Jesse Manley has a fresh track for your hungry ears. Photo by Amanda Tipton. There are many reasons to create music, of course. There’s the pedestrian desire for popularity, there is the vaulted idea of artistic creation, but there are also less common reasons. For Jesse Manley, one reason seems to be archeological exploration. On […]
Based in Denver, Wonderbound was established in 2002 and has quickly grown into the second-largest professional dance company in Colorado. Originally called Ballet Nouveau Colorado and affiliated with a Broomfield-based dance school of the same name, in 2012–13 the company split with the dance school, changed its name, and moved to Denver. Led by artistic director Garret Ammon and producing director Dawn Fay, it has gained a national reputation for pairing energetic choreography with live, often original music in shows that attract a young and diverse audience.
Ballet Nouveau Colorado
In 1992 Ballet Nouveau Colorado (BNC) was founded as a dance school in Broomfield. A decade later, in 2002, the school established its own professional performance company to make dance performances more accessible to the public. The company started small, with only five dancers and two shows per season.
The BNC performance company grew quickly, especially after Robert Mills, a two-time winner of the National Choreographic Plan Award, took over as artistic director in 2004. It became the state’s second-largest dance company, after the Colorado Ballet, with nineteen dancers and five shows per season. It also developed a reputation as one of the leading dance companies in the Rocky Mountains, one unafraid to mix classical ballet with modern dance.
In 2006–07 the company garnered national attention for its fifth season, which featured several world premieres of works by respected choreographers. By that time the company was hearing from dozens of young dancers who wanted to audition each year as well as nationally known choreographers who hoped BNC would produce their work.
In January 2007 Mills announced that he would be leaving BNC to become artistic director of the Oklahoma City Ballet. After a four-month search, BNC announced in May that Mills would be replaced by the husband-and-wife team of Garret Ammon and Dawn Fay from Ballet Memphis. Ammon became artistic director, with Fay serving as associate artistic director. The company’s reputation continued to grow as it became known for energetic choreography, innovative collaborations, and genre-crossing programs that attracted a younger audience than most dance performances.
Not long after Ammon and Fay arrived, BNC drew national attention with its 21st Century Choreography Competition. Modeled after reality shows like American Idol, the competition allowed choreographers to submit five-minute audition videos to YouTube for a chance to win $1,000 and a contract to create an original work for BNC’s 2008–09 season. The competition opened in September 2007 and received twenty-nine submissions, which were pared down to three finalists who were invited to work with the company in a short residency. In April 2008 audiences voted on the finalists’ programs at BNC’s year-end performances. The winner was the Chinese-American choreographer Ma Cong of Tulsa Ballet.
In 2009 BNC’s growing reputation led it to be named to Dance Magazine’s “25 to Watch” list. The group hit a rough patch that year, though, as it operated through a deficit, let go of longtime executive director LIssy Garrison, and suffered through staff turnover. Fundraising stalled in the poor economic climate, and in July 2010, after years of apparently healthy growth, BNC suddenly faced the possibility of financial insolvency. The company needed nearly $200,000 by the end of the month to avoid suspending operations. After issuing an emergency call for donations, Ammon put on a special gala to raise funds and awareness. The company also tightened its budget by cutting pay, reducing the number of dancers and performances, and delaying planned maintenance and upgrades.
BNC survived, and the next year it staged its best-known and most successful work to date, a collaboration with the Denver-based indie folk/pop band Paper Bird called Carry On. In February 2011 Carry On premiered at the 316-seat Lakewood Cultural Center, garnering positive reviews and a streak of sold-out shows, with audiences split between dance lovers and concertgoers. The work proved so popular that in September 2012 it played at the 2,200-seat Ellie Caulkins Opera House in Denver.
Carry On marked the first time Paper Bird scored a fine-arts performance as well as the first time Ammon choreographed to a piece of music written for BNC. It was the second time the company had performed original dances to live music, a formula that the company has repeated and developed in many subsequent programs.
New Name, New Home
In 2012 BNC was still “surviving, but not thriving,” in Ammon’s words, as a joint dance school and performance company based in Broomfield. For help in transforming the performance company into something more, Ammon approached the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation, which at the time was shifting from a general philanthropic foundation into a major supporter of the arts in Denver.
The foundation awarded Ammon and the dance company an Arts Innovation Fund grant of $75,000 annually for three years. That gave him the freedom to make two major changes. In December 2012 the BNC school and performance company separated to allow each half to better pursue its own mission. The school remained in Broomfield and renamed itself the Colorado Conservatory of Dance. The performance company took the name Wonderbound.
No longer tied to the Broomfield-based dance school, Wonderbound moved to Denver. Ammon connected with local developer Amy Harmon, who was renovating an old Weisco Motorcars showroom on Park Avenue West, near the confluence of the River North, Curtis Park, Five Points, Ballpark, and Arapahoe Square neighborhoods just north of downtown. Harmon redeveloped the building, dubbed the “Junction Box,” with Wonderbound in mind. In March 2013 the company moved into the 10,000-square-foot space, which it shares with Harmon’s Urban Market Partners development company. The building’s large windows and open garage doors allow local residents to observe rehearsals and get to know the dancers.
Wonderbound’s new name, new home, and strong support from the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation have brought the dance company increased visibility in the Denver arts scene. Soon after moving into the Junction Box, the company won a $250,000 ArtPlace America Creative Placemaking grant, and Ammon won the 2013 Mayor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts. Since the move, its contributors have increased 50 percent and its attendance and revenues have both gone up.
Wonderbound continues to collaborate with live musicians. Whereas in its early collaborations the company simply danced to live music, experience has allowed the collaborations to become much more complex over the years. Ammon wants the company to blur the lines between dance, visual art, and music, with dance as one medium among many that are available for artistic expression.
Wonderbound has worked with photographers, visual artists, and writers. The company even collaborated with a magician, Professor Phelyx, in the fall 2013 show A Gothic Folktale, which also featured live original music by Denver singer/songwriter Jesse Manley. More recently, Wonderbound again worked with Manley for the December 2014 show Winter, which was designed to engage all five senses. Audiences heard Manley’s songs, touched Ammon’s choreography, saw visuals by projection artist Kristopher Collins, smelled the perfumes of local company Phia Lab, and tasted the creations of chefs from Fuel Café, Amerigo Delicatus, Devil’s Food, and Sugarmill.
The 2015 production “Boomtown” blended elements of theater, dance, and live music to tell the story of Denver’s many booms and busts. A collaboration with the Denver-based band Chimney Choir, which wrote more than two dozen songs for the program, “Boomtown” was Wonderbound’s ninth consecutive original show with all live music.
In addition to its standard performances, Wonderbound also serves the local community through its work in schools, at assisted-living facilities, and on the streets of Denver. The company’s dancers present in-school and in-theater performances to nearly 20,000 elementary and middle school students annually. Wonderbound also operates a professional technical theater internship program and provides full-time professional theater management at Pinnacle High School, where the company holds many of its performances. In 2015 the company started its newest education initiative, Art Squad, which engages more than two dozen middle and high school students in creating a cross-disciplinary performance with dance, music, and spoken-word elements.
As part of Project Generations, Wonderbound dancers regularly visit assisted-living communities to take part in dance and socialization programs with seniors. Project Generations helps seniors in four assisted-living communities and one Alzheimer’s unit stay active and engaged through twice-monthly events. In response to the program’s popularity, Wonderbound hopes to add themed dance parties and offer participants the chance to visit the company’s rehearsals and performances.
Finally, the company maintains an open-door policy at the Junction Box, allowing local residents, homeless people, and passersby to watch rehearsals and follow along as each performance slowly takes shape.