Flying across cultures with BalletX | VailDaily.com

Flying across cultures with BalletX

Leigh Horton
Special to the Daily

VAIL — Globalization has been a political and economic hot topic for decades, and Rosie Langabeer is bringing it to ballet. A New Zealand composer and performer, Langabeer has set U.S. and New Zealand history to music for "Sunset o639," which will be performed by BalletX at the Vilar Center in Beaver Creek on Saturday evening.

Hosted by the Vail International Dance Festival, BalletX is a Philadelphia-based contemporary dance troupe. However, the troupe's performance this year is a classical ballet in which dancers tell an epic and tragic story.

This time, their story diverges from the star-crossed lovers common in ballet, and instead tells about Pan American Captain Edwin Musick, who first delivered airmail from New Zealand to Hawaii. Air travel in the early 20th century was dangerous. Musick's meticulous safety checks ensured that he and his PanAm crew had plenty of test flights as they broke flight records.

Publicity was sure to follow.

Chloe Felesina, one of BalletX's 10 dancers, observed that Musick disliked fame.

"We have his voice in the piece – we hear him talking – but you can feel he just wants to do his job," she said.

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A plane malfunction off of Pago Pago in 1938 killed him and his crew, but his tragic tale will thrill and sadden audiences.

Langabeer and choreographer Matthew Neenan wanted to create a traditional ballet with an untraditional story, and introvert Musick was the perfect protagonist. Langabeer said they also chose Musick's tale because "it was an interesting piece of shared New Zealand and U.S. history. There was something in this that reflected our personal relationship within the larger historical story of our countries' race relations."

Authentic New Zealand jazz

Told with imaginary mail reflecting the concerns of the day, and a few love letters, this high-spirited romp incorporates love, loss, and adventure. These topics are universally appealing, and Felesina adds that because it is a true story, everybody can relate to the tale.

The enthralling realism is not the only component keeping the audience's attention. The high-energy and live music are interesting enough to stand on their own. Although live music at a ballet is rare enough to be interesting, Langabeer was eager to write songs to humor and fun to further snag the crowd's attention.

One scene, in which all the dancers are drunk, celebrates New Year's Eve of 1937 in Auckland Harbor. Langabeer's research revealed that while Musick and his crew were stranded in Auckland that year, "there was a floating cabaret boat moored in the same harbor advertising a New Year's Eve party."

For this scene, Langabeer wanted to create a 1930s New Zealand jazz band.

"(We) composed original songs so authentic they could go retrospectively into the New Zealand jazz songbook," she said.

This approach of tailoring music to location and time colored Langabeer's entire composition for "Sunset o639." She wanted to include the unique sounds of Maori and Pacific Island music in the score, a nod to beautiful New Zealand war-time songs "Haere Ra (Now is the Hour)" and "Blue Smoke."

"Other things just seemed obvious to me," Langabeer continued, "like that we would need a great steel player to give us that beautiful Hawaiian sound and that the dancers would participate vocally, too."

Her dedication to creating music true the story prompted her to approach Neil Feather, an instrument inventor in Baltimore. His creations make plane noises that complement the other sounds and dance.

American sounds, too

But Langabeer didn't want to leave the story one-sided by only presenting music from New Zealand. In trying to represent the US-New Zealand relations, she blended music from both sides of the ocean.

"I composed a march that is a mash-up of the New Zealand national anthem, 'God Defend New Zealand' and the 'Star Spangled Banner.' When we play this in USA, the audience notices something familiar. New Zealanders do, too. There are other things that only New Zealanders pick up on, another dimension I'm proud of, one that makes this piece truly cross-cultural," she said.

Contrast is not limited to culture in this adventure. Neenan and Langabeer wanted to highlight the differences between the beauty of ballet and music with the dangers inherent in aviation.

"We wanted it to be surreal" Langabeer said. "It was a chance to encapsulate in sound the feeling of isolation in paradise, a kind of trapped -in-tranquility atmosphere. A bitter-sweet, hazy dreamscape. I think this atmosphere, combined with the humanity in the lyrics and the nostalgic naivety of pre WWII South Pacific exoticism, really draws people in."

So even if you're skeptical about dance, the music is interesting enough to entertain because of its local roots and historic truth. Felesina believes the audience could attend for the concert, but that the choreography adds so much to the music.

"It satisfied you in this incredible way. It makes you wonder and participate… it's really beautiful," she said.

Felesina, who plays Captain Musick's wife, said "Sunset 0639" has been one of her favorite projects to date.

"The freshness and fun in the choreography makes it a joy to perform," she said.

Neenan researched choreography from both the U.S. and New Zealand, according to Felesina. Dances for "Sunset o639" were influenced by disciplines as diverse as ballet, Lindy Hop, and traditional Maori dances. This unusual blend of influences created a ballet that will delight.

"It's really like nothing I've ever seen or imagined" Felesina said.

For more information, visit vaildance.org and balletx.org.

If you go …

What: BalletX presents “Sunset 0639”

Where: Vilar Performing Arts Center at Beaver Creek

When: Saturday at 7:30 p.m.

How much: $50-$95 per ticket

More info: http://www.vaildance.org