Wonderbound artfully blurs lines between dance, theater in 'Dust'
Garrett Ammon's fascination with vintage Americana has paid off in the most popular shows of his career, and he's not done yet. As the artistic director for Wonderbound, Colorado's second-largest professional dance company, Ammon has explored wistful, wind-swept longing in Carry On, his 2011 collaboration with Denver indie-folk band Paper Bird, and last year's decidedly theatrical Boomtown, with genre-hopping act Chimney Choir.
Those and other crowd-pleasing fare blur the lines between dance, live music and theater, helping drive general-audience interest in the otherwise niche world of contemporary ballet.
Like the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, Ammon is not waiting around for hip, young patrons to discover his work. He's barreling forward with cross-genre experiments that broaden his art form's appeal, an approach that helped him win the Mayor's Award for Excellence in Arts & Culture in 2013.
We talked to Ammon in advance of the premiere of Dust, his latest collaborative work with Denver musician Jesse Manley and Curious Theatre Company, at Pinnacle Charter School on Friday through Sunday.
Q: How does Dust build on some of these past collaborations?
A: This is our fourth year of doing all-live music at our shows, and of collaborating with magicians and visual artists and theater companies. I first worked with Curious on Eurydice back in 2009, and we've been good friends ever since. Two years ago over dinner with (Curious artistic director) Chip Walton and (education director) Dee Covington, we said, "We really need to work together again." The idea of merging dramatic theater with dance seemed like a challenge that was ripe for exploration.
Q: Are you afraid you're going to push the line too far and it's not going to be dance anymore?
A: This show is a big test of that. Ultimately, Dee wrote the script and so it is a script-based play, even though there is a great deal of dance in it. The dancers have named roles with dialogue and are acting alongside Curious actors, and then dance is integrated into that. It approaches that line, and I don't know if it's wrong or not to pass it. I think it's just a question of whether or not it works.
Q: I'm arguing the purist's perspective here, but I'm not sure a lot of people seeing this show are going to care. Like you said, if it works, it works. Right?
Garrett Ammon's Dust, as well as his Carry On and Boomtown, blurs the lines between dance, live music and theater, helping drive interest in the otherwise niche world of contemporary ballet.
A: I've had this conversation with multiple different people in the dance industry. What does it mean to be a purist anyway within an art form? Those are conventions that we've built ourselves within our industries. What is that line? And should there be a line? Whether or not we cross it is not the concern; it's whether we can make an engaging, interesting experience for the audience. One thing I love is that it's part of the impetus for both Curious and Wonderbound, this idea of asking questions. It's built into our names.
Q: How does Dust compare to last year's Boomtown?
A: Dust has very much the same kind of theatricality, with sets from Michael Duran, who designs for Curious. We set the audience down in a small, fictional Colorado town midway through the Dust Bowl, somewhere around 1935. We have farmers and ranchers and a preacher and his wife, and just this sundry collection of individuals who are struggling to survive one of the worst environmental disasters in history.
Q: Pre-World War II American culture and small-town life seems to be a theme for you. Why do you keep coming back to it?
A: It ends up being an aesthetic perspective, I guess. There's something interesting about creating a little distance from your current reality.
Q: Which runs counter to many choreographers who interpret classical or traditional pieces for the present. You're writing original work that's set in the past—these period pieces that sort of slyly comment on the present.
A: It comes down to telling a story in the most simple, straightforward way possible. It's this idea of creating new folk tales or fairy tales, which so many classical ballets are based on. It frees the viewer from the experience of having it too-directly related to our current social or political climate.
Q: And you've certainly found success with these types of shows. Denver seems friendly to this kind of informal but still entrepreneurial blending, as opposed to a city with an older, more traditional performing arts culture.
A: I love the fact that Denver is a place where that kind of risk — putting all these artistic companies together for something new — can be taken, and rewarded.
A collaborative dance and musical theater production from Wonderbound, Curious Theatre Company and Jesse Manley. 7:30 p.m. April 15-16 and 2 p.m. April 17 at the Performing Arts Complex at Pinnacle Charter School, 1001 W. 84th Ave. Also April 23-24 at Parker Arts, Culture & Events Center, and April 30 at The Newman Center at DU. Tickets: $22-$50. wonderbound.com.