In normal winters, live performances — dance, theatre, music — offer audiences an activity to enjoy in the warmth and comfort of an indoor venue, as well as an escape from their cares. It gives us something to feel and to experience during the coldest and darkest months of the year.
This winter is a particularly challenging one. Because of the pandemic and restrictions on indoor gatherings, it is harder to find necessary relief. Groups like contemporary ballet company Wonderbound are navigating how to safely bring that respite to audiences.
“Everybody needs something that’s going to transport them out of this world we’re living in, because it’s so fraught with challenge and pain and suffering,” said Dawn Fay, Wonderbound’s president and co-founder. “To give people an evening where they can just laugh, and smile… It’s so good for people to re-experience those kinds of emotions.”
The description for Wonderbound’s latest program, Winterland: A Discotheque Cabaret, promises that the musical revue “will be your antidote to the cold weather blues.” It’s a glimmering display of whites and blues and disco lights, a series of jaunty, flashy and often sensual dance vignettes fired one after another. Many of the numbers portray dancers in close contact, both emotionally and physically, something that feels so precious in our age of social distancing.
Fay said the show is a sort of an antithesis to what’s happening in the world right now.
“The show itself is fun. It’s tongue in cheek, it’s a little ironical, and it’s incredibly sexy,” she said “It’s going to provide something that has been so missing for, what, 10 months now? And people, when they experience it, it’s going to reinvigorate their humanity.”
Winterland is a 50-minute show, but it took Wonderbound, months of hard work, rehearsals, COVID safety measures and quick adaptations to make it happen.
When COVID hit last spring, Wonderbound had already mapped out what its 2020-2021 season would look like. The dance company suddenly had to rethink the whole season and imagine ways to safely rehearse and stage shows to protect its 12 dancers and seven staff members.
“Our first priority is our people,” Fay said. “They depend on us to survive.”
Because it’s a small company, Wonderbound was able to create its own bubble through rigorous daily symptom checks and testing. Fay said everyone’s been COVID-free since rehearsals began in August.
“They come to work, they go to the grocery store, they go to the gas station, they go home,” she said. “That’s what all of us have been doing since August. ”
Wonderbound reopened last October with Wicked Bayou to audiences of under 100, per guidelines in place at the time, at the Parker Arts, Culture & Events Center. All staff and volunteers were required to wear masks, and audience members had to be masked, in pods and seated at least 25 feet away from performers. The lobby and theater spaces were cleaned before and after each performance.
Immediately after Wicked Bayou closed, the company started prepping for Winterland. It was conceived as a cabaret-style show, with assigned tables for audience members that would lend themselves well to social distancing. Each group would have a maximum of six and a minimum of two people (“Real estate is prime when you’re working under these restrictions,” Fay said). Economically, Wonderbound figured it could afford to seat 25 people and still comply with guidelines. The company doubled its show count to 24 shows in three weeks to make up for the smaller audience. There would be no live musicians, for both economic and safety reasons.
Then, in the beginning of November, Wonderbound’s old performance space was broken into and vandalized. Fay said the vandals had stripped the electrical rooms for copper, so the building was without electricity. That included the fire suppression and alarm systems.
“COVID was really enough to deal with. It’s been so challenging on so many levels. And then this happened, ” Fay said. “We had to scramble. We had to move. And we had no plan for that.”
They found a new space and moved in within a week of losing the first performance space. As it turned out, spaces suitable for a dance company also happened to be suitable for COVID precautions. The spacious, lofty warehouse in Park Hill has high ceilings that make for both good acoustics and good air circulation.
Winterland was originally scheduled to open on December 2. But on November 20, Denver moved to Level Red on Colorado’s COVID-19 dial, shutting down indoor events.
Luckily, the dance troupe is pretty agile, Fay said.
“You just have to carry on, period, no matter what,” she said.
It’s important to the dancers to keep dancing through the pandemic. Wonderbound has been posting digital content throughout the pandemic. Over 100 dance videos are available to watch for free on the company’s website. But it’s not the same as performing live.
“For the dancers, this is, this is why they do it. This is why one is a dancer — to give to an audience. It is all about that live performance,” Fay said. “All the hours of rehearsal… All of that work is for what we’re getting ready to do, which is to be able to give all of yourself as an artist, as a dancer, to an audience. And that energy that is then replicated back to you as a performer on stage.”