A! Magazine for the Arts

A young Evelyn Pursley-Kopitzke is shown with her pet cat in doll buggy. The Zambezi River can be seen in the background.

A young Evelyn Pursley-Kopitzke is shown with her pet cat in doll buggy. The Zambezi River can be seen in the background.

Evelyn Pursley-Kopitzke composes ballet

February 27, 2019

What started out as a half hour of short tone poems by Evelyn Pursley-Kopitzke metamorphosed into an 80-minute ballet, “Magic Butterfly.” (A tone poem is a piece of orchestral music which illustrates or evokes the content of apoem, short story or other non-musical source.)

“In 2006, Dr. Craig Combs, the innovative and courageous artistic director of The Paramount Chamber Players made a call for scores to regional composers; I was one of them. His original specifications suggested music with an Appalachian flavor. However, I had been considering writing a musical memoir of my childhood in Africa and asked Dr. Combs if he was interested. He was. The resulting‘African Vignettes’resonated with audiences and resulted in a second set of‘Vignettes’in 2010 and a London, U.K. premiere in 2012. After each of the performances, listeners suggested the music had such visual appeal that it belonged in a ballet.

“Probably the music itself was the springboard. What I mean is that the music creates pictures and tells stories. Looking back, the next step almost seemed inevitable. I don’t really remember who was the absolute first to suggest it. I remember that Dr. Craig Combs and Beth Perkinson McCoy were early proponents of the idea, along with several people, "whom I didn’t know, "who were in the audience of the premiere of the original seven movements. When I shared the recordings with fellow musicians and friends, they all agreed that the music was so visual that it should become a ballet. At the time, I doubt any of them expected a ballet to ever happen. But I’ve never been one to ignore good ideas,” Pursley-Kopitzke says.

That good idea necessitated a lot of new music and the creation of a story.

The existing 11 movements were a combination African travelogue and child’s memoir. Even though the music seemed perfect for a ballet, it didn’t start out with a unified story. The Tanzanian mountains, Serengeti Plains, Zambezi River, Victoria Falls and South African kopjes, along with weather, wild animals, and pets made a varied palette, perhaps too varied.

“One way to use the original music was to turn all those vignettes into destinations on a journey. It was only when I found an unused theme in my old sketchbook, which recalled my short-lived hobby collecting butterflies, that I realized I could have a magic butterfly. After all, what is a ballet without magic? The butterfly grew into a super-strong butterfly character that could act as a combination tour guide, transportation and protector. After that, the story was easy,” she says.

Her story focuses on Eve, a mission child, and Morpho the Magic Butterfly. The story begins with Eve in a field of flowers chasing butterflies. After much effort, she finally captures Morpho, the most beautiful butterfly. Morpho persuades Eve to release him, and all the rest of the butterflies in her collection. Later when Eve has a toothache and has dental anesthesia, Morpho comes back as a magicbutterfly, appearing in her anesthesia dream as a reward for choosing not to collect (kill) butterflies anymore. He then takes her on a series of wild African adventures. Together they evade lions, crocodiles, hippopotami, snakes, mosquitos and too-tame zebras and baboons, all the while acquiring, and losing, a variety of pets, both wild and tame. Storms, floods and a lion-hunt rite of passage are also featured in this action-packed ballet.It concludes with a dramatic and magical surprise ending.

Pursley-Kopitzke wrote several additional numbers to tell the ballet’s story. She also lengthened some of the original seven movements, so the dancers could dance more than a few steps before each piece ended.

She says she didn’t envision specific dance steps while writing the music, because her knowledge of dance is too limited for that. But she did see the movement created by the scenes and story.

“I had already written much of the original ‘Vignettes’ to describe movement. The ants, marmots, flooded water, diving kingfisher, flopping fish, migrating/stampeding herds of antelope, pouncing lion and many more, all are described with musical motifs that, to me, resemble their paths of movement. When I describe the scenes or stories most listeners agree with me. I’m looking forward to watching Deirdre Cole and the Highlands Ballet dancers turn that musical movement into dance,” she says.

The music is what she calls updated classical and slightly modernist neo-romantic, with an African djembe (drum) and “just enough dissonance” as Combs puts it.

“Don’t worry. The only obvious dissonance is in sections that describe situations that are unpleasant or scary. The dissonance won’t hurt a bit,” Pursley-Kopitzke says.

Because she spent part of her youth in Tanzania, it had an effect on this music, but a subtle one.

“Most of the time when people ask me where I’m from, I say, ‘I live in Tennessee.’ Answering the Africa question tends to get too complicated. And most of the questioners expect answers from an adult point of view. The original ‘Vignettes’ were an attempt to answer from a child’s point of view, which consists of primarily emotional memories. I remember the weather, the river, the animals, my tribal African playmates, my pets, believing I could fly like a helicopter if I just twirled fast enough, avoiding snakes and staying away from the river because of crocodiles, childish memories.

“Musically, things like the speech rhythms of Swahili and Lozi, languages that I learned fluently, sung harmonies that the tribal Africans used for their unaccompanied music and drum-accompanied ceremonies I heard in the distance have possibly found their way into my music. There aren’t any obvious quotations, it just has a bit of the flavor,” she says.

Once the music was written and The Paramount Chamber Players and Highlands Ballet were involved, the project become exciting and complicated. Financial support was a major issue. The production became more of a sure thing when they applied for and won a Virginia Commission for the Arts matching funds project grant.

“I can’t tell you how excited I am to be collaborating with the wonderful Highlands Ballet Company and Paramount Chamber Players on this spring’s production of my own creation,‘Magic Butterfly.’It’s my understanding that completely new classical music played live for an all-new ballet is unprecedented in this region.Composing ‘Magic Butterfly’ has been as much fun as anything I’ve ever written. It’s beyond exciting to realize that my longest work is going to be staged. My job now is let go of control, to allow the fantastic Highlands Ballet Company and Paramount Chamber Players to add their own magic to my score, she says.

There's More: About the Composer