A gargantuan juniper tree twists its way from the floor to the ceiling of Junction Box, Wonderbound’s studio and rehearsal space; dancers rehearse combinations underneath leaves constructed from umbrellas. Anyone stumbling across this scene might feel that they’ve walked into a fairy tale, or maybe a scene from James and the Giant Peach, but for the artists of Wonderbound and their many collaborators, it’s just another day at the office.
The juniper tree is part of the set for Snow, a brand-new ballet created by Wonderbound artistic director Garrett Ammon that opens Tuesday, December 13; the production's score was composed by local musician Jesse Manley, and the set includes art by Tom Varani and Andrea Pliner. Snow's run is the only time this season that you can catch a ballet at the studio space rather than in a traditional performing-arts center.
Junction Box, which is located at 1075 West Park Avenue, on the edge of Five Points, was a 1920s post-office garage that turned into an automotive shop; in 2013, it became Wonderbound’s home. It’s a fitting space for a dance company that looks at every performance as an opportunity to buck convention, change the way audience members perceive the definition of "dance" and connect the community.
Wonderbound is the second-largest contemporary-dance company in the country, and Snow is the second-largest winter ballet in Denver, which means that audiences have a very solid, world-class choice beyond The Nutcracker.
“Part of the personal goal for me is that I think it’s hard to do the same show every single year," explains Ammon. "There’s a certain point as a performer where a show like Nutcracker consumes an entire portion of your life. We thought about our audience with this production. We don’t have a school to fill all the roles of that ballet, and we have an adult audience that craves something like this. This ballet is set on the brink of adulthood, and the arch of this storyline deals with death, betrayal. There are lovely moments in the show, but we don’t hesitate to explore the dark moments. The characters make choices in the ethically gray area. I love that about this show.”
The characters in Snow are creatures familiar to winter: a magpie, a cardinal, a wolf. This is the second in a three-part series of ballets that Ammon has crafted around concepts of Norse mythology and European folklore, but you don't need to have seen Winter, the predecessor that ran for two seasons, to understand it. Once all three ballets have been created, Ammon says, the goal is to repeat them on a rotating basis, creating a different sort of tradition for Denver audiences while still maintaining the suspense of seeing a different ballet each year.
Snow also marks the fourth time that Ammon has commissioned Manley to compose a score for a full-length ballet. His music for this production has string elements, with “a cello player, an upright bass and violin, and of course, the banjo,” says Manley, adding that each ballet he scores, “makes the process more difficult on myself by learning a new instrument for each production.”
During Snow, Manley will play the Weissenborn, a hollow guitar, among other instruments, and he and his band will perform right alongside the dancers — another feature that sets Wonderbound apart from dance companies that stick their musicians in a pit.
Integrating musicians and other artists into the creative process has become a staple of Ammon’s process, and they appreciate how this has affected their professional and personal growth. “As a musician you aren’t just a sideshow, you are an equal part of the show,” explains Manley. “There’s a lot of respect from Garrett, how he treats your music and your work. Performing with Wonderbound really has been a savior for me. I don’t feel comfortable playing in bars. To have a space where I could make this music and be part of a larger experience felt like, ‘I found the place where I fit.’ These works have been like finding a new home for me, a place where I thrive.”
Varani echoes Manley’s sentiments. The artist was responsible for the concept sketch of that juniper tree, as well as moving sketches that will be projected onto the back wall of the studio space by artist Kristopher Collins, who will add the digital effect of snow between the sketched layers. Varani also constructed hand puppets in the shapes of birds for the dancers. After experimenting with several prototypes, he finalized a version that attaches to the dancer’s thumbs, allowing them to move the puppet while performing.
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Audiences will also have the chance to learn about local restaurants through this production: Each performance will feature a different dish crafted by Americatus, Bacon Social House, Ophelia’s, Nocturne, Sugarmill, Long I Pie or Hooked on Colfax, all Denver-based ventures. The menus will shift from appetizers the first week of the run to dessert the second, but will all focus on meals that are commonly crafted during the winter months.
“Why are the foods that we eat during the holidays traditional? They are the ones that were preserved, the ones that are made to make it through the long winter,” says Ammon. The food aspect of this ballet is about “coming back in contact with the richness and intensity of those flavors, enjoying the way they are preserved and condensed and fermented. This gives the chefs an opportunity to think about their craft in that respect.”
From food to art to music to holiday traditions, Ammon wants the audience to consider everything they explore and experience during winter through this production. “We are so used to, with our modern conveniences, to be able to start our car and safely go about our business, but it’s an incredibly dangerous and scary time of year for many in the Denver community, and reflecting on that is important," he says. "This ballet is about connecting to our past, remembering where we came from and to think a little bit about when we take away our modern conveniences: What are the things that are the most important?”
Wonderbound’s Snow opens Tuesday, December 13, and runs through Thursday, December 22, at Junction Box, 1075 West Park Avenue. Tickets are $60 and can be purchased only at wonderbound.com.