Taking It To The Streets
Contemporary Dance company Wonderbound Makes Dance a Part of Life for All
If you’re looking for The Nutcracker, you won’t find it at Wonderbound. Odds are you won’t be seated next to a woman in pearls at a Wonderbound performance either. In fact, you may not even be in theatre or concert hall. But if you want to throw the doors open on what and who and where dance is, then find your way to Wonderbound. Where will you find it? Wonderbound lives at the convergence of tradition and innovation, vulnerability and courage, intimacy and openness. In other words, contemporary dance on the creative edge of the arts in Colorado.
Wonderbound found its genesis in Ballet Nouveau Colorado, a well-regarded dance company and school located in Broomfield, a town not necessarily noted for the cutting edge of modern dance. In 2007, Garrett Ammon and Dawn Fay took the helm, and began a complete transformation with a commitment to dance that was both artistically rich and accessible to all. Ammon and Fay split the dance company from the dance school, creating two separate nonprofit organizations. The school, the Colorado Conservatory of Dance, continues to thrive in Broomfield, while Ballet Nouveau, rechristened Wonderbound, was bound for the bright lights of the big city—Denver.
Home became a 1920s U.S. Post Office garage nicknamed Junction Box because of its location on Park Avenue West at the intersections of Denver’s Arapahoe Square, Curtis Park, Five Points and RiNo neighborhoods. Space with the requisite grit and industrial feel that screams creativity happens here. It’s cool, but… “We’re in a couple of blocks of reality that haven’t experienced the renaissance of those neighborhoods,” Fay says. “It’s a triangle of missions and social service providers. Some of our donors were a bit hesitant at first.” Junction Box has proved to be the perfect incubator for Wonderbound’s artistic goals. The company literally flings open the tall, windowed garage doors and invites the neighbors to watch class and rehearsals. “We’re obliterating social barriers through art,” Fay says. “We have donors, and families on their way home from soccer practice, and the homeless, and businesspeople, standing next to each other on the sidewalk watching dance. Our mission is to bring art and dance to everyone. Dance is not an elite art form. We’re existing in an organic way in the community.” Indeed, shortly after open Junction Box, ArtPlace America awarded Wonderbound a $250,000 creative place-making grant.
Pas De Deux
Wonderbound seeks out others who are making Colorado a place of creativity. Fay and Ammon believe that collaborating with other artists engaged in creative expression of all kinds makes our community, and the world, a better place. Julliard-trained dancer Abbey Roesner is one of many in the Colorado dance community who thinks they’re succeeding. “Wonderbound has consistently experimented with cross-discipline collaboration. Combining dance with the spoken word brings the arts into the community, and makes artistic expression accessible.”
Indeed, Wonderbound collaborates with a veritable who’s who of the Colorado arts scene. Collaborative works in 2015 included Boomtown, about the myth and journey of Denver itself, with folk rockers Chimney Choir, and The Seven Deadly Sins, that featured an original score by Tom Hagerman of DeVotchKa performed live by musicians from the Colorado Symphony. In 2016, Dust, the tale of hardship, struggle and loss in the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s, was presented with actors of the Curious Theatre Company. Wonderbound has worked with visual artists with RedLine and photographers including Mark Sink.
The arts community of Denver delights in creative collaboration with Wonderbound. Ammon collaborated with Denver poet and Lighthouse Writers Founding Director, Michael J. Henry, on several works including the acclaimed Intersection. “I’m not sure I can accurately express how inspiring it is to work with Wonderbound,” Michael Henry says. “Over the years, Garrett and I have worked on three narrative ballets together, and each time his creativity and his humanity have overwhelmed me. He is so adept at creating beautiful, moving stories that take me to new places as an artist and collaborator. And then the dancers so powerfully and completely immerse themselves in the characters we create, making them new again, giving them nuances of personality that I’d never thought of. Working with Wonderbound has definitely been the highlight of my career as a poet.”
This summer, Wonderbound brings its moves to the Denver Art Museum (DAM) as part of the museum’s campus-wide celebration of movement with #dancelab, a creative dance installation created by Wonderbound and creative firm Legwork Studio. This immersive, participatory movement experience focuses on celebrating American dance and deconstructs the dance experience to make it accessible to all. DAM visitors can follow dance steps choreographed exclusively for this installation and see their movements combined with other visitors’ for a collective dance experience. “Wonderbound is one of the most innovative and experimental dance companies in Denver,” says Heather Nielsen, associate director of learning and engagement at the Denver Art Museum. “They are a gem in the creative community, making them a natural partner when we set out to create this interactive dance moment.”
You’ve got to be good to hang with these artists. Aubrey Klinger, dancer, choreographer and rehearsal director of Davis Contemporary Dance Company, appreciates the proficiency of Wonderbound. “Their technique and performance show that they are top notch. They are beautiful to watch, with their gorgeous, sculpted bodies. You can see that they are rooted in classical technique. You must know every rule before you can contort it, and it is clear that Wonderbound does.” The foundation of contemporary dance lies in classical ballet, Klinger says. “The rules of dance date back to the 17th century, to the French royal courts. Steps have cultural significance.” Great dance springs from the font of those time-honored classical steps. The most traditional staging of The Nutcracker, to Diaghilev’s shocking Ballet Russes that scandalized and thrilled in Belle Époque Paris, to the far deconstructed edge of dance finding expression in off-the-grid New York City loft studios, harken back to those rules, those steps, those hours of perfecting form at the barre.
Collaborative work is an art in and of itself. While it may have a spontaneous, organic feel, collaboration is an exacting process that requires openness, attentiveness and rigor. “You must have a solid structure to create a collaboration that causes everyone—dancers, actors, musicians, and most importantly your audience—to feel something new,” Klinger says. “Collaboration is a conversation. Everyone must have the same vocabulary and speak the same language. For a dancer, to collaborate with other dancers with the technical proficiency of Wonderbound is a joy that stretches you as a dancer. It keeps you fresh.”
Classically trained dancers Fay and Ammon met and married while dancing with the Memphis Ballet. Fay began ballet training at age three while Ammon, who choreographs most of Wonderbound’s works, discovered dance in his school days in Arizona. Introducing youngsters to dance, and encouraging young talent remains a key mission of Wonderbound. The company conducts interactive dance programs in nearly 40 schools in Denver, Adams, and Jefferson counties. The programs are free to schools thanks to the support of the Anschutz Foundation, the Singer Family Foundation, the Bowen Family Fund for the Performing Arts, and SCFD funding, among other donors. The programs often are the only arts education children receive at these elementary and middle schools.
Project Generations, begun in 2011, takes dance to senior centers. Led by Wonderbound’s dance movement therapist Heather Sutton, seniors relive the joys of dancing to the music of their youth. Often, long dormant memories resurface, allowing family members to connect once more.
Home to the Best
Dancing with Wonderbound is considered a good gig in the dance community, and Wonderbound attracts some of the best dancers in the country with stellar training and resumes. Dancers are on 38-week contracts (several weeks longer than most company contracts), and season runs from September through May. Dancers dance a variety of roles, sometimes as soloists or leads, and sometimes as members of the ensemble. That flexibility to stretch, move, and grow is appreciated by dancers, and preferred over the more rigid structures of traditional companies. However, the dancer’s day is similar to, and just as rigorous, as in the most well-known established national companies. Each work day begins with a 90-minute classical ballet class followed by several hours of rehearsal. Dancers also participate in outreach programs.
“Wonderbound dancers are well-trained, skilled artists that are highly technical. I’ve taken class with Wonderbound, and it is demanding, which is exhilarating for a dancer,” Roesner says.
“Dancers must be fully rooted in classical ballet in order to work off balance. If not, the performance looks unpolished and sloppy,” Roesner says. “Wonderbound dancers move on that fine line, moving back and forth, showing the extremes between clean technique and the raw excitement of movement.”
Wonderbound inhabits the edge, pulling the audience with them to a place that is at once dangerous, yet satisfying. As Roesner says, “I am not interested in watching dance that is safe.”
Wonderbound 1075 Park Ave West, Denver, CO 80205, 303-292-4700