At the end of her very first dance recital, 4-year-old Sarah Tallman burst into tears. “I have no idea why I cried, but at the end, I said, ‘I’m not doing that again.’” Still, the next year, she was back.
Thirty-eight years later, Tallman is finally going to stop dancing. Those years – from a ballet-school recital in Greeley to becoming a dancer and choreographer with Wonderbound, Denver’s inventive contemporary ballet company – mark the arc of a dancer’s career.
Tallman will dance her penultimate performances in Wonderbound’s “Boomtown” Friday and Saturday at the Newman Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Denver. There will be one final performance this summer.
“So much of what I have learned as a dancer from the time I was 5 years old up to this point is that dancing teaches you so much, about the rigors of the world,” said Tallman, who will become a choreographer as part of Wonderbound’s artistic team.
“Yet, I have had so many opportunities,” Tallman said. “There is an excitement of continuing the journey in a new way.”
Dancing is a funny business. Career decisions, for the most part, are made at a time when the biggest decision for most kids is what is the best band or video game.
Careers are short, finished when most people are in their prime wage-earning years, and employment is often uncertain and menaced by the specter of injury. As much as talent, it takes a certain mindset.
‘What are you going to do with that?’
By 8, Tallman was going to dance or gymnastic classes up to five days a week, taking tap, jazz and ballet lessons. By high school, she had added musical theater and was playing the viola.
“It was around the age of 15, I thought, ‘Oh my gosh. I think I want to do this forever. How does that work?’”
Tallman enrolled in the University of Northern Colorado as a dance major, and people would ask her, “What are you going to do with that?”
“It was never a thought not to dance,” she said. “This was going to be a part of my life forever. I love the performance. I love the rigors of rehearsal, discovering new things about myself, about the work.”
After graduation, she performed in Urbino, Italy, and then traveled around Europe on a Eurail pass her parents had bought her, ending up in Norway. “I called my parents and told them I’m not coming home,” she said.
Tallman had been invited to study at a dance school in Oslo, the Bårdar Akademiet. “It was intense,” she said. “It was 9 to 6, every day.”
A few months later, Tallman’s father called and told her if she was planning on staying, he’d have to sell her ’71 Jeepster Commando and her viola. After more than a year in Oslo, Tallman came home and moved in with her parents. “Not unusual for a college graduate who has been traveling.”
Tallman – really a misnomer as she is barely 5 feet 1 inch – began traveling down to Denver and taking pickup classes with the city’s main dance companies – Kim Robards Dance, Cleo Parker Robinson Dance, the Colorado Ballet. “Wherever they had open classes.”
Tallman and her new husband, Chris Baker, moved to Denver in 2001, and she began teaching classes at Kim Robards Dance.
Performance wasn’t the point
While close to dancing, Tallman wasn’t performing. She didn’t care. “At that point, I just wanted to be in the dance studio,” she said. “I wanted to be in that energy. I wanted to be in a warm room, jumping around and sweating and communicating with people with my body.”
Still, Tallman said there were a lot of doubts and repeated questions about whether to continue. “My husband has been my biggest supporter,” she said. “Every time I said, ‘Should I be doing this?’ He’d say, ‘You’ve got to keep going, you love it. I am behind you 100%.’”
Finally Tallman said she decided to “do the New York thing” — the pilgrimage made by many hopeful dancers to the biggest dance community and dance stage in the country.
To do that, Tallman first needed a full-time job dancing and to save up some money. In 2004, she auditioned for Ballet Nouveau in Broomfield and got the job. Three years later, there was a change in artistic leadership.
The new team – Garrett Ammon and Dawn Fay – transformed Ballet Nouveau to Wonderbound, a troupe which from its classical base has worked with rock and pop music and multimedia technology. The company has struck collaborations with some of Denver’s top bands, including Jesse Manley, Chimney Choir and Flobots.
It is said that modern dancers work with gravity while ballet dancers deny it. Wonderbound dances somewhere in the ether in between. There are ballet steps – an arabesque here and entrechat there – woven in with a dancer flopping into bed or breaking into a loose-hipped boogie.
Tallman wasn’t sure what the change would mean. “They could like me or not like me, you never know,” she said. “I knew I would get a job somewhere.”
As it turned out, she didn’t have to go anyplace else. “She is always striving to be more fluent in the art form,” said Ammon, who choreographs the company’s ballets. “We saw this dramatic change and growth as a person, as well as an artist.”
The stability of a home at Wonderbound enabled Tallman to branch out dancing with other companies, working with other choreographers and beginning to choreograph herself.
Tallman has turned out to be Wonderbound’s most enduring dancer, performing in more than 30 of Ammon’s ballets. “She has taken that journey with us and knows intimately the aesthetic philosophy of the organization,” he said. “She’s known it, breathed it, lived it.”
Her final role is the intrepid reporter, Chase Bancroft, in Ammon’s “Boomtown,” a story about a booming city, much like Denver, where there is a flourishing consumption of yellow rubber ducks, shadowed by a market in illicit green ducks.
Tallman says she has no regrets in leaving the stage and moving on to Wonderbound’s artistic staff. “There are a whole host of things in my brain that I haven’t even considered at this point. My relationship to music might change. My eye may change, potentially seeing things in a different way.”
“I’ll be teaching class. I’ll be choreographing,” Tallman said. “I’ll still be in a warm studio, sweating .”
Many tickets still are available for the Friday and Saturday performances of Wonderbound’s “Boomtown” at the Newman Center for the Performing Arts on the University of Denver Campus. Find them here