Dance rock

Ballet Nouveau Colorado presents an unlikely mix of ballet and rock ’n’ roll

David Accomazzo | Boulder Weekly

In a dance studio in an industrial section of Broomfield, the dancers of Ballet Nouveau Colorado, decked in casual athletic clothes, are performing to the wall-length mirror inside the studio. The music of David Bowie blares through speakers, and the room is as much filled with glam rock as it is with the breathing of the winded dancers.

“Great job, everyone,” Artistic Director Garrett Ammon says as the program ends.

He sits facing the dancers with his back against the mirror, the floor around him filled with handwritten notes. Dawn Fay, associate artistic director and Ammon’s wife, sits a few feet to his right. Ammon rises as he gives his notes on the performance.

“Don’t do a big cutesy smile. Be more orgasmic about it,” he tells Meredith Strathmeyer, who dances the role of God in the performance, over the laughter of the other dancers. She laughs and sheepishly does the move again, this time toning down the Broadway stage smile. Ammon looks satisfied.

“Good,” he says, as he moves onto other critiques. The company is rehearsing for Garrett Ammon’s Rock Ballets, one ballet each for the music of David Bowie, INXS and Queen, which closes out the company’s 10th season. First performed in 2008, it’s one of the ballet’s most popular performances, and two of the three shows April 13-15 are already sold out — there will be an encore performance June 8 at the Arvada Center Outdoor Amphitheatre. Visit for tickets.

Setting ballets to a series of four-minute rock songs is a risky choice that requires a different approach than choreographing to a symphonic piece written in the 1800s. Yet though both are now couched in an aura of privilege and ivory tower stuffiness, ballet and modern dance have more in common with rock ’n’ roll than you’d think. As dance tries to express the pain, joy, suffering and ecstasy of life, so does rock music. Boulder Weekly explored the similarities with Ammon during the company’s lunch break.

How’s it different creating a ballet with rock music compared to classical music?

I think the thing I love about rock music is that it kind of parallels the way I approach my work. Rock music is taking traditional music forms and so forth and manipulating those into trying to express a more raw experience of humanity, right? I try to do the same thing with movement. The dancers are all classically trained ballet dancers, so that’s the place where we start off in our conversation.

I guess what I’m really interested in is stripping away all those traditions of the elegance of classical dance and getting down into the nitty-gritty of what it really is like to exist and struggle and try to find a way through life and find meaning within that and overcome our personal obstacles and our obstacles as communities. That’s what I love about rock music. It’s kind of doing the same thing. It’s kind of climbing around in the witty aspect of our reality and kind of embracing that. So, I feel really at home existing with that music.

Rock music has a certain vocabulary to it, musically. Tension is built in a certain way and tension is released in a certain way. Does that structure provide a different challenge than when writing to different types of music, and also, do you find that the audience can maybe relate to the music a little more, and maybe the connection between the music and the movement is a little more apparent to the people in the audience?

Yeah, on the first half of your question, I think the interesting challenge with rock music is that it’s a very specific form — you’ve got your chorus and your bridge and your verses, and it’s usually only built in this particular way where there’s a buildup to a climax and a resolution. Those verses, musically, are generally the same. So what you have to do is build the arc of that story in a different way.

In classical music, you’ll have a much longer piece of music, and that process of building to that particular moment is very clear and delineated. So from a choreographic standpoint, that’s a very convenient thing to be able to create to. So with rock music, you have to able to build that yourself with how you put all that music together. So I think that’s an interesting and fun challenge to figure out how to do that.

I think the other aspect is, yes.

Absolutely. A lot of audiences aren’t used to seeing dance, and ballet seems like something that’s not meant for them. And that’s what we’re trying to do is say, no. Dance is meant for everyone. Dance evolved out of community. It didn’t always exist in this rarified form for people of privilege. It came out of the people. That’s where dance came from, and that’s where we’re trying to get back to, and say, “No. Dance belongs to everyone, and everyone can enjoy it.”

Why David Bowie, Queen and INXS?

I guess going back and looking at how the first one came about, that kind of drove into the others. “Mediate” [featuring INXS] was created [when I was with] Ballet Memphis in 2007, and the performance was happening at the Gibson Guitar Factory, which is a great space in Memphis. They decided they wanted the themes around that entire show to be music created by artists who play Gibson instruments. That doesn’t really narrow the field much. (Laughs) I had created a major work called Walk the Line to Johnny Cash, I had done a work to R.L. Burnside, these really important figures in music, so I was kind of looking for a way to avoid going down that Memphis track again, and I landed on INXS.

It was funny. … During the summer before I created the work, one of the other dancers had their iPod plugged in, and we were just listening to music on our day off, and “Never Tear Us Apart” came on. “Never Tear Us Apart” is this phenomenal song, but really, musically, over the top. But I was listening to it and was like, “This could totally work. This could be a lot of fun.”

It was kind of this high-risk thing.

It’s like, well, I’ll go there and I’ll see what happens to creating to Queen. It was daunting, because for one, people know that music so well. They have personal relationships to that music, and they have images in their head to that music, whether it be films and music videos or whether it be Wayne’s World.

So I said, let’s do it. Let’s see what happens. And I was really thrilled with the outcome of it. And people’s reactions to it were really wonderful.

I needed to flesh out the evening with one more ballet. Then it was a struggle. INXS, Queen, — what is the third artist that goes with that collection? I looked at a lot of different things, I looked at Led Zeppelin. I looked at Pink Floyd. It needed to be on that level, right, in order to go with those two other works. And as I spent a lot of time listening to all this music, album after album after album, I just kept on gravitating back to David Bowie. I think it really came from the imagery he creates in his music and in his lyrics, and the oddity.

Could you talk about why collaborations appeal to you?

Collaboration has become really important to me. Since we’ve been here we’ve collaborated with visual artists; with jazz musicians; with folk musicians, Paper Bird; as well as Jesse Manley, singer-songwriter; poets.

For me, that is what art is all about, about sharing and creating and discovering new possibilities through working with other people. How is this artist, who works in a medium that is completely not like what I do — their perspective on the world and their perspective on their art and their passion for what they do — how is that going to evolve my perception of the world, and how is that going to change the perception of the people in the audience as well?

So often people will create these decisions about whether they like it or don’t like it, whether they’ve ever experienced it before. That can be with music — they’ve heard some country music before, and they decide, I don’t like country music, even though within country music, there’s an endless array of things. And people do that with dance too. They say, “Oh, I don’t like dance.” But they’ve only seen one kind of dance, maybe. It’s kind of like saying, “I don’t like music.” I think it’s a rare person in the world that you could ever possibly find that would say, “I don’t like music.”