Wonderbound Teams with Flobots for Hip-Hop Ballet 'Divisions'
Flobots rappers Jamie Laurie (left) and Stephen Brackett are surrounded by Wonderbound dancers in this image from the new show Divisions, which will preview on March 28. (Amanda Tipton, Provided by Wonderbound)
In some ways it seems inevitable that Wonderbound, Colorado’s second-largest professional ballet company, would pair with Flobots, one of Denver’s best-known musical exports.
Their shared artistic and educational goals, and knack for attention-getting projects, has kept them at the forefront of the Mile High City’s cultural consciousness for the better part of a decade. In a cozy, still-maturing artistic scene such as ours, it would be strange if they didn’t at least cross paths—if not work together at some point.
So why is it only happening now?
“We kept flirting with the idea,” said Jamie Laurie, a.k.a. Flobots rapper Jonny 5. “When they reached out in 2015 about doing something together for their 2017 season, we were like, ‘Well, we’ve never planned anything this far advance in our lives, but sure, let’s do it!’”
That “something” ended up being Divisions, a new work that previews at Wonderbound’s Junction Box studio, 1075 Park Avenue West, at 6:30 p.m. on March 28, and runs at a variety of venues in Denver and Parker from April 14-30.
It’s familiar ground for Wonderbound, the contemporary ballet outfit led by husband-and-wife team Garrett Ammon and Dawn Fay. The company has collaborated in recent years with Denver musicians such as Paper Bird, Ian Cooke, Chimney Choir and DeVotchKa’s Tom Hagerman, as well as visual artists, writers and photographers.
And Flobots—the earnest, activist alt-pop group whose single “Handlebars” gained national attention after achieving platinum sales status in 2008—is well-known locally for its community engagement with climate change, racial justice and music education, including the Youth on Record nonprofit it launched in 2008 (originally called Flobots.org).
“They sampled parts of ‘Carry On’ from Paper Bird on their last album, and we used music from their last album The Circle in the Square a lot for some our spontaneous performances in the community and with the Biennial,” Ammon said. “But we’ve never directly collaborated on anything.”
That changed two years ago as Flobots began work on its new album, NOENEMIES, which will be released on May 5. The album is a lush studio project for the hip-hop-based act, including strings, horns and a gospel quintet.
But when the band performs live with Wonderbound, it will be venturing into new territory.
“(Being) right in the midst of creating a new album (has) allowed ideas to flow in both directions quite organically,” Laurie said. “With the album finished, but not yet released, we’ll be playing most of these songs live for the very first time. We’re working with Garrett to rearrange the music in order to tell the same story from a choreographer’s perspective, making the experience that much more visceral.”
Working with dancers opens up “brand new terrain,” as Laurie called it, in terms of how musicians perform. And as a hip-hop group, engaging the crowd is essential. Since shows like this often come together in the last few weeks, Ammon is just now starting to see the possibilities in rehearsals—including (fair warning) some audience interaction.
“It’s naturally embracing the rhythmic aspects of hip-hop music, rather than melody being the driving force,” Ammon said. “The lyrical structure and how they use words to create beats is driving the physicality, but I feel like it’s still distinctly ballet, movement-wise.”
Having spent most of his career as a contemporary ballet choreographer, Ammon is drawing on memories that preceded even his first dance lessons, when he moved to Janet Jackson, Young MC and other pop/hip-hop in show choir while growing up in Tuscon, Ariz.
Likewise, the members of Flobots are reaching deep for their performance, bringing 13 players on stage for the live shows—including Spirit of Grace, a gospel choir the band worked closely with in creating its new album.
“We put more time and care into this album than any other we’ve ever created, because it felt crucial that people from all walks of life be able to see the themselves reflected in it,” Laurie said, before adding this typically upbeat comment on the name of the show: “We’re living in a time in which division is a common experience. It’s something we share. In that shared experience, there is reason to hope.”
DIVISIONS: A new collaborative ballet from Wonderbound with live music from Flobots. Preview 6:30 p.m. March 28 at 1075 Park Avenue West. $30. Regular performances April 14-16 at Performing Arts Complex at Pinnacle Charter School, 1001 W. 84th Ave.; April 22-23 Parker Arts, Culture & Events Center, 20000 Pikes Peak Ave.; and April 29-30 at DU’s Newman Center for the Performing Arts, 2344 East Iliff Ave. $22-$50. Tickets and show times at wonderbound.com.