Dance Company Wonderbound Brings Hope to Denver's Homeless
Wonderbound’s 10 dancers rehearse in a 1920s-era U.S. post office garage that sits in a no man’s land just north of Denver’s rapidly gentrifying downtown. It’s not Curtis Park, Ballpark, Five Points, or RiNo, but a window into the human condition.
Patrons of nearby homeless shelters recline on the sidewalk and watch through open double doors as the dancers try repeatedly to master complicated original works set to poetry from the Lighthouse Writers Workshop, or to music from Flobots, Jesse Manley, Paper Bird and many others.
“They get to see a dancer fall down over and over — it’s an analogy that’s been very valuable to them,” said Dawn Fay, who created Wonderbound with her husband, Garrett Ammon. “There is an interesting parallel between our process and people who find themselves in a position that, quite frankly, could happen to any of us.”
It happened to Paul Laurendine 18 months ago. The 42-year-old unemployed cook makes a point to be at the Saint Francis Center, around the corner from Wonderbound’s studio, each Thursday at 10 a.m. That’s when the company’s Dance Movement Therapist, Heather Sutton, stops by to dance with some of the 800 folks on average who visit the shelter daily.
“This helps with boredom and gets me away from the streets,” said Laurendine, as he and other attendees passed along music requests to Sutton. “We play music I haven’t heard in a long time.”
A wide grin on his face under a camouflage baseball hat, Laurendine unabashedly improvised moves across the cracked concrete laundry room floor as R. Kelly’s lyrics rang out of Sutton’s phone: “Yeah, it’s the pied piper of R&B, y’all, follow me; Chicago and them, Don Juan and them, yeah, this is for y’all, the remix; Said, I know there is somebody’s birthday tonight, somewhere.”
It’s a birthday of sorts for Wonderbound’s dance sessions here. The program, which began in July 2016, gives the center’s clientele something to look forward to each week, said Susan Vaho, an assistant director at St. Francis who spearheaded the sessions with Sutton.
“This is a day shelter and we don’t have a lot of programming,” said Vaho, as she shimmied with Laurendine in a poufy red skirt and black Doc Martens. “Learning is the best thing for sadness.”
In addition to these sessions, which dancers attend during the season, Wonderbound’s presence in the neighborhood is beneficial for the homeless in less predictable ways. The company’s rehearsals are open to spectators who are encouraged to bring lunch, or wine, and to sit on couches surrounding the dance floor.
“Donors will pull up to rehearsal in an Aston Martin, or a Jaguar, or a Rolls, and park in front of a street that is ground zero for human suffering,” Fay said. “A homeless person will stop them and suggest they lock their car and then they will stand and talk for a while.”
Wonderbound is at the forefront of Denver’s exploding community arts movement. The company is counted among other nonprofits such as RedLine, Think 360 Arts and PlatteForum that seek to build civic engagement through the arts.
What sets the dance troupe apart is a commitment to collaborating each season in original productions with up to 90 local photographers, musicians, visual and digital artists, illusionists and even perfumists. Dancers also join Sutton at memory care facilities and to collaborate with up to 24,000 students in 40 local Title 1 schools.
“What makes Wonderbound unique is how broad and deep and integrated their community commitment is, both in artistic practice and from a social justice perspective,” said Meredith Badler, program director at the Colorado Business Committee for the Arts.
During the school year, students from Denver, Jefferson and Adams counties, where 72 percent of the population qualifies for free and reduced lunch, join dancers on stage. Afterward, teachers remark on how the experience prompted “immediate differences in the children’s behavior,” Fay said.
“One teacher emailed to say that a girl that looks like a miniature dancer went back to class when she was finished with our dancers and was social on the playground, when she never is,” she said, “and she wrote more in her journal than she had all year.”
Ammon and Fay introduced Wonderbound, formerly the suburban company Ballet Nouveau Colorado, in 2012. They moved their dancers downtown in 2013 to a building aptly dubbed The Junction Box, for its location at the intersection of three thoroughfares. Ammon, the company’s Artistic Director and Choreographer, derived the name Wonderbound by envisioning the reborn troupe as something that is “bigger than dance, that sparks curiosity and possibility,” said Fay. The hare, or jackrabbit, became its logo because “in history it’s pretty mysterious and can be mischievous and very magical with powerful long legs,” she said.
Critics agree Wonderbound’s lived up to its roots. Ammon’s productions use unconventional storytelling and choreography to reflect economic and political realities. In Boomtown, Ammon teamed with folk/rock band Chimney Choir to document the “boom” sweeping Colorado’s capital through contemporary dance. In Divisions, which marked the launch of the Denver-based Flobots’ tour, the hip-hop group and Wonderbound staged a performance centered around divisions in our culture, and ourselves.
This month, Wonderbound performed at the Breckenridge Music Festival and the Vail International Dance Festival. From Oct. 13 through Oct. 22, the company will stage Celestial Navigation, featuring a new album by the Ian Cooke Band.
As dancers practice for the upcoming season, Fay and Ammon are facing the possibility that they may be forced to leave The Junction Box.
“It’s a month-to-month situation,” said Fay.
The 15,082-square-foot brick building is on the market for $3.9 million. Like other artists who helped make Denver’s bustling tongue-twisting districts unique, the dance company is threatened with becoming a victim of its own success.
“We are currently renting the building,” said Fay, who secures funding to support the company’s work and coordinates with its various collaborators. “If we could get the owners to meet us to where we could afford it as a nonprofit that would obviously be ideal, but with the real estate market in Denver, that’s proven to be challenging.”
Jennifer Oldham is a Denver-based freelance writer. Reach her at email@example.com.