musick (Zachary Kapeluck) and his wife (Chloe Felesina). Meanwhile, Langabeer and the other onstage musicians (gifted vocalist Andrew Mars plus Joshua Machiz and Isaac Stanford) play everything in sight, including trombone, upright bass, ukulele, and lap steel guitar, as well as experimental instruments invented by Neil Feather. Sound designer Nick Kourtides does a masterful job of combining field recordings of New Zealand birdsong with vintage radio broadcasts and airplane-engine noises. And the costumes, by Christina Darch, are as versatile as the performers.
BalletX perform Sunset, o639 Hours tonight through Sunday at the Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad St. Tickets: $25-50. Information: 215-546-7824; www.balletx.org.