One summer a couple of years ago, Wonderbound’s Artistic Director, Garrett Ammon, attended a Lighthouse Writers Workshop retreat and was introduced by poet Chris Ransick to Mary Ruefle’s Madness, Rack, and Honey, a selection of witty, thought-provoking lectures ruminating on the act of creating art, specifically poetry. Although the idea to create a ballet named after Ruefle’s work dawned on Ammon later on, he was instantly captivated by her writing, and the title itself.
Garrett Ammon in rehearsal for Madness, Rack, and Honey. By Amanda Tipton.
“Mary Ruefle talks about the idea of madness, rack, and honey as the distillation of what it is to be an artist and to engage in the act of creating art,” he explained.
“I think it’s common for artists to go through periods when they’re creating that are psychologically challenging, and it’s maddening.” The rack represents “the torture of it that’s ongoing, that you kind of have to suffer through” and the honey, “ultimately, the reward, the sweetness of it.”
Producing Director Dawn Fay and Artistic Director Garrett Ammon demonstrate a movement in rehearsal for Ammon’s “Madness, Rack, and Honey.” By Amanda Tipton.
The title inspired Ammon to create a new ballet named after her book. Although the ballet itself is not meant to act as a commentary on Ruefle’s work, reading about her thoughts about the artistic experience prompted him to shake up his artistic process.
Ammon has created a slew of diverse and wonderful ballets in collaboration with many different artists, including musical artists like Chimney Choir and Flobots, and poet Michael J. Henry.
To create “Madness, Rack, and Honey,” Ammon turned to a new and unconventional “collaborator”: a poem, a “a self-created voice on the page.”
“I ultimately decided to jump into this somewhat maddening process of creating this absurdist poem for the entire ballet that used the musical phrases as a structure,” he said.
After devising the poem’s form, meter, and rhyme scheme, Ammon used random word generators and rhyming dictionaries to “fill in the blank canvas.” The resulting absurdist poem challenged him to approach his choreography differently.
For Ammon as an artist, this was all about “disrupting my creative process and doing things that might not normally occur to me in my normal studio process with the dancers.”
If you step into the Wonderbound Studio during rehearsals, you’ll likely hear onomatopoetic interjections – pops, sighs, taps, and oomphs – used to communicate a nuance, mood, or rhythm to a movement. Having been born from a visceral and often nonsensical poem, this ballet lends itself well to this audible creative process.
Garrett Ammon in rehearsal with Stephanie Moffett-Hugg and Colorado Ballet’s Ian Santiago for Ammon’s “Madness, Rack, and Honey.” By Amanda Tipton.
Ammon’s ballet is a movement away from the narrative-driven style of ballet seen in recent works including this season’s Aphrodite’s Switchboard, Snow, and Celestial Navigation . More abstract and fast-paced, “there are narrative threads that exist in [“Madness, Rack, and Honey”], but I think they exist in a way that leaves a lot open to interpretation—not unlike a poem. They’re kind of guide points for each audience member to make their own choices.”
Amy Giammarusco and Sarah Tallman in rehearsal for Tallman’s “I Didn’t Hear You, I Was Away With THe Fairies.” By Amanda Tipton.
Wonderbound dancer and choreographer Sarah Tallman practices a daily morning ritual: morning pages, a term coined by Julia Cameron in her book The Artist’s Way. What began as a practice of five minutes of intentional silence each morning has evolved into “an hour at least” of time spent writing and reading.
Sarah Tallman and Evan Flood in rehearsal for Garrett Ammon’s Madness, Rack, and Honey. By Amanda Tipton.
Tallman guides each morning ritual intuitively – she may hand write her thoughts in her journal, or find them gushing across the keys of her computer – each morning is different. Her writing may remain private, or end up on her personal blog. And although she often prefers reading non-fiction, she started reading more fiction – “something more descriptive and less intellectual” – when she began preparing to create her new ballet to be presented alongside Garrett Ammon’s “Madness, Rack, and Honey.”
“I purposefully moved away from using my analytical mind. I actually didn’t want to use my mind,” she emphasized. “I wanted to be purposefully free of any thought or idea of how to do something so that I could just feel to do something and have it come through me rather than forcing something.”
After a conversation with a family friend about 20th century poets, Tallman turned to Mary Oliver, Max Ehrmann, T.S. Eliot, Langston Hughes and other writers to jog her imagination.
“The poets are asking themselves questions. You can hear them questioning the world, questioning themselves, their lifestyles, and their choices. Questioning the presence of god, their own humanity and their place in the world. That helped me to hear some of that in Mozart’s music.”
Chiavari chairs painted in Sarah Tallman’s favorite colors for her original ballet, “I Didn’t Hear You, I Was Away With The Fairies.” By Amanda Tipton.
Nayomi Van Brunt and Evan Flood in rehearsal for Sarah Tallman’s “I Didn’t Hear You, I Was Away With The Fairies.” By Amanda Tipton.
“I wanted to find a way to slow some of it down. My tendency as a human, and probably as a choreographer, is to make lots of steps so things are always energetic.”
Audience members will not be able to recognize literal “characters” representing their favorite poets or interpretations of their favorite poems. Rather, Tallman selected poems to guide her choreography, helping her to read more serious tones between the lines of her rapturous work.
“It’s not a narrative, it’s just things that I love. I don’t know how deep the layers go, and that’s what I’m curious about. I believe in things that are behind the lines, and I think there are things like that in the ballet.”