Submission: “Test Pilot” review

By Casey Warpeha

Carrie Henneman Shaw as Katharine Wright. Photo by Jack Dant.

Carrie Henneman Shaw as Katharine Wright. Photo by Jack Dant.

Top Flight or Test Run? After attending the O’Shaughnessy’s presentation of the world premiere dance opera Test Pilot, I was left hovering as to whether or not the production had earned its wings.

“Art” is a very subjective term. When one identifies as an artist and creates a piece that is offered for public viewing, that work instantly becomes the subject of interpretation which then morphs into opinion. Both the artist and the work are vulnerable to the critical response of the observer. What one person may consider to be awe-inspiring and brilliant can leave another with eyes rolled backward and an “I could have done that” attitude. Neither example is incorrect, nor are any other interpretations that may arise from the viewing audience. This is the nature of art. I know that, as an artist, the words I put on paper will always be subject to scrutiny. It is the risk you take when you are an artist and you can choose to learn and grow from the feedback, or stay true to your form and stand by the final piece you’ve poured yourself into. Art does not have to be enjoyed, understood, memorable or remarkable to be considered “good.” This is the beauty of art. There are no rules and the varying emotions, or lack thereof, that can be invoked are all a part of the process.

That being said, being presented with the opportunity to experience a dance opera genuinely piqued my interest, as it is a medium that I have never seen before. I love to watch dance and have an appreciation for opera, although I am not well-versed in the language of either art form. I am of the contention that you do not need to speak the language of specific forms of expression in order to justify appreciation for it.

Test Pilot is the story of Wilbur and Orville Wright’s development and first successful flight of an aircraft, told from the perspective of their sister, Katharine. This alternate view of a piece of well-known history had me intrigued and curious as I entered the auditorium but, upon the lowering of the curtain, I was overwhelmed with confusion and frustration. As we got up from our seats and made our way toward the exit I said to my mom, “I don’t get it.” She responded with a furrowed brow, “I don’t either.”

My expectations weren’t satisfied. I wanted to know who Katharine was, how she felt about her brothers and their journey and how it affected her. Was she jealous, supportive, inspired, or even incredulous? I don’t know. My immediate sense of Katharine, with her drab yet refined dress and tidy hairdo, was that she was an intelligent yet morose individual.

The words of her introductory solo also satisfy this theory:

I looked through others’ windows
on an enchanted earth,
But out of my own window
solitude and dearth.

And yet there is a mystery
I cannot understand
That others through my window
See an enchanted land.*

She goes on to express the sadness of her brothers’ departure and the forthcoming loneliness that she will feel in their absence in her next solo. These two songs set the tone for Katharine and carries through the remainder of the performance, but I felt as though her role as a sister turned into the role of a narrator after her sadness was established. I didn’t get a sense of the personal perspective that the pre-viewing summary had promised and the performance then turned into a musical piece of history instead of Katharine’s viewpoint throughout her brothers’ journey. Perhaps my understanding of what I was walking into was skewed and I would have been better off coming in with an open mind to witness the story of the Wright brothers told through dance and opera, with an introduction to the existence of their sister.

Visually, I enjoyed the creators’ use of imagery projected on the upstage screen as the performers told the story. This was a skillfully chosen enhancement that proved to be very effective. I also felt that the costuming was appropriate in maintaining the feel of the period, although I had a difficult time “staying in the moment” with the display of tattoos on one of the brothers. I appreciate that many dancers and actors have body art but, having spent many years as an actor, feel that it is the duty of the performer to fully transform yourself into the character you are portraying in order to effectively take the audience with you into that world. Because this was a period piece and the creators used costumes and props that were carefully chosen to uphold the integrity of the era, the presence of tattoos was very much a deterrent.

The shiny silver costumes that were revealed at the end made me feel like the dancers were preparing to perform a synchronized swimming routine in outer space. I appreciate why they made such a dazzling choice, but a softer, less metallic silver and the removal of the swim caps may have been less of an eyesore and the execution of success may have been more elegant and streamlined, while keeping with style of the era. The impact of the brighter lighting and use of makeup was very effective here and would have symbolized the happiness and success of the aircraft without the use of blinding costumes.

I recognize that my opinions of Test Pilot are critical and perhaps that is because I could see that the creators took a great deal of pride in this production, and had the talent and capability to put a wee bit more forethought into its final stages. This was a work of art that bore a great deal of thought, research, strength, creativity and time, and it was difficult as an audience member to observe things that didn’t seem to fit with the claimed intentions of the artists. I do not regret the time or money that was spent in going to this production, regardless of the fact that I didn’t enjoy it. I took away a feeling of respect and admiration for the talented performers, the fortitude and ingenuity of the creators, and the gift of tenacity and courage on behalf of the brothers. As I mentioned before, there are no rules when it comes to art. Sometimes, artists go so far as to create pieces to specifically induce negative emotions (though this is clearly not the case of Test Pilot) and that doesn’t mean that the piece is bad. Or good, for that matter.

Hearing the varying opinions from other students in class was indeed enlightening and I respect each individual’s point of view, but I also remain satisfied with my assessment. I witnessed the union of collaborators and the result they produced. I applaud the time and energy that was put into this piece, as well as St. Kate’s for hosting its debut and giving me a promising introduction to the Women of Substance series.
Despite the inclusion of a very skilled group of flyers, Test Pilot was not a soaring experience for me. I sing their praises for the achievements, but I am still left with turbulence from the overall result of the production.

Casey can be reached at


*By Jessie Rittenhouse, a favorite poem of Katharine’s which she had committed to memory

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