No surprise: Performance-based art forms have taken a massive hit because of COVID-19. But the need for art and the demand for entertainment is higher than ever. Enter Wonderbound, Denver's contemporary dance company known for its use of live contemporary music and frequent collaborations with local artists.
Wonderbound was preparing to hold its annual fundraising gala, which would have included a projection mapping performance piece set to the Gasoline Lollipops song "Fast Train" when stay-at-home ordinances and restrictions on large gatherings were announced.
"That was the first moment when things started getting really real for us, and for everybody," says Garrett Ammon, Wonderbound's artistic director and choreographer.
The gala was canceled, of course, but Ammon still wanted to find a way to deliver a visual for the song "Fast Train."
"I started looking at how I could take that piece; I talked to Clay [Gasoline Lollipops frontman Rose], and we decided to turn it into a lyric video, as just an initial expression of the moment," recalls Ammon. "I think that video and the lyrics capture some of the feelings of that moment, so it happened to work out really well to convert it into that video."
The lyric video for "Fast Train," animated by Ammon himself, ended up being the first of many that Wonderbound released during quarantine. While the dancers were stuck at home, they individually choreographed and filmed their own short dance videos, which Wonderbound released in weekly groups under the name Project Wonder.
They also created an interactive series of videos called Dance Along! that aimed to get people up and moving during quarantine, no matter what their level of dance experience. Then, as soon as the dancers were able to meet together in person again, Ammon and Sarah Tallman, Wonderbound's ballet master and associate choreographer, began to conceptualize more complex and produced Wonderbound Shorts.
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"When we brought the dancers back into the studio once stay-at-home orders started to be lifted, that was when we transitioned into saying, 'Okay, how can we make some new films with the company within this weird context of being able to work, but not in the normal way that we do?'" says Ammon.
Ammon has choreographed and directed two additional short films for the series — "Doomsday Clocks" and "Voices of the Dead" — and Tallman has choreographed and directed "Mile High City" plus another video that's coming out shortly.
"Doomsday Clocks," the second video in the Wonderbound Shorts series, is a duet between Wonderbound dancers William Clayton and Isaac Huerta, set in a cozy living room in front of a TV displaying a countdown clock. For that project, Ammon was thrilled to be able to work with multiple dancers in the flesh again.
"One thing that helped me a great deal was having Will and Isaac as a couple," Ammon says. "It allowed me to re-engage the work that we do in a way that was closer to what I normally do. My work is so heavily centered around partnering, so it gave me a chance to re-engage that creative process in a way that felt more natural."
The theme of the piece is very much relevant to the moment we're in. "I kept thinking about how, whether it be with the pandemic or any other number of events, you end up kind of trapped in front of the television watching the news. I think about the Gulf [of Mexico] oil spill, or 9/11 — these things where you have no personal control over the situation at all, so you feel incredibly helpless, but you can't tear yourself away from it. You want to know what's going on; you want to understand it. I used that as the jumping-off point to get into the work."
The video was also heavily influenced by its soundtrack, "Doomday Clocks," written and composed by Denver-based musician Tom Hagerman of DeVotchKa, who performed it with his band Post Truth Serum. Hagerman had previously collaborated with Ammon on Wonderbound's production of The Seven Deadly Sins, so he sent Ammon Post Truth Serum's latest album, MODERN VICTIMS, ahead of its release. At the time, Wonderbound's schedule for the season was too jam-packed for the group to work with Hagerman again. But COVID-19 quickly cleared the company's calendar, and Ammon was thrilled to be able to engage with an album that captured the emotions and anxieties of our historical moment in such an eerily accurate way.
Creating Wonderbound Shorts was also an opportunity for Ammon and the rest of Wonderbound to familiarize themselves with the company's new home, at East 40th Avenue and York Street. "It's very exciting to be able to use this space in creative ways, and it's all just a big empty industrial building, so it's been fun to explore. We're the only ones in there right now because they're preparing to gut the entire thing, so we kind of have free rein to run around and use it however it works for us," Ammon says.
The sparse concrete landscape of a room on the second floor was the perfect backdrop for the most somber video in the series, "Voices of the Dead." Released on July 7, the piece is adapted from Wonderbound's 2017 production Divisions, a collaboration with Flobots that the troupe had planned to re-stage this year.
Divisions, which used music from the Flobots album NOENEMIES, examined societal inequity and the power of protest. Even if Wonderbound's season would have been able to go on as planned, Ammon is unsure whether he would have wanted to re-stage Divisions.
"If we had been able to do it within the context of Black Lives Matter — I had said to them, 'I feel like if we were actually able to do it right now, I would have to re-choreograph the whole thing.' Because the context is different now," says Ammon. "The thing about the show of Divisions was, we kind of took this approach with it of trying to welcome people into a conversation, and so the show itself doesn't make any hard and fast statements. It uses a lot of imagery and a lot of symbolism to kind of create a space for each viewer to connect with it in their own way. And at least in the moment, when I was talking with them, my visceral reaction was, I felt like it would have needed to make a stronger statement if we were able to do it."
Instead, he decided to make that statement in the form of Voices of the Dead. After talking with the members of Flobots as well as Wonderbound's dancers, Ammon was compelled to create a piece showing solidarity with Black Lives Matter using the Flobots song "Voices of the Dead" and other elements from Divisions.
"Ultimately, what happened is we took a bunch of vocabulary from different parts of the show, as well as some themes from the show that were able to find their way in," explains Ammon. "What I wanted to try and zero in on is just the emotions of the situation. The emotion of loss, the emotion of grief, the emotion of death, and that desire to do something and that need to do something."
The resulting film, starring Damien Patterson and Henry Maximilian McCall, is a haunting reflection of the reality of BIPOC in America.
Sarah Tallman, who joined Wonderbound as a dancer in 2004 before becoming ballet master and associate choreographer, was excited to choreograph and direct her own project for Wonderbound Shorts.
"It lives in the same world as Garrett's work does, but there's a little bit of a diversion, and that's most likely just because I'm a different person," she says. "I think that inherently there's going to be a feminine perspective, and I suppose that depends on the lens through which you're looking. I think that I enjoy things that are angular, and juxtaposing angles with soft curves." But, like Ammon's, Tallman's work is informed by classical technique and often revolves around creating characters.
"I like to take the base of classical ballet and then depart from there," she says. "As a dancer, I love the characters that Garrett created and the characters that we created together — that's something I definitely use in my work. Developing characters and developing relationships, but sort of in a more abstract sense."
Although her creations tend to lean toward the abstract, sometimes Tallman spells it out for the audience — literally. Her love of language often seeps into her pieces.
"I do use text when I'm creating work," she says. "I love writing. I love reading. I think words have a lot of texture. I love to find out what certain words mean and what their etymology is, and then how that translates into our language today. So I've used spoken word and poetry in the past."
Initially, she hadn't considered using text in this new digital format. In her first contribution to the short-film series "Mile High City," she incorporates language by having the two starring dancers mouth words at each other in an over-exaggerated manner. However, even with the camera focused on the dancers' lips, Wonderbound's marketing manager worried viewers wouldn't understand the message, and suggested adding in text-filled cartoon speech bubbles to punctuate their "lines." The comic book-inspired touch fit perfectly into Tallman's technicolor tribute to Denver.
A Colorado native and longtime Denver resident, Tallman was inspired by her city.
"I do feel maybe a little ownership of the city," she acknowledges. "Not that you can really own a city, but since I've been here such a long time, it's kind of an ode to the city. So that was my point of departure."
As she was researching local musicians to potentially work with, she found the perfect soundtrack in Pan Astral's "Mile High City." She had previously been in touch with Pan Astral about using their music in the Project Wonder videos, and they were happy to provide an ear to bounce ideas and the short film's score off of.
Tallman's second film for the series, which was released on Wonderbound's website on July 21, falls more into the tradition of using dance as a form of narrative. A duet starring Wonderbound dancers Jocelyn Green and Evan Pitts, the short is about "falling in love in unlikely places and creating connections in unlikely places," says Tallman. "So it's a little bit of a love story, a little more narrative than 'Mile High City.' It's less abstract; movement-wise, it's a bit rounder. It's a playful and delightful film."
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Tallman drew inspiration from the two songs she chose, "Chums" and "And Then Some," by Boulder-based musician Rae McAlister. Originally she was only looking for one song, but then couldn't pick between the two, and ultimately felt that using the songs in tandem made for a better story. After Tallman's second video, "And Then Some," Wonderbound will release one more short film in the series, a collaboration between Ammon and Dawn Fay, Wonderbound's president.
"When I start to look at this entire collection of work we've created — everything from "Fast Train" through the 59 Project Wonder videos that the dancers did and the 59 Dance Along! videos, and then these new shorts that we're creating — on some level I think it's this expression of the moment across time," says Ammon. "We've managed to create this time capsule of this journey that we've been on since March, through a creative lens. I feel like it captures all of the different emotions that we all have experienced through this. We're just proud to have been able to dig into that and find a way to keep moving forward."
"Most of what we do is about creating connections," adds Tallman. "Connections between one another, and between the world at large. So I think there's always an underlying tone of humanity within the work we do. Whether something is completely narrative or abstract, the fabric that weaves it together is the desire to speak to humanity."