As a performer and artist, Amber Blais’s ambitions fly high, but her greatest skill may be creating collaborations with talented set designers, costumers, musicians, actors and dancers. Trained in aerial dance and circus arts, Blais is the producing director and co-founder of Rainbow Militia, a Denver circus collective now diving into the hot new realm of immersive theater; she also founded the storytelling event (and 2017 Westword Best of Denver award winner) Raconteur Denver, which is currently on hiatus.
Blais is now preparing to premiere an immersive venture, Zabiti, in August, building up to it by leading a traveling circus wagon through Denver. In anticipation of this circus coming to town, we asked Blais to take our Colorado Creatives questionnaire.
Westword: What (or who) is your creative muse?
Amber Blais: I'm feeling inspired by so much lately. Denver inspires me with its phenomenal pool of talented artists who are so willing to jump into a project with both feet and collaborate to create truly visionary art. Circus artists like my Rainbow Militia co-conspirators Staza Stone, Liz Smith and Toni Baca inspire me to push myself to new heights (literally). Musicians like David Rynhart, Kevin Larkin and Nicholas Caputo blow my mind with the sonic excellence they bring to life. Visual artists Tom Varani and Andrea Pliner can do these things with metal and sculptures that literally make dreams a reality. There are so many more — but if you're not listed here, and you're dreaming and doing in Denver, you inspire me!
Which three people, dead or alive, would you like to invite to your next party, and why?
Circus parties are the best parties: There is always an aerial rig and things are always being tossed in the air, like juggling pins or people. I'd invite my grandma, because she never really got to see me perform, and I know she would love to grab a frosty beer and cheer me on. I'd invite Guy Laliberté, the co-founder of Cirque du Soleil, who started out as a busker and built a circus empire. What an exciting person to have a chance to get to know! And, I'd invite Oscar the Grouch. No one heckles better than him — you know he'd be the life of the party.
What’s the best thing about the local creative community in your field — and the worst?
I think the best thing about our local creative community is the spirit of support and collaboration that a lot of the artists here have. If you start talking about a project, people get excited and say, "How can we support you?" rather than trying to tear you down. I think we're building something really beautiful here together, and I feel pretty confident that those who don't subscribe to the same philosophy will be left in the dust.
You’ve come this far in life. What’s still on your bucket list?
Gosh, it's not like I have one foot in the grave already…but I'd love to go to a real honest-to-goodness crab boil on the East Coast with the freshest of ingredients right out of the ocean. I'd also really like to continue to create good art and become a leader in the creative scene, lending my voice to change the dialogue around how artists are compensated and treated for their work. No more of this "I'll pay you in exposure" mentality.
What’s your dream project?
I'm living it! I left my previous position to pursue my passion for creating immersive circus productions. It's been a long (and often scary) road, but now Zabiti is opening at Denver Rock Drill on August 22. It's an original folktale, inspired by Russian folklore. It brings you along on the tale and asks you to help break a dark curse on an enchanted forest. Circus performers fly around you, live music serenades you, and interactive sets respond to your touch. It's like stepping into a giant pop-up book or your favorite video game, and we're working with almost thirty artists from around Denver to make it happen. It's ambitious and it's beautiful, and it's just the beginning!
Denver, love it or leave it? What keeps you here — or makes you want to leave?
Love it. I tried leaving it, but I always came back. The people in this town make it worth everything. Our artistic community is beautiful and amazing, and I wouldn't want to be anywhere else.
What's the one thing Denver (or Colorado) could do to help the arts?
More funding and creative spaces! It's rough being a working artist in one of the most expensive cities in the U.S., and our arts funding could definitely step it up a notch. A huge shout-out to the Bonfils Stanton Foundation, Denver Arts & Venues, Colorado Creative Industries and the Denver Foundation for being there for us. They're definitely paving the way, but when you look at what other countries and governments do to support their artists, you realize that there is so much more that is possible.
As for creative spaces, we all know the crunch. I am so grateful for people like the Weiss family (Denver Rock Drill) and Paul Laurie (Invisible City), who are able to provide those little pockets of creative space that still exist in Denver, but the struggle to find a place to put on theatrical circus shows is real, and the permitting processes are lengthy, expensive and difficult for artists who are working with limited resources.
Who is your favorite Colorado Creative?
Picking just one is so difficult! I want to say that my favorite crew of creatives right now is the Zabiti team. They are all phenomenal in their own right, but they've come together to bring this show to life and bring such magical energy to the project. If I had to pick one particular person to highlight right now, I would say Andrea Pliner. She is an amazing sculptor using found objects and is the lead on build for this production. She keeps everything on track and looks super badass with a welding torch in her hand.
What's on your agenda in the coming year?
Rainbow Militia is creating our Zabiti Project, and it's taking up my life right now. We've built a traveling circus wagon that is going to low-income neighborhoods throughout Denver putting on free circus and live music shows. Each one of these features partnerships with neighborhood organizations and businesses and showcases local talent. And we're working on our immersive production, which opens in August (tickets are on sale now at zabiti.com). It's going to be amazing. It's all driven by the audience, so you can join the rebels to try to break the curse or join up with the Queen to keep things as they are.
Who do you think will (or should) get noticed in the local arts community in the coming year?
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Definitely Andrea Pliner and her partner in crime, Tom Varani. These two amazing artists create large-scale kinetic sculptures that come straight from your steampunk dreams. David Rynhart, Kevin Larkin and Nicholas Caputo for their musical creations. Tiffany Smyth, who is an amazing leathersmith here in Denver: She creates stunning leather masks that go beyond costume and into fine art. And Stephen Brackett, whom I hesitate to mention only because he probably gets mentioned all the time, but he's a phenomenal writer and performer and will be learning aerial dance for the Zabiti production!
Catch Rainbow Militia’s Traveling Circus Wagon next at Levitt Pavilion, 1380 West Florida Avenue in Ruby Hill Park, on Thursday, July 18, from 6 to 10 p.m. The evening includes a Zabiti preview and music by Chimney Choir and DéCollage; admission is free or $30 for a VIP upgrade. RSVP at eventbrite.com. Keep up with the wagon’s continuing summer travels online.
Zabiti: An Immersive Circus Adventure opens Thursday, August 22, and runs through September 8 at Denver Rock Drill, 1717 East 39th Avenue in RiNo. Tickets range from $65 to $120 online; learn more at the Zabiti website.
Learn more about Amber Blais and Rainbow Militia online.