“Garrett Ammon is a stubborn fucking mule,” Mortimer Leech barks, his yellow eyes flashing, after a preview of Wicked Bayou, a collaboration between Ammon’s dance troupe, Wonderbound, and Leech’s band, The Widow’s Bane. “I come up with these brilliant ideas all the time, and he scraps all of them.”
As if on cue, Ammon walks by.
“Speak of the Devil. Garrett, come over here,” Leech commands. “I was just telling him about how much of an asshole you are.”
Ammon smiles as though he's privy to the joke, if not exactly comfortable with it. For Leech, this type of exchange is common; the undead frontman isn’t known for mincing words.
If you ask him about the legend of Mortimer Leech, he'll say he was born in 1774 after he was murdered by his wife. He woke up in the underworld on the Devil’s ship, the SS Widow’s Bane, and was forced to front the Widow's Bane band alongside fellow undead musicians Rutherford Belleview, Abraham Lynch, Bastien O'Leary, James Cricket and Norman Hardgrove.
“My wife used to tell me I sang like a cat who had its head stuck in a screen door,” says Leech. “I would say, ‘Fuck you, you old hag!’”
Although Leech’s personality is jarring, it’s impressive performance art...the work of Clay Rose, who also fronts punk-infused folk band Gasoline Lollipops. To hear Rose tell it, though, he and Leech are two different people, with separate thoughts and opinions. “There are people in my life who are bad influences, but my love for them trumps that,” Rose says. “Mortimer is a good example of that.”
Rose’s opinions differ starkly from Leech’s. Take his opinion of Ammon, for example.
“He’s just such a powerhouse of talent,” Rose says. “It's kind of intimidating to be working on a medium that I've never worked on before with somebody who is just so talented.”
The collaboration between the two, Wicked Bayou, debuts Saturday, October 20, at the PACE Center in Parker, where it repeats October 21. Then it moves to the Performing Arts Complex at Pinnacle Charter School Friday, October 26, through Sunday, October 28.
While Wonderbound has performed with Denver-based musicians before, Wicked Bayou represents a shift in style and ambition for the dance company. The piece is more complex and sinister than previous offerings, thanks to Leech and the Widow’s Bane, which composed the score.
“I never met Mortimer before, and it’s a little bit of an adjustment,” Ammon says. “I'm not terribly concerned about it. I think there'll be some surprising moments, for sure, but the whole band is such a fantastic group of musicians and incredibly talented, so I'm really excited about it!”
“The music is better than anything Clay Rose could have come up with,” Leech interjects.
Wonderbound set out to collaborate with Rose after Ammon and producing director Dawn Fay saw him play a solo set at Ophelia’s Electric Soapbox. Always on the prowl for talented musicians to work with, they contacted Rose after the show and asked if Gasoline Lollipops would be a part of their next performance. When they explained the concept and said the show would take place around Halloween, Rose suggested that the Widow’s Bane would be a better choice — musically, anyway, even if such a pairing would come with risks.
“I gave them as many outs as I could,” Rose says. “I tried to explain what it meant. I was like, ‘Okay, but it’s not me that you're going to be working with. I'll do my best to manage Mortimer, but you're going to be working with him, and he's a drunk, materialistic, chauvinistic asshole.’ They thought that sounded like a great party and said they wanted to try it. I think Garrett and Dawn have been kicking themselves ever since.”
While Leech continues to inflict his Andy Kaufman-esque hijinks on Fay and Ammon, the pair insist that working with the Widow’s Bane has allowed them to create the dark tale they originally set out to tell.
Wicked Bayou was created by Rose as a Hansel and Gretel-type story that he used to tell his son. Ammon has augmented it with poisoned blood oranges, possessed mannequins, Creole and Cajun folklore and plenty of death. The performance exemplifies how Ammon excels at collaboration as he choreographs and crafts stories to fit the musicians he's working with.
After moving from Memphis to Denver in 2007, Ammon and Fay — the two are married — took over the reins of dance company Ballet Nouveau. Under their leadership, the troupe saw great success, including being named one of Dance magazine’s “25 to Watch” in 2009. “The thing that really interested us was that the company had some history behind it,” Fay says. “It wasn't a new company, but it also had a lot of room for molding, changing and reshaping, and that's kind of what interested us.”
With this in mind, Ammon and Fay began to conceptualize ways to expand their mission and forge new relationships with artists. While Ammon had always experimented with narrative tales in his choreography, he wanted to form a company where storytelling and collaboration were paramount.
“I think at that time, when we were still Ballet Nouveau, that began the journey toward these more narrative structures,” Ammon says. “I had found the contemporary-dance reality was a lot of work that was made for people who are ‘in the know.’ That doesn’t necessarily allow the newcomer in, and I very much enjoy trying to create work that is really appealing to the avid ballet fan but also gives that entry point to somebody who has never seen dance before.”
Hoping to broaden its audience, in 2011 Ballet Nouveau collaborated with Denver band Paper Bird on a performance titled Carry On. While Ammon had dabbled with live music before, it was the first time he'd worked directly with a band, asking them to compose original music for the performance. The show was a success and set the groundwork for the next chapter for Ammon and Fay.
In 2012, after some restructuring with help from the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation, the troupe changed its name to Wonderbound and moved from its original home in Broomfield to the heart of Denver, at 1075 Park Avenue. “That space became a really defining aspect of Wonderbound,” Ammon says. “Being in this garage with those open doors allowed us to push against these traditional things of what a ballet company looks like by being a little more edgy, but also very open to the community. We were trying to embrace the community and add beauty to what was there, but we weren't going to run anyone away. It was a beautiful way to exist.”
Soon Wonderbound began to hear mutterings that the building it loved so much would eventually be sold. It was hard to focus fully on art when the fate of the space was uncertain.
Still, Fay was optimistic: “You might go through some very challenging moments, but as long as you remain diligent, rigorous and mission-driven, things will always progress in the way that they're supposed to."
In April, the company announced that it had found a new home: Longtime Wonderbound supporters Brooke and Tom Gordon and their investment group had bought a building on East 40th Avenue and invited Wonderbound to take up a portion of it.
And while its new home may not be in the heart of the same community, Fay insists the move has let the company breathe and focus on what it does best. “Honestly, the Gordons allowed me to start sleeping a little better for the past year,” she says. “It's a relief, to be honest, because there were some difficult moments of uncertainty there.”
As a result, Wonderbound has the freedom and peace of mind to work on new collaborations, as well as the capacity to tackle the nuances of a performance like Wicked Bayou and all of the dark complexities that go along with it.
“I love exploring that end of humanity,” Ammon says. “I love exploring these aspects and getting into the crevices of the dark sides of ourselves.”
Wicked Bayou, 7:30 p.m. Saturday, October 20, and 2 p.m. Sunday, October 21, at PACE Center in Parker; get tickets here.
Wicked Bayou, October 26 to 28, Performing Arts Complex at Pinnacle Charter School, 1001 West 84th Avenue. Get tickets and find out more here.
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Andy Thomas is a music journalist who hopes other music journalists write nice things about the music he performs. He lives in Denver with his wife, their two cats and a massive pile of unfinished projects.