Alternatingly cozy, sexy, whimsical, frightening, haunting and down-right gorgeous, Wonderbound’s multi-sensory, immersive production, Winter, will have you asking, “Tchaikovsky who? Nutcracker what?” Wonderbound utilized its expansive, industrial rehearsal space for the production, the former Weisco Motorcars warehouse situated off Broadway and Park Avenue in Five Points and sandwiched between Denver’s burgeoning River North Arts District, the downtown business district, and a substantial homeless population. Like this charged location, with its many positive and negative reminders of artistic and economic possibilities, Winter abounds with emotional, artistic and intellectual complexity. The performance brings together Wonderbound, musician Jesse Manley and his band, perfumist Michelle Roark, projection artist Kristopher Collins, poetry from the likes of Shakespeare and William Carlos Williams among others, and chefs Bob Blair (Fuel Café), Ian Chisholm (Amerigo), Noah French (Sugarmill), and Brian Crow (Devil’s Food) for a confluence of all five senses that challenges what the performing arts – and especially dance – can and even should be.
The performance begins before a single dancer steps on stage: Collins’ meditative snow projection combs the white-washed brick wall, holiday tunes envelope the space, dessert boxes beckon, and the bar stands open. White, numbered cards tied with twine await on each chair. An air of Christmas morning excitement bubbles up from the audience as they open their dessert boxes, daintily tasting each confection. On the 18, Fuel’s Blair provided an imaginative dessert sampler: Chai Pot de Crème with Candied Ginger, Chocolate Matcha Ho Ho Ho’s, Pizzelle Cannoli (my personal favorite) and three Fruit Gelées. All too often, refreshments at arts events feel like an afterthought with vending-machine offerings dressed up on a tray, but these tastes were true treats: delightful, fun, and delicious.
After Manley and his band take their spots and Wonderbound’s Sarah Tallman introduces the production which includes a playful warning about audience members being called on for a hunt and instructions for opening the numbered envelopes containing a custom-created scent for each major scene, the show proper begins. Candice Bergeron and Damien Patterson take center stage as a woman and her husband, cozying up with a fireplace and scotch on a cold winter’s night. The lovers flirt and toy with each other until a magnetic attraction brings them together. Bergeron’s and Patterson’s exquisite, long limbs seem capable of anything and everything, perfect standing splits, gazelle-like strides, the most graceful of spins. It’s not until a projected magpie alights on the window sill and the couple recites a nursery rhyme, One for Sorrow, that the production hints towards “the extremes of winter” as Artistic Director Garrett Ammon describes.
The next scene begins with dancer Colby Foss’ recitation of Edith Matilda Thomas’Winter Sleep, which turns the performance towards winter as a metaphor for death and dying. Collins’ projections turn similarly dark with Rorschach-like mirrored images of smoke clouds and knobby branches, atmospheric shots of bodies and water. All the while Manley’s melancholy, warbled voice fills the space and the chorus fans out across the stage. An arabesque penchée by Marian Faustino’s seems to stop time if only for a moment.
Next Meredith Strathmeyer, as a particularly convincing magpie, pecks her way through the audience to the stage. Her twitchy movements, eerily bird like, unnerve yet captivate, especially when she uncovers the sleeping lovers. Their unveiling sucks the air out of the space as the audience hangs on her every move until finally she steals Bergeron from her still sleeping lover. Throughout the performance, costume designer Rachel Kras’ talent shines from a luxurious fur-trimmed coat, rose red embellishments, and ethereal skirts but nowhere does it compare to the engineering, pure beauty and near-sinister force of Strathmeyer’s indigo, black and white magpie costume complete with articulated wings, shimmering feathers and sleek, onyx beak.
Patterson enlists the help of certain audience members and their “lanterns” (i.e. large flashlights) in searching the woods for his missing wife. The audience members, by turns dutiful, nervous, excited, follow him through the audience and finally to the stage where they huddle together. The chorus, this time donning animal masks, tip-toes and crawls their way through the audience to stage, positioning the lantern holders in a wide arc towards the back of the stage. As masked animals, they romp and play with the lantern holders, and I found myself jealous of their close proximity to all the antics and fun. But the frivolity only lasts a short while as the magpie makes her return, this time dangling a glittering leash from her beak that’s clasped at the woman’s neck. Tethered as they are to one another, Strathmeyer and Bergeron dance a beautiful yet horrifying duet that questions domesticity, submissiveness, man (or in this case woman) vs. nature, ownership and objectification.
After the magpie leaves, the female animals usher the lantern holders off stage, back to the safety of their seats, while Patterson contends with the remaining male dancers. Projections of wolves slash the wall behind as the dancers all tussle, the animals slowly stripping Patterson of his affluence and civility, his coat and then his tie and vest. Watching the four white dancers circle and pounce the single black dancer, I couldn’t help but think of Ferguson, how art imitates life imitates art. They leave him panting, curled in the fetal position as Faustino slowly covers his body with snow. Meanwhile, a pub scene comes to life on stage left with new audience members selected to dance and frolic as dancers recite more poetry with the ribald bluster of drunken sailors. The speakeasy, swing dancing and jazzy music make it easy to forget Patterson on the floor were it not for his ragged breathing.
The pub revelers leave and the magpie, now in human form, and the woman return. Patterson rescues his wife from her gilded cage while the magpie woman sleeps. Just as before, their long, lovely lines gracefully glide across the stage. But alas, the magpie woman awakens and joins the duet, trying to seduce the woman back. Luckily, Patterson prevails taking his wife back to their cozy home, their familiar routine. Or so we think, until the magpie woman takes Bergeron’s place.
Wonderbound’s sold-out Winter performances prove that audiences want not only a new holiday classic but one integrating myriad art forms centered around contemporary dance. Audience survey after survey continues to showcase the decline in performing arts patronage, especially in traditional and contemporary dance. But perhaps the decline comes not from a lack of interest on the audience’s behalf but a lack on the arts organization’s end for the changing needs of its audience. With all of the noise (visual, verbal, cultural,) audiences need, now more than ever before, to be so fully compelled and engaged that the rest of the world slips away. With our over-stimulated selves, that job is harder than ever before. The art, as my former writing teacher Jess Row said, has to be a bolt of lightning that renders everything else irrelevant. Wonderbound’s sensual immersion does just that. As lavish and seamless as Colorado Ballet’s The Nutcracker or Denver Center for the Performing Arts’A Christmas Carol continue to be, both have essentially remained static for years, decades even. While not the first to pair live performance, projections, music and food in Denver – Monkey Town 4 this past summer changed what a dinner and a show could be – Winter ushers in a new model for the bread-and-butter holiday season that I hope more arts organizations will be daring enough to follow.
Deanne Gertner: A Colorado native, Deanne Gertner is a graduate from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She works for Denver-based art consulting firm, NINE dot ARTS, where she helps companies tell their stories through art. She sits on the boards of Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop and CultureHaus, the Denver Art Museum’s young professionals’ group. Her writing has appeared in or is forthcoming from Americans for the Arts’ ARTSblog, Daily Serving and KYSO Flash.