Wonderbound brings Bowie and Queen to the ballet
Say the word ballet and it’s hard not to think of tutu-clad dancers tiptoeing about in tightly curled shoes to the swelling strings of a classical symphony. But if you’re Garrett Ammon, the Artistic Director of Denver’s Wonderbound ballet company, it isn’t a stretch to imagine those dancers rocking out to the music of David Bowie and Queen, either.
This month, Wonderbound will be hosting two weekends of Queen-and David Bowie-inspired Rock Ballets that Ammon wrote back in 2007 and 2008 when he moved to Denver from Memphis. To set the score each night, Ammon brought together a super group of seven musicians from Ian Cooke’s band and Denver folk-rock band Chimney Choir.
Ammon is no stranger to pairing rock music with ballet. Nearly 15 years ago, when he first started dancing with Ballet Memphis, Ammon began hosting an after-season workshop called Interiorworks to experiment with the dance genre. There, he created pieces to songs by The Velvet Underground, PJ Harvey and even Memphis bluesman RL Burnside.
“Music was my way into dance,” Ammon recalls. “I had been building my own personal music library for years and years, so living in Memphis and being immersed in literally the home of blues and rock really gave me another level of understanding.”
But after years of dancing and occasionally choreographing his own works, Ammon was ready for a bigger challenge. So was his wife, fellow Ballet Memphis dancer Dawn Fay. Fortuitously, the fledgling Wonderbound ballet company (formerly Ballet Nouveau) was on the hunt for both a groundbreaking artistic director and production director.
Once in Denver, Ammon and Fay tried to incorporate live music into their less-than-traditional ballets and, come 2011, created a completely original work called Carry On with local Americana band Paper Bird. Because it was a such a success, the duo made a vow to no longer use pre-recorded tracks in any of their future programming, even if it meant that Ammon’s old Bowie and Queen ballets might be too challenging to perform ever again.
Two years later, Ammon began working closely with singer-songwriter Ian Cooke and Chimney Choir. He wanted the artists to each score two different ballets, Gone West and Boomtown. Sometime during the process, Ammon got to chatting with Cooke’s guitarist Ian O’Dougherty and Chimney Choir co-frontman David Rynhart about their deep love of Queen.
“So, about a year and a half ago, Garett and Dawn invited us over for a meeting and we had no idea what it was about,” O’Dougherty mentions, with a chuckle. “They said ‘We want you to cover Queen … and Bowie,’ and we just started laughing.”
Little did Ammon and Fay know that Ian Cooke’s band and Chimney Choir had once learned a few Queen covers for a friend’s wedding, nor did they realized that Rynhart was a Bowie obsessive. It made them perfect composers for Ammon’s Queen ballet, “Love of My Life,” and his Bowie work, “An Occasional Dream.”
Because their covers had to be faithful to the album tracks that Ammon choreographed, the four members of Ian Cooke’s band and the three members of Chimney Choir have spent the last six months pouring over the details of Ammon’s chosen songs. Still, there isn’t a dedicated vocalist for Bowie or Freddie Mercury, meaning that everyone sings. And considering the band only has seven instruments, including a violin, cello, mandolin and giant gong, certain arrangements had to be tweaked.
Some obscure tunes like Bowie’s “All the Madmen” or Queen’s “You Take My Breath Away” were hard to get right, O’Dougherty notes. Bowie and Queen weren’t known for staying true to their recordings during shows, so most live footage couldn’t help the musicians learn the tracks. But most challenging cover was Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which features dozens of recorded vocal layers.
To recreate all those memorable Figaros, Galileos and other harmonies live, Rynhart and his Chimney Choir counterpart Kris Drickey had to notate certain vocal lines and assign them to individual band members. It’s an exceptional feat considering Queen themselves never fully performed the song live because they didn’t have enough singers.
“We had to make it work for seven people and listen to which parts were really crucial,” Rynhart explains, scoffing at the monumental task. “But there are moments hearing these voices in the room, doing all of that live, that is really satisfying.”
Watching the intricate footwork that Ammon created around the covers was equally satisfying. During a sold-out preview at Wonderbound’s downtown studio, the band was finally able to perform the songs alongside the ensemble. Until then, the dancers had been rehearsing to roughly recorded demos of each cover. For O’Dougherty, seeing the dancers connect to the music he’s playing is like having “tentacles.”
It’s a similar feeling of synergy that Sarah Tallman gets when she takes the stage. As one of Wonderbound’s lead dancers, she is featured in both the Bowie and Queen ballets.
“There’s nothing like dancing to live music when it’s a living, breathing piece of art,” she says. “And dancing in both of those works is really magical because there are moments where you absolutely feel like a rock star and there’s nothing you can do but pretend you’re a drummer.”
Ammon reiterated that these Rock Ballets aren’t meant to be tributes to dead rock stars, as they were created far after the death of Queen’s Mercury and long before Bowie’s passing. Instead, they are odes to the artists that inspire him.
“I love classical ballet, it’s just not what I want to create,” Ammon says. “What we’ve found is that we’re able to create work for today’s audiences that reflects the context of their world.”
Obviously, Bowie’s death had a big impact on many people’s lives. For Ammon, it stirred up the same emotions he felt in 2003, when he created a ballet around Johnny Cash’s work just before the country icon died at age 71. For Rynhart, O’Dougherty and Tallman, who have been working with Bowie’s music for so long, it was like losing a creative partner.
“It took so long to sink in that he was actually gone,” Rynhart concludes. “But I didn’t feel sad because he was just a gift to so many people, so it felt like his life was really fulfilled. And for how this show sits, it just feels like an incredible privilege to honor him. It’s a great homage.”
The first run of Wonderbound’s Rock Ballets has already sold out. The second is happening Feb. 19-21 at the Pinnacle Charter School in Denver. For more details, head to Wonderbound’s website.