Denver’s Wonderbound kept dancing for live audiences through the pandemic. Now, it’s welcoming bigger crowds back

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Courtesy Wonderbound/Amanda Tipton
Wonderbound artists in Garrett Ammon’s Penny’s Dreadful.

As the pandemic worsened in 2020, live arts performances and gatherings first slowed to a crawl and then stopped altogether — theater, gallery openings, films, ballet. But not Wonderbound in Denver.

Wonderbound was one of just five ballet companies around the nation that kept dancing for live audiences through pandemic shutdowns. Now, the state's second-largest ballet company is preparing once again for a full season.

Collaborating with local musicians and writers is a hallmark of the original work Wonderbound produces. The pandemic restrictions interrupted that component of their work, yet they never stopped dancing.

“The thing that I'm really proud of, and we're really proud of, is that we never actually shut down during the pandemic. We kept all of our dancers and all of our employees on payroll, and we kept working all the way through the pandemic, “ said Wonderbound Artistic Director Garrett Ammon. “At first we were doing it by having people work from home. So, we didn't do Zoom classes or anything. I personally found kind of a visceral, like, dislike of that experience. But what we did was, first, we set the dancers about creating short dance films and dance tutorials. Ultimately through the course of the pandemic, we created over 160 dance films and tutorials that we shared with the community.”

The product of that work remains available on Wonderbound’s website and digital platforms

During the height of the pandemic, the company’s dedication to rigorous daily ballet class and commitment to return to in-person work required sacrifices.

“We were able to get back into the studio, essentially, create our own bubble,” Ammon said. “Everyone had to commit to the idea that they were essentially going to go home, go to work, and then do the bare minimum of errands: you know, the grocery store, the gas station. And by doing that — by everyone committing to that — we were able to come back earlier than most companies.”

Ammon said The National Endowment for the Arts noted Wonderbound was one of just five ballet companies nationwide that kept dancing for live audiences during pandemic shutdowns. Just 25 audience members at a time were allowed to watch — all at socially distanced cabaret tables.This arrangement prohibited working with live music, one of the distinctive attributes of the company.

“So moving away from that during the pandemic was definitely a little bit sad, but at the same time, we were still so grateful to be able to continue performing this year,” said Dancer Jocelyn Green, who has been with the company for four seasons. 

“When we lost live music, it felt like we lost a little bit of our identity because the live music was so much of what Wonderbound became. And when we lost it, I was like, ‘Oh no, this is, this is gonna be a rough time for us.’ But we just, in our Wonderbound way, we just plow through and we keep going,” said longtime company member Damien Patterson

“Keep going” carries another meaning for Patterson this season: After 14 years with Wonderbound, he announced his retirement last year, but Ammon persuaded him to stay for one more season.

“It was a beautiful thing for them to come up to me and ask me, because that doesn't happen. And to be able to have a career for so long and then the moment that it's time for you to stop, they don't want you to leave it's — I wasn't even supposed to dance this long,” Patterson said. “And then the fact that someone's coming up to me and asking me to continue, it feels like a fairytale in my mind.”

Courtesy Wonderbound/Amanda Tipton
Wonderbound artists in Garrett Ammon’s Penny’s Dreadful.

Wonderbound has a track record of maintaining long-term relationships with its company members. Sarah Tallman’s history predates the company name change from Ballet Nouveau Colorado to Wonderbound, and even before Garrett Ammon and his wife Dawn Fay took leadership. 

Though Tallman has retired from performing, she remains with Wonderbound as the ballet master and associate choreographer. For the opening show of the season, Tallman is restaging Ammon’s Penny's Dreadful

“So that aspect of my job was restaging the entire ballet, which was very exciting,” Tallman said. “It's a big undertaking ….It's a vibrant story. It has super fun music from the 80s, so it's really wonderful to go back to that.”

Ammon and Tallman are also collaborating on a new work for the winter season. The ballet is called Burlesque, But spelled “Brrr!esque.”

Ammon said it will keep the cabaret style of the popular Winterland ballet, but with a new twist. 

“It's got a kind of a Cold War bent to it. So, that added a little layer to the Burr part of Burlesque. It's a fun show. It's a lot of dancing. We're really excited to introduce that to our audiences.” 

As part of the new season, Wonderbound is also returning to live music for some shows – and returning to welcoming in a larger audience.

“I think this season is really not a return, but kind of a renewal for Wonderbound, as we get to have more people in the space and get back to a little bit of normal, but also kind of a new normal,”  Green, the dancer, said. 

Damien Patterson said Wonderbound is a special place for artists to work: “I think that it's a beautiful place that tells human stories and we as artists get to do some great work and we get to find ourselves and we get to grow, as artists. And then to add the live music on to it and just, the guts that we have and the push forward that we have, I think that the city really needs to know that we're here and we're telling this city's stories, and we're using this city's artists.”

Ammon acknowledged that the pandemic has challenged everyone. But through that, Ammon said he has also seen society’s – not just his company’s – eagerness to “keep going.”

“We are so thrilled to be continuing forward,” Ammon said. “To kind of be moving into the daylight after this long haul that we've all been on.”

Wonderbound’s season-opening production of Garrett Ammon’s Penny’s Dreadful continues performances through October 30.