Denver-based Wonderbound gets campy for ‘Gone West’
Denver-based dance troupe Wonderbound, formerly Ballet Nouveau Colorado, doesn’t shy away from exploring different medians of art. Artistic Director Garrett Ammon often speaks of his inclination to explore where different artistic disciplines intersect. And, with past productions like Carry On, Intersection, and A Gothic Folktale, the list of Wonderbound collaborators is long and diverse. For the company’s season closer, Gone West, Ammon and his kindle of Wonderbound dancers teamed up with local musician, singer/songwriter Ian Cooke and Michael J. Henry, a poet and the executive director of Lighthouse Writers Workshop—original costumes were designed and built by Rachel Kras, wardrobe supervisor and costume designer at Wonderbound.
As a guest for Wonderbound’s recent Gone West teaser, held at the company’s downtown Denver headquarters known as Junction Box on March 19, I got a sneak peek of what to expect for the two-week run in early April.
It was hard for me not to be biased given my history with the dance company. I joined Wonderbound when it was still BNC, and unfortunately, my time with it was brief due to an injury. But I had my reasons for seeking out employment with this dance company. And almost every time I’ve witnessed Wonderbound in the flesh, my convictions have been solidified—this was the type of work that inspired me as a performer and artist.
So, on a Wednesday evening, I headed to the Five Points neighborhood in Denver to learn a bit more about the company’s upcoming production.
To give a bit of context, Wonderbound has been offering these teaser events throughout the season, inviting patrons into its dance studio at Junction Box for live music, food, drinks, and, of course, some dancing. The Gone West teaser gave more insight into the poems, written by Henry specifically for the production, Cooke’s lyrics, and Ammon’s artistic vision. It provided an intimate setting for viewers to sit several feet from the performers, while sipping on beer or wine, and soak in the indie rock ballads of Cooke’s band without a proscenium stage.
Conversations for Gone West began about a year and a half ago, according to Henry—the last time Henry and Ammon collaborated was in 2007. The two confessed that their combined work is often emotionally charged. But, this go-around, they sprinkled in some humor.
The collaborative process started as it often does.
“Usually we sit down and talk about what we’re obsessed with lately,” said Henry at the teaser event.
So what came to mind this time?
Henry said he and Ammon discussed the diverse people that inhabit the state as well as the striking, yet “dangerous landscape.” They landed on the subject of camping, a popular leisure undertaking in Colorado, which led to the ballet being set at a campsite.
The story somewhat resembles Shakespeare’s The Tempest, said Henry. Though, he added, “We took great liberties.” And, like many of his other ballets, Garret explained that each dancer embodies a specific character, some loosely based on characters from the Bard’s play. He went on to note that most of the dancers are divided into families, creating a dynamic that can only be derived by the family setting, accompanied by the groundskeeper, danced by Damian Patterson, and Ariel, a Mother-Nature-esque creature performed by Sarah Tallman.
Wanting to give a mere sampling, Wonderbound performed only three songs from Gone West for the teaser event: “Hands,” “Girl,” and “Fortitude.”
All were representative of Ammon’s signature choreographic style, filled with intricate and constant partnered phrases as well as gestural, balletic moves. Each dance was inspired by one of Henry’s new poems and layered with the vocals and instrumentals of Cooke and his band. During the sections, the dancers had to negotiate the terrain of a campground, performing on and around green pads of faux grass.
“Hands,” a duet danced by Candice Bergeron and Amanda Copple, was a relentless whirlwind of extended appendages; Meredith Strathmeyer, Corbin Kalinowski, and Julie King portrayed an Italian family, bringing angst and ambivalence to the dance titled “Girl”; and the entire company took the studio space for “Fortitude,” an exciting parade of organized chaos that closes the first act of the evening-length ballet.
Upon completion of the teaser performance, Dawn Fay, producing director at Wonderbound, took the microphone for a Q & A. She invited the small, but captivated audience at Junction Box to ask the dancers, musicians, and creators anything that popped into their heads.
As to whether or not an event like this cultivated new audiences, it’s impossible to say. I gander that most of the evening’s participates are already fans of the dance troupe and would attend Gone West regardless. However, it’s nice to see an American dance company strip down the pretense and ask viewers to join them in a less formal environment.
Wonderbound actually does this on a regular basis—anyone can drop by during rehearsal hours to lounge on one of the scattered couches or overstuffed chairs, and watch the dancers in their daily grind. Opening its doors to the community like this is central to Wonderbound’s mission and, hopefully, will create new possibilities for the flourishing troupe.
Jumping back to the immediate future, the event on March 19 certainly got me curious for the premiere of Gone West on April 4 at the Performing Arts Complex. How can I say no to camping, a little bit of humor, quirky fairies, and original contemporary dance? Then again, I’m a long-time dancer. While the next teaser will not happen till fall, I’m interested to bring someone with less dance know-how to find out if the ‘trailer’ whets his or her appetite for dance.
Until then, I sign off with this…
Ammon always encouraged me to dig deeper into myself and have a voice as a dancer. While my time with the company was short lived, I grew a lot, on and off stage.
That’s what he does with dancers, pushes them to be better, bigger, bolder, while asking them to be an individual. Gone West” appears to be another example of why I strived to be a part of his vision for four years. The company, as a whole, is willing to work with others, try new things, and make dance that aims to resonate with a broader audience.
If you want to check it out: Gone West runs April 4 – 6 at the Performing Arts Complex at the Pinnacle Charter School in Denver, Colo. and April 12 – 13 at PACE in Parker, Colo. For more information, visit Wonderbound.com.