Denver's trifecta of powerhouse dance companies — Cleo Parker Robinson Dance, Colorado Ballet and Wonderbound — will share the same stage for the first time starting this weekend, in a massive collaboration appropriately titled Tour de Force.
The three-work project is the brainchild of Colorado Ballet artistic director Gil Boggs, whose organization is hosting rehearsals for the upcoming program.
"I approached both Garrett [Ammon of Wonderbound] and Cleo [Parker Robinson of Cleo Parker Robinson Dance] with the possibility of working together, and the conversations went very well," says Boggs. "Then it was just a matter of getting our schedules synched. I told them both that I would love for each of them to choreograph a work with both their dancers and Colorado Ballet's dancers together."
While each company varies greatly in style, the dancers have the same fundamental training, explains Wonderbound dancer Ben Youngstone. "We all start each day with ballet class, but the way we approach movement is a little different. For example, with Wonderbound, every work is a new creation, so it involves a lot of figuring out what is happening in the moment. A lot of the steps we’re doing don’t have names."
This departure from the rigidity of classical ballet extends beyond the absence of specific names for contemporary steps. For example, notes Colorado Ballet principal Dana Benton-Robertson, "Garrett closed all the curtains in the rehearsal studio that cover the mirrors because he doesn't work with mirrors in his own studio. That was nice; it gave the steps a different dimension." For a dancer, the shift in a choreographer's style can be a big change, even in the comfort of her own studio.
"He is so cool to watch when he is creating," Benton-Robertson says of Ammon. "He walks around the room, and all of a sudden he tells people to go here and here. He's crazy amazing. He’s so generous with his movement and what he wants from his dancers."
Benton-Robertson and Youngstone are paired together for the Wonderbound piece, Creatures of Prometheus. All ten of Wonderbound's dancers are partnered with a Colorado Ballet dancer for the work. "It’s so fun — it’s crazy hard," says Benton-Robertson. "When you’re not used to working with somebody, you have to learn to trust them and learn their timing. Ben and I hit it off right away; we were both up for the challenge."
She describes the union of Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Theatre and Colorado Ballet as sheer fun. "Cleo is amazing. She is so full of life and so energetic. Starting off, we didn’t know what to expect. We all started doing combinations across the floor, trying to figure out her style, while she was trying to figure out how to teach us her style. She had to help us relax a bit, because as classical ballet dancers, we can be a bit stiff and uptight. We had to learn how to let go and relax."
The two companies bonded as they hashed out their collaboration for the Civil Rights-era-themed The MOVE/ment, a high-energy contemporary piece set to gospel music. "Every day we would end the rehearsal in a circle, thanking everybody," says Benton-Robertson. "It's such a joy to perform this work. It’s not stressful dancing, even though the theme is a bit of an emotional roller coaster. It's nice to just go out there and enjoy myself."
Sandwiched between the two collaborative pieces is Traveling Alone, which will be performed exclusively by the Colorado Ballet. Choreographed by Amy Seiwert, Traveling Alone was last brought to Denver in 2014 and continues to be an extremely powerful work for Benton-Robertson, who dances the principal role. Although this is the only number performed en pointe during the performance, it's a far cry from the storybook ballets that audiences might be used to seeing from the ballet company. The contemporary piece meditates on finding one's place in society, with abstract costumes, intense emotional dancing, and zero props or stage fanfare.
"I feel so grateful that I get to dance it again," says Benton-Robertson. "When you first learn something, it takes a little bit of time to get used to the new movement and coordination of that choreographer. I've gotten to do it a few times now, and the movement is really in my body. I can explore it on a whole new level."
The collaboration of three dynamic companies requires mutual support and appreciation.
"I wouldn’t think of us as competitors," says Youngstone. "We're doing similar things, but we’ve each carved out our separate niche. This show is like Denver restaurant week: You get a little bit of a taste of each company."
Tour de Force will be performed at 7:30 p.m. March 8, 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. March 9, and 2 p.m. March 10 at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House, 1385 Curtis Street. Tickets, $30 to $90, are available at coloradoballet.org.