BECKET — I suppose the subject of choreographer Matthew Neenan’s “Sunset, o639 Hours” is — as Alastair Macaulay wrote in a 2014 New York Times review — an unconventional one for a ballet. The evening-length work, performed this week at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival by the Philadelphia-based company BalletX, is inspired by the American pilot Edwin Musick and his doomed 1938 trip aboard the “Samoan Clipper” on Pan American’s first-ever airmail trip from Hawaii to New Zealand. But if we can sign on to ballets about bird-women, wilis, and sylphs, why not get on board with a pre-World War II story depicting the flights of fancy of flesh-and-blood men and women?
Co-created with New Zealand composer and musician Rosie Langabeer, “Sunset” is, its sky-high theme notwithstanding, often earthy and sensual. The 10 superb dancers constantly morph into various creatures. At times they are Musick’s crew members, at other times revelers in a nightclub, dancing the night away. They are now fish gently undulating, now twitchy, exotic birds. Sometimes they circle their arms, faster and faster, propellers come alive.
Aside from its time period, “Sunset” is in every way a modern story ballet, particularly in the non-linear way it proceeds. With handsome costumes by Christine Darch and an evocative lighting design by Drew Billiau, the metaphoric fourth wall is deftly in place, and we are brought convincingly into another world. Five abstract “clouds,” by Maiko Matsushima, hang, physical reminders of trouble ahead. There is no “synopsis,” just scene titles in the printed program. The two-act ballet is really a series of fantastical sketches that are like a dream you cannot unpack later, but makes perfect, poetic sense while asleep.
Four musicians — “The Sunset Club,” made up of Langabeer and three men — and their kooky potpourri of instruments share the stage throughout. Though fully integrated into the atmosphere, they seem like seers; they weave amongst the dancers gently, ghosts amidst spirits who don’t see their fates’ shadows hovering all around them.
Whether a sexy, tipsy, romantic evening in a nightclub or a trippy luau on the beach, Neenan creates an inventive, teeming atmosphere on the packed stage. The movement is varied but not endlessly so — that is, Neenan works within a specific vocabulary that helps maintain a sense of wholeness to the ballet. The dance is expansive, rife with big ballet jumps, sweeping grand rond de jambes, and somersaults tossed about easily despite the full-throttled way these vibrant dancers perform them. The space-devouring steps are shot through with ebullient little jumps, often flex-footed and parallel, the dancers seeming to pop off the floor with no obvious preparation. (The women wear pointe shoes much of the time, which makes the flexed feet especially cheeky.) The dancers often perform several variations on a theme, all at once. When they gather into the sparingly used unison phrases it’s a surprising little thrill.
The original score, mostly by Langabeer, is likewise rich yet seamless; the quartet also shapeshifts, becoming marching band or jazz combo, as needed. Langabeer and Andrew Mars — also listed as a contributing composer — both sing, Mars sometimes sounding like a haunting cross between Don Ho and Roy Orbison.
Neenan dares to make an earnest ballet, and that’s why it works. Though the figures are protected in a bubble of innocence, there is that constant reminder of clouds on the otherwise spotless sunshine of their horizons. The often-bustling energy makes the beautifully tender duet between Zachary Kapeluck (who portrays the unnamed pilot) and Chloe Felesina that much more affecting. Later, when the inevitable tragedy has played out, they dance once more, but as if in her memory. There’s nothing silly in the couple’s miming of their clutched hearts, which seem to leap out of their chests, only to flutter away in the wind.
At Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, Becket, through Sunday. Tickets begin at $39. 413-243-0745, www.jacobspillow.org
Janine Parker can be reached at email@example.com.