Much has changed for Denver-based rap-rock band the Flobots since their “Handlebars” days. Their latest project, “Divisions,” which came to the Newman Center Saturday April 29, is an eye-catching collaboration with Denver dance company Wonderbound that’s also a fresh piece of community-focused art.
“Divisions” is the last show of Wonderbound’s 2016-2017 season and is set to live music from the Flobots’ forthcoming album, “NOENEMIES,” their first since 2012.
Staying true to the band’s M.O., the show is a socially charged exploration of what unites and divides people in our current sociopolitical climate.
“It explores the things that create divisions: fear and othering of people, shaming them for their opinions and who they are . . . even those divisions within ourselves and our own social groups,” said Garrett Ammon, Wonderbound’s artistic director.
The Flobots, who have been on a mission of musical activist projects since 2014, first came in contact with Wonderbound—who are also very activist-oriented—in 2009. This particular project, the first of its kind for either party, has been in the works for two years.
“This is the best work we’ve ever done,” said Flobots MC Stephen “Brer Rabbit” Brackett. “The only shame is that we’ve never worked on anything so hard and yet we don’t get to see it.”
Both groups spoke to the difficulty of putting the show together. With 10 musicians and 12 dancers sharing the stage, it involved not only considerable logistical work but adaptations for both parties involved.
“There are more actual steps to choreograph and light cues than any show we’ve ever done,” said Ammon. “Dancing to hip-hop means it’s non-stop high energy from beginning to end.”
“We’ve had to stretch our musical stylings and learn to be super precise to fit with the dancers,” said Flobots’ other MC Jamie “Jonny 5” Laurie. “We’re a better band because of it.”
The beauty of the high-energy show lies in this stretching of each group, though. It’s not a Flobots concert or a ballet, and if viewers are looking for the experience of either, they’ll be disappointed.
Instead, audience members should focus on the ways the dancers’ incredible choreography complements the themes of the music, and the charisma of the two MCs, who are given free reign over the stage. Their theatrical passion and interaction with the dancers help mask any awkwardness of putting a rap-rock band in an accompanying role.
While it was at first difficult to zero in on the message of the show, clips from emotionally charged speeches provide a lot of support, as does the gradual realization that there’s no specific issue being raised, as Ammon clarified.
“What’s exciting is that we all agreed to not make a particular statement about a particular issue, just the overall environment of divisiveness and anxiety,” he said.
The highlight of the show was the closing of the first act, in which divisions were literally broken by dancers bringing audience members onstage. What is normally a cheesy trope in live entertainment proved to be poignant here, as it brought the realization that their discomfort was the same that we have to overcome in our own lives, and the joy in seeing them participate was more inspiring than harping on any singular issue would have been.
And for any viewers who would have difficulties understanding how dance can express the ideas being raised, the dancers’ sheer ability, especially that of featured soloists Amy Fogarty and Damien Patterson, was enough to inspire awe, which is exactly what the Flobots were hoping for.
“With dancers, the show contains beauty, not just spectacle,” Brackett said. “And if your message is paired with beauty, it gets past all the politics and headlines, and moves people in a way they can’t fake.”
The music overall was quite fun, with bangers like “Carousel” and “Sleeping Giant” proving to be highlights from the forthcoming album. While some pieces sounded like they were dialed back a bit for the stage, the string and saxophone features were always intriguing, and the three featured gospel singers were excellent, all of which demonstrated a more expansive, mature sound from the band.
The only thing to be desired, though, was in the sound mixing, which was outdone by the booming acoustics of Gates Concert Hall.
The guitar and bass—which provided necessary punch for many of the songs—were sometimes barely audible. While the MC’s fast flows were always impressive, their clarity got lost in the hall. This needs to be remedied in order to interpret every word they said and not leave the meaning of the show to simple repeated lines like ”I have never seen you but I’m not your enemy.”
Overall though, the show proves to be a unique, inspiring and joyful experience, which has the potential to truly move all kinds of people.
“At these ballets, I’ve been able to talk to five-year-olds and 95-year-olds who were moved,” said Laurie. It engages people with a deeper respect for the whole spectrum of activism and proves that it’s about more than just that moment in the march where you hold your fist up.”
The next showing of “Divisions” will be June 17 and 18 at the Arvada Center; tickets can be found at Wonderbound’s website.
“NOENEMIES” drops May 5, and the Flobots are actively pursuing more dance collaborations in the future.