Years ago, if you’d ask Clay Rose — frontman of alt-country band Gasoline Lollipops — if he’d play a significant part in crafting an original full-length ballet, he probably would have laughed off the notion.
Now, the Boulder-based musician is deep in the throes of completing his second collaboration with Wonderbound — a Denver contemporary dance company not afraid to stray from tradition by exploring heavy themes, incorporating music that doesn’t fall into the classical genre and still offering highly-skilled productions with dancers of exceptional caliber.
The latest collaboration, “The Sandman,” (A New Fangled Western) is a story of epic proportion — complete with a varied soundtrack of equal significance. Thoughtfully fusing love, murder, redemption, addiction and loss into a timeless tale for the ages, this production — rich with grit and grace — premieres on Valentine’s Day.
“If there’s one thing I don’t ever want to do it’s to be painted into a corner, artistically,” Rose said. “Ballets are a great way to break out of that.”
The unlikely partnership all started a couple of years ago when Wonderbound founders Garrett Ammon and his wife Dawn Fay went to see Gasoline Lollipops play during a brunch gig at Ophelia’s Electric Soapbox in Denver. But the couple wasn’t just there for waffles, bloody marys and entertainment. They had plans to enlist one of the Front Range’s most distinct voices to team up with them and contribute to their latest project.
“I didn’t think it was real,” Rose said. “But, once I saw the scope of Wonderbound, I knew it was. I saw one of their productions in Thornton and it was so good. The music, the choreography, the sets, the storyline — I’ve never seen anything like it. It was deep.”
The first collaboration of Ammon and Rose came in the form of voodoo-tinged “Wicked Bayou,” a dark swampy Southern offering that in “True Blood”-style featured shape-shifters, poisoned blood oranges and hungry crocks that feasted on the flesh of children. Music by Rose’s other band The Widow’s Bane — in which he assumes the role of Mortimer Leech, an undead lush murdered at the hands of his wife — provided the perfect sinister aural accompaniment to this frightful show.
“I had walls up,” Rose said “I never had a co-writer in my life.”
“Wicked Bayou” was performed in late October 2018, to the delight of audiences looking for a frightful treat ahead of Halloween. The time leading up to the show’s premiere, navigating this new endeavor, was marked by both anxiety and anticipation for Rose.
“I was really excited, but also terrified,” Rose said. “I didn’t sleep for the next six months.”
Now, Ammon and Rose are at it again with another show that stems directly from Gas Pops’ decade-long arsenal of songs with lyrical depth and theatrical essence that has always resonated with fans. In a sense, these tunes — teeming with colorful edge and dramatic narratives — were built for other mediums, meant to leap off of vinyl and find their way into different arenas with different audiences.
“It’s a songwriter’s dream to have someone with as much artistic prowess as Garrett (Ammon) look within,” Rose said. “Many times, Garrett (Ammon) is making sense of my songs for me.”
Combing through a staggering 100 songs to find a select few that would serve as the foundation for the ballet, Ammon and Rose scaled them down to around 20. The name of the ballet comes from a lyric within Gasoline Lollipops’ song “Santa Maria” from the 2017 album “Resurrection.” The tune features a rousing string section, fast-paced strums and vocals by Rose that are rendered somewhat crackled as they reverberate through the workings of an old-timey microphone.
“It’s hard to narrow down,” said Ammon, who as artistic director has crafted choreography and designed sets for the musically-charged production. “You fall in love with all of them in the same way.”
“The Sandman” follows two widowed fathers as they cope with the loss of their wives who passed during childbirth. Both men, consumed with grief, end up neglecting the welfare of their children. While one turns to booze, the other dives deep into his faith.
The two men meet, conflict arises and ultimately ends in a deadly showdown. As fate would have it, the men’s children grow up, meet each other and fall in love — at first unaware of the violent history their patriarchs shared. The young lovers fight their own demons as they try to come to terms with the blood-stained past and attempt to move on to a brighter future.
During the Denver performances, Rose and his band will take the stage right alongside the dancers — an experience far different from playing to a packed barroom where patrons swig from beer bottles and drunkenly sway.
“It’s a bit nerve-wracking,” Rose said, “If I skip a verse at a show, it’s no big deal. Here, I have to be very on point and paying attention.”
The layered ballet, set sometime within the 20th century — perhaps in an unspecified mining town — gives an intimate glimpse into the joys and perils that coincide with being human.
“We’re both here for the sake of the song and the story,” Rose said. “It’s bigger than either of us.”
While at first glance, “The Sandman” may come off as an elevated Spaghetti Western, the intricate character development and complex plot prove this to be a more profound chronicle.
“Each of these characters is deeply flawed,” Ammon said. “They have big life challenges they are facing. I love creating these story ballets that are more like the realm we live in today.”
“For these characters the common thread is trauma,” Rose said. “How they’re dealing or not dealing with it — different survival skills, the way they air their grievances with God or the powers that be. With some it festers, others let it go. They recognize every one has trauma and try to find ways to comfort them even if they can’t comprehend it themselves.”
Wrought with raw emotion, the dancers evoke a range of sensations without uttering a single word.
“I’m hoping audiences feel something for these characters and walk away thinking about their relationships with the people that they love, the people that they’ve loved and lost,” Ammon said.
Previously, Ammon has worked with Paper Bird, the Flobots and Ian Cooke Band and said he wants to continue to join forces with other creatives to bring one-of-a-kind productions to area stages. With its innovative offerings, Wonderbound conquers new territory and fights against the preconceived notions some may have regarding the art form.
“Classic ballets are sometimes viewed as boring, stuffy, old fashioned,” Ammon said. “With modern dance, people associate weird movements, unitards and heavy breathing. The reality is dance can be a lot different than that.”
In between the gun slinging in “The Sandman,” viewers will also find metaphysical aspects. A guardian angel, supernatural wonders and theological components all surface in this production that dips into the mystique of other realms. Ammon has incorporated animation and video projection that will further add to the commanding visuals within the stirring ballet, whose powerful message is sure to stay with attendees long after curtains close.
“Any action of choice that we make can have more impact on the world than we realize,” Ammon said. “We’re fragile creatures. We have to care for ourselves and others in order to make it through this journey in one piece.”
Gasoline Lollipops is currently working on a new album that has been described by Rose as “neo soul.” The not-yet-released tracks could eventually birth another compelling Wonderbound production. But for now, Ammon and Rose are focused on this latest project that, despite its dark pockets, is classified as a romance of sorts.
“Love prevails,” Ammon said.
“Love saves,” Rose added.
If you go
What: “The Sandman” (A New Fangled Western)
When: .2 p.m. Feb. 16 and Feb. 23, 7:30 p.m. Feb. 14, 15 and 22
Where: The Performing Arts Complex at PCS, 1001 W. 84th Ave., Denver (Feb. 14-16) Parker Arts, Culture & Events Center, 20000 Pikes Peak Ave., Parker (Feb. 22-23)
More info: wonderbound.com