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Wonderbound's Latest, A Banjo Ballet Of Illusion

The twang and pluck of a banjo and the swirling hands of an illusionist are not typical to ballet. But as the former Ballet Nouveau Colorado continues its transformation into Wonderbound, the atypical deepens their commitment to collaboration – both on and off the dance floor.

Wonderbound’s latest dance, A Gothic Folktale is its most unique collaboration to date.

Imagine a time and place where superstition, myth and magic are real and believable. That’s precisely where A Gothic Folktale takes you. Getting there wasn’t a direct route though for the dance’s creators.

“So we’re not necessarily telling a narrative story in the tradition of Swan Lake or Sleeping Beauty but all that technique underlies it and it becomes a more emotional journey, a more physiological journey rather than a direct narrative,” said Garrett Ammon, Wonderbound’s artistic director.


Wonderbound’s associate artistic director Dawn Fay regards the dance, which runs Oct. 18-27, as a “mongo collaboration.” In addition to the company’s 11 dancers, Fay and Ammon also enlisted an illusionist and a musician to craft the ballet.

Jesse Manleyis one of those recruits. The singer-songwriter-musician created 16 new songs for the ballet which he performs live onstage with his band.

Musician Jesse Manley created 16 new songs for A Gothic Folktale.

“I was really excited to do a full-length ballet and to be able to really dive in and I just knew that I was going to evolve a lot as an artist,” Manley said.

The traditional folk sound of Manley’s music sets A Gothic Folktale a part from this time and place. As do the dancer’s characters, loosely based on Tarot Cards, that are a part of a vaudeville show. That throw-back feel is echoed by the Vaudeville style of illusionist Professor Phylex.

A career mentalist and a magician, Phylex said he preferred to keep specifics about his planned illusions tucked inside his vest pocket.

But he did disclose this: “My greatest trick is turning adults into children.”

Credit CJ Nicolai
Professor Phelyx will perform illusions as part of Wonderbound's A Gothic Folktale.

“Just taking people away from their daily lives and putting them somewhere else even for just a moment,” Phylex said.

That desire to transport people, or at least to offer an altered perspective, is something Wonderbound can relate to. Ammon explained that new perspectives drove Wonderbound’s decision to relocate to Denver from Broomfield last year.

“Dance comes from community,” said Ammon. “It comes from coming together to celebrate, to mourn, to rise up, it is something that is meant to be shared.”

For its new home, Wonderbound selected an unconventional dance space – a former car garage – surrounded by three homeless missions in Denver on Park Avenue West. On a warm day the garage doors are opened.

That way, passersby can watch the dancers for free.

“Often people will applaud after we’ve completed a section of something unexpectedly and that’s really wonderful for us to have that interaction when that’s usually only experienced on the stage,” said Ammon.

This approach sets Wonderbound apart from its ballet colleagues. That’s because the choreographic development of ballet, as well as some other dance forms, tends to happen behind closed doors.

That openness can be a challenge, according to Ammon – from people yelling to loud vehicles rumbling through the neighborhood - but one that he is willing to work with.

“What we’ve discovered is by kind of opening our reality to the community it’s actually been a deeply respectful sharing,” said Ammon. “By having all these souls, all these human beings around you that are all actively living life adds to the possibility of what we are doing, so we wouldn’t trade that for the world.”

It’s in those moments Wonderbound’s collaborative spirit extends beyond the dance floor and into the community, regardless of its next performance.

Arts District is a collaboration of KUNC, Rocky Mountain PBS, and KUVO.

A native of Stamford, VT, I call(ed) the Berkshires of western Massachusetts my home. The Berkshires are a culturally rich area -- I’m talking pass the butter and heavy cream -- rich.
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