Wonderbound Dances in a Different Direction, Creates a New Business Model for the Performing Arts

Under Artistic Director Garrett Ammon, the dance company has set the pace for creative partnerships, working with classical ensembles, pop bands, even a magician. Everybody wins.
More and more, Denver has become a collaborative city, especially for performing artists who are bringing together shared visions as a way of evolving their art — and expanding their audiences.

Denver’s own Wonderbound dance company, formerly Ballet Nouveau Colorado, offers such an example through its evolution under Artistic Director Garrett Ammon. The last decade has seen Wonderbound change the way it does business and do away with its annual profit-making The Nutcracker, a feat few dance companies could muster enough budget confidence to attempt. Instead, Ammon has focused on pulling unconventional partners into the company’s creative offerings. What started as a contemporary ballet company has evolved into “it’s own being,” says dancer Sarah Tallman, who has been with Wonderbound since 2008.

Wonderbound has built its repertoire with the help of non-dancing artists who are full partners in its productions.
The company’s first foray into incorporating artists that are not dancers into its pieces began in 2011, when popular Colorado band Paper Bird played to the side of the stage, accompanying Ammon’s choreography. The work’s stellar reception at the box office ignited what has become standard practice for the company today — audience members now expect its ballets to come with an original score composed by a wide-range of respected musicians. Wonderbound has commissioned a diverse list of stylistic cohorts, from the old-school Baroque Chamber Orchestra of Colorado to the psychedelic-folk group Chimney Choir. Ammon also experiments with placement of the musicians. They have slowly crept from the wings to more prominent spots — on high risers behind the dancers or center stage; they are features of the production, rather than servants to it in an orchestra pit.

    These collaborations have been informative to each musician’s creative process, giving them an opportunity to perform for a different type of audience, one that, according to Ian Cooke, who played for Gone West in 2014, “is already showing up ready to listen and take it all in.” Being part of this larger experience, says Cooke, can be overwhelming. “The rush of watching these beautiful people move their bodies to sounds that you are making is like nothing else. At first,I would forget words because I wanted to take everything in.”

Ian Cooke said performing with Wonderbound helped him see his own music in new ways.

Claude Sim, who plays violin with another Wonderbound collaborator, the Colorado Symphony, says, “Garrett deeply understands the need for all artists to be fully expressive. One of the first things he expressed to us was that Wonderbound wanted us to approach our playing with risk and real expression, fully knowing there is an improvisatory feel to great performance.”

Playing for a ballet company stretches the range of duties for musicians, who typically aren’t trained to watch dancers and use their counts. “You have to be so aware of what everyone is doing, the performers are depending on you for cues and tempo and everyone has to be in the same place,” says David Rynhart, of Chimney Choir. “And that’s really intense. It’s like riding a bigger wave.” His bandmate, Kevin Larkin, agrees, that making music for the company has unique demands:  “Composing is different, because you’re writing for a mood or movement. It’s creating a soundtrack to a specific experience.”

    Wonderbound hasn’t limited itself to just instrumental musicians. Local rap duo The Flobots will join the company this month, interweaving among the dancers, microphones in hand, as they bounce to hip-hop beats. The company's studio, affectionately called Junction Box, is home base for the rotating door of ideas and experiments harmonized among the spatial, lyrical and instrumental. Wonderbound invites the musicians it collaborates with to enjoy and play in this space in residency for a week or two during the creative process. This is where the lines of who is influencing who become blurred. Both groups of artists are moved by one another, and learn how to speak one another’s language. “Ballet dancers count in eights, and musicians count in four,” says Larkin. “We had to find a way to talk about the same thing that we are both seeing and hearing and feeling, but with our respective approaches.”

Each ballet features a curated set and costume creations, and of late, each piece’s plot is becoming increasingly complex, a change from Ammon’s earlier works, which had no plot lines, only loose themes. Wonderbound also experiments with putting actors, writers and magicians on stage as part of the performance.

With Wonderbound, musicians perform center stage. They're not just supporting players.

For 2013’s A Gothic Folktale, illusionist and mentalist Professor Phelyx was hired to act as MC and magician, appearing onstage next to the dancers, delighting audience members by hacking into their personal thoughts and making dancers appear and disappear. “It affected how I create,” says Phelyx. “I do a lot of one-man shows, and it provided an education in terms of adding production value to a show. It certainly made me wealthier in terms of experience and delivery. My work with Wonderbound is one that I highlight in my development as an artist. It was big.”

Phelyx’s sentiments are typical of artists with exposure to the company. Many express gratitude to both Ammon and his wife, Dawn Fay, who co-runs the company, for the opportunity to not only grow their art, but expand their minds as to what is possible.
“It has been a huge influence on us as a band,” said Rynhart. “Working with a company where the sky is the limit infuses you with that ideal. You think — I’m going to do that too, I’m not going to hold back or be intimidated.”

Wonderbound will present Divisions, a collaboration with Flobots, April 14-30 at various locations across the Front Range. Tickets and info are available at 303-292-4700 wonderbound.com.
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