First In Flight Dance Opera

A new dance/opera collaboration evokes the dawn of the flying machine

Flying machines have always enticed—they’re the next best thing to having wings, after all—and the way they transformed our civilization underpins the new collaboration between choreographer/dancer Penelope Freeh (left) and composer Jocelyn Hagen (right). Test Pilot is billed as a dance opera and combines a string quartet, vocalists, four dancers, and video to tell its story from the perspective of Katharine Wright, sister of aviation pioneers Wilbur and Orville.

Freeh and Hagen collaborated most recently in 2012 for Slippery Fish, which also wedded dance, strings, and voices—a combination with a great deal of evocative power. For Test Pilot, they’re smashing up letters between the Wrights, along with poetry and personal accounts of the 1903 first flight at Kitty Hawk (there were witnesses, but not many: The brothers feared having their innovation stolen before they could cash in on it themselves).

And that’s what makes this such a great American story—the confluence of outsize ambition wedded to the profit motive, as good a means as any for explaining the engine that drove the previous century. I also have to admit to a weakness for the big metaphor—Philip Glass’ 1982 opera The Photographer comes to mind, which blended a story of technological innovation (stop-motion photography) with the person behind it. Here, we dive into our subjects by their impact on those around them: In Test Pilot, dancers portray the Wright Brothers in silence while others testify to the results of their invention.

Photo by Jack Dant

Not that this is an exercise in literal storytelling; sound effects in the score and impressionistic scenes will evoke the abstract emotional tenor of being the first humans to take to the skies. It’s an approach well-suited to the genre-blurring Freeh, who has worked a distinctive furrow in contemporary ballet, and Hagen, whose compositions touch on multifaceted aspects of song and whose collaborations have ranged from classic choral groups to hip-hop.

There’s a heady irony in how much we take flight for granted today (comedian Louis CK riffed on how we complain about our cramped airplane seats while speeding from place to place faster than almost anyone who has ever lived). But it’s preoccupied our gravity-bound selves, from Icarus to Leonardo da Vinci’s freakily ahead-of-their-time sketches all the way to the Apollo program. As creatures, we always want to go there: to the apparently impossible, into the sky itself.

As evidence that history doesn’t lack for poetry, Orville Wright’s final flight was in Howard Hughes’ Lockheed Constellation in 1944—one American test pilot to another, in a time when each generation’s accomplishments built on the last to create works of wonder (as well as, in that time, achievements equally terrifying).

Test Pilot 9.12–13,

Quinton Skinner is a writer and editor based in the Twin Cities. A former senior editor of Minnesota Monthly, he held the same post at Twin Cities METRO and 
has written for major national and local publications. He is the co-founder of Logosphere Storysmiths and author of several novels, including his latest, Odd One Out.