Transportation History in the Arts

It’s not often that an event in the history of transportation turns up as the subject of a work of art, especially in a full length ballet.  But it does happen.  A happy example is a recent work, Sunset, o639 Hours, choreographed by Matthew Neenan with original music by New Zealand composer Rosie Langabeer.  Sunset, o639 Hours is performed by BalletX, the innovative Philadelphia dance company founded in 2005 by Neenan and Christine Cox.

The work poignantly reimagines the last days of a doomed flight crew led by the noted aviator Edwin Musick. Musick and his crew were lost on January 11, 1938, when their Sikorsky S-42B, the Samoan Clipper, exploded not long after taking off on a survey flight from Pago Pago to Auckland, New Zealand.  This was Musick’s second mission to Auckland.  Ten months earlier, his flying boat had landed in Auckland’s Mechanics Bay, opening new international air mail routes and greeted by thousands along the shore. A prominent Auckland peninsula was named Point Musick in 1942.

Musick was a prominent figure in commercial aviation in the 1930s.  He appeared on the cover of Time Magazine in 1935, and a recounting of his role in the development of transpacific air networks is featured in T.R. Heppenheimer’s history of commercial aviation, Turbulent Skies.  Musick’s image was number 8 in a 1930s series of “Famous Aviator” trading cards that appeared in boxes of Heinz cereals.


The work premiered by BalletX in 2014 to excellent reviews in the New York and Philadelphia. Happily, the work is being revived this year for performances at the Vail International Dance Festival on August 1, at the Joyce Theater in New York City on August 11 and 12, and at the Baton Rouge Ballet Theater in October.  Before these national performances, BalletX will again perform Sunset, o639 Hours on July 23 and 24 at its home, Philadelphia’s Wilma Theater.

David Ballard attended a performance of Sunset, o639 Hours during its premier run in Philadelphia in July 2014, and it was an exciting experience.  The musicians work onstage with the dancers, integrated into the production with an original score that covered a striking range of musical styles, from ethereal evocations of flight to dance hall swing.  The work itself ranged as widely, with the dancers moving easily from stylized representations of the Samoan Clipper in flight to bawdy evenings in night clubs to moving images of tragedy and grief.  It was a nice and genuine surprise to see the BalletX dancers so beautifully engaged with a now largely forgotten episode from the romantic and treacherous early days of international air transportation.

It is gratifying to see an aviation pioneer memorialized in this way, and to know that the work will now have a national audience.

BalletX photos by Alexander Iliziaev.

~Thanks to David Ballard for this post

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