Fans of planes and history will recognize the names Orville and Wilbur Wright — the brothers who created the first flying machine. But have you heard of their sister, Katharine?
Dancer and choreographer Penelope Freeh grew up in Dayton, Ohio, home to the Wright brothers. On a trip home to Dayton, Freeh began thinking about how the brothers combined their creativity with relentless experimentation — and about how their sister was key to the process.
A new performance looks at the role she played in getting her brothers' ideas off the ground, and at the legacy of flight. It's called "Test Pilot."
A Latin and Greek teacher, Katharine Wright was the only one in the family with a college education. When her brothers traveled to North Carolina, she became the center of the family's communications.
"Because the father was a travelling bishop — so the boys would be at Kitty Hawk, she would be at home, the father would be wherever," Freeh said. "And so the letters would flow through her and out, and through her and out, in both directions — so her role in terms of recorder was invaluable."
Katharine Wright went on to help run their company and became a celebrity when she toured with her brothers in France.
Working with composer Jocelyn Hagen, Freeh brainstormed on how best to convey both Katharine's story and the visceral feeling of flight through dance and music. The result is what she calls a "dance opera." Orville and Wilbur are portrayed by two male dancers, while their plane — the 1903 Flyer — is danced by two women.
"Partnering is something I'm very interested in as a choreographer, so it opened up ways I could explore that ... but also have dances that are separate from the brothers, that are just the little plane building itself, getting discovered, being sketched on a blueprint," she said.
Freeh created movement inspired by the blueprints for the flyer, and by photos of the brothers. Hagen, in turn, created a libretto drawn from family letters, a poem by Amelia Earhart, even the alphabet used for radio communication. The challenge, Hagen said, was to create music that could respond to the movement.
"I'm used to having all my notes, my dots very much lined up and exactly where they're supposed to be," Hagen said. "And my work with Penny has really opened up this other side of my creative process, where I let go a lot of that control, trusting the musicians, doing things off of visual cues and things like that. And it has really opened up my music in this beautiful way."
While the show is largely about the discovery of flight, it's also about the consequences of that discovery. Both Penelope Freeh and Jocelyn Hagen have family histories involving aviation and wartime. Those experiences are woven into the performance.
Just as Orville and Wilbur Wright's plane demanded creativity and invention, Hagen said, so has this piece.
"It's really about stretching what music and dance can be together," she said. "How we can take a scientific equation and make it music and dance. We tackled that, which was kind of daunting, at the beginning of the process — but very exciting."
Freeh said she hopes audiences will be inspired by the performance to live in their imaginations a bit. "I think it will probably conjure their own memories and stories around flight," she said, "and to hopefully bring a little bit more awareness around the role Katharine played."
"Test Pilot" runs Thursday night in Detroit Lakes, Saturday at The O'Shaughnessy in St. Paul, next Tuesday in Duluth, and a week from Saturday in Red Wing. Freeh hopes the show continues to take wing, and will make its way eventually to Dayton, Ohio; Kitty Hawk, N.C.; and Washington, D.C.