Boulder-based musician Clay Rose never imagined that a brunch gig at Ophelia's Electric Soapbox would lead to his writing a ballet. But after meeting dance company Wonderbound's directors, Garrett Ammon and Dawn Fay, during a set break a few years back, Rose ended up writing two of them, one with each of his bands — the gritty alt-country outfit Gasoline Lollipops, and the Widow's Bane, a group of time-traveling zombie rockers (which he fronts as his foul-mouthed alter ego, Mortimer Leech).
Neither band swims naturally in a sea of tutu-wearing ballerinas; however, Wonderbound is no ordinary ballet company. The troupe uses live music, often from independent musicians, for most of its shows.
Since getting his start in Memphis choreographing a ballet to the music of Johnny Cash, Ammon has worked with musicians of all genres, from the Flobots to Paper Bird to the Colorado Symphony. He's especially drawn to Americana.
"I feel a connection to this kind of music, and I feel like Clay, he lives in that lineage," Ammon says. "And I think that's one thing that's amazing and unique about what Clay is doing. I felt like country music in general kind of went in a different direction, in a lot of respects, and Clay is firmly living inside that place in a way that I don't think many musicians are. It feels like home to me."
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When Ammon's wife and partner Fay first suggested checking out Gasoline Lollipops, Ammon jumped at the chance to add another musician to his roster.
"Right from the beginning, from the moment they started their first set, we were like, 'Oh, yeah,'" Ammon recalls. "So when they finished their first set and took a break, we immediately went to Clay and introduced ourselves."
"I thought they were full of shit," Rose says, grinning. "Because that happens at set break all the time. People come up and say, 'Oh, I got this thing — I got this dance company, I got this brother-in-law who's in music, you should check this out; we should do something.' When they said, 'What about doing a full ballet with all your music?,' I'm like, 'Sure. It's nothing to me. Ballet — sure, buddy.'"
But Ammon and Fay were persistent, and they invited Rose to come to a Wonderbound performance and see what the company was all about. He attended a performance of Celestial Navigation, a space-voyage story scored by Ian Cooke, and was blown away.
"It was so fucking cool, man," he says. "It was like watching a sci-fi adventure." And the production proved to Rose that Wonderbound was looking to push the boundaries of traditional ballet.
"I think most people, the moment they hear 'ballet' or 'dance,' those words put a lot of connotations into their head," says Ammon. "You would see either classical, classical ballet like Swan Lake, or you would see, like, ultra-modern Merce Cunningham, where they're in unitards and they're breathing and they're rolling on the ground and doing weird shapes and stuff. And both of those things, I think, are really hard for the average person to connect with."
That's partly why Wonderbound isn't called "Wonderbound Ballet" or "Wonderbound Dance Company." Ammon doesn't care if people think of Wonderbound's shows as dance productions with live music, or live music accompanied by dance.
"I just want them to come and enjoy what we're doing," he says. "So it's just about trying to create art that connects to and reflects the world that we live in today, and ripping away all those traditions that are built around ballet."
Ultimately, he hopes to change the public perception of ballet, just as he changed Rose's: "A lot of people perceive ballet as this rarefied, old-fashioned thing that is hoity-toity and whatever. I try to always remind myself that ballet just happens to be the technique we're using. It's like, you can be trained as a classical painter, as a classical musician, as a Shakespearean actor — but that's just tools. What you do with it, what you create with it, is entirely up to you."
Still, Ammon firmly believes that his approach to ballet as a narrative format is in keeping with ballet's original goal, which was to tell the popular stories of the day with style and flair.
"We're actually just doing what our art form has always done," he says. "We just aren't forgetting that we're doing it now, not back then."
Having contemporary music from local musicians also helps ballet appeal to the 21st-century crowd. Bands like Gasoline Lollipops bring a much-needed cool factor to what is often seen as a stuffy and outdated art form.
And there's nothing stuffy about Rose. His style of music naturally lends itself to storytelling. When he initially presented Ammon and Fay with two songs — the Widow's Bane's "Old Bayou" and Gasoline Lollipops' "Santa Maria and the Sandman" — he pitched how each could be the basis of a full-length ballet.
At the time, Wonderbound was looking for a fall production to coincide with Halloween, so they went with the more ghoulish Widow's Bane song and story. The ease of their partnership surprised both collaborators, and two years later, Rose and Ammon are revisiting that original pitch and telling the other story Rose proposed.
The resulting ballet, titled The Sandman, will debut on Valentine's Day at the Performing Arts Complex at Pinnacle Charter School in Federal Heights. Since they knew the ballet would be based on "Santa Maria and the Sandman," they started with the characters introduced in that song and worked backward from there to choose the rest of the music from the band's discography.
"I think once you're in the process, it's fairly organic," says Ammon. "It's kind of like putting a puzzle together. You don't know what the picture is, but you know that the pieces will fit together right if you just keep moving them around."
The Sandman is a love story with a Western twist. Mixing gun-slinging, romance and existential angst, the ballet tells the story of Jesse and Rose, a young couple whose parallel lives intersect only briefly before being separated by the Sandman. Jesse later journeys to reunite with his love under the guidance of "Santa Maria," the Virgin Mary. However, in keeping with the rebellious nature of its creators, this classic fairytale setup actually ends up being a girl-power story.
Part of Ammon and Rose's process when writing The Sandman was to conceptualize it as a much larger, more complex tale than what audience members will see on stage. Ammon's number-one rule was that there would be no two-dimensional characters, even if that's how the characters are presented in the original song.
"With Garrett, we're taking each of these characters and fleshing them out into an entire novel," says Rose.
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For his part, Ammon is happy to have found a collaborator who is more than just a musician: "I think the thing that has made a big impact on me is to have a collaborator who thinks not only as a musician and as a songwriter, but he's very much a storyteller. So when we're sitting here and we're talking about the construction of how we take these individual songs that each have individual stories and then bring them together as a whole, we're on the same page."
One might think that Ammon is the one who has to rein in Rose, but the musician says it's actually the reverse.
"That's the interesting dynamic in our relationship, because we've got the rock-and-roller and the ballet choreographer, and it's the opposite of what you'd imagine," Rose says. "Because it's usually me going, 'No, Garrett, I don't think we can do that.' And he's like, 'No, we're doing that.' I'm cringing, and he's like, 'We're pulling out all the stops!'"
The Sandman runs February 14 through 16 at The Performing Arts Complex at Pinnacle Charter School, 1001 West 84th Avenue, in Federal Heights, and February 22 to 23 at the PACE Center, 20000 Pikes Peak Avenue in Parker. Tickets are $25-$50 and available at wonderbound.com.
Listen to Gasoline Lollipops and more favorites from Westword writers on our Westword Staff Picks playlist.