In Practice: Meet Talli Jackson

By Sima Belmar

September 1, 2019, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE
Talli Jackson posing on a rock above a body of water

Photo by Eric Polizer

I grew up in Brooklyn (New York, not Wisconsin; if you think the clarification is unnecessary, you’ve never been to Wisconsin). And this is what it was like taking dance classes in New York in the summer: Walk five blocks to subway in hazy-hot-and-humid-with-a-high-of-95 weather, wear as little as possible; board freezing train and pile on the layers hidden in dance bag; pray not to hear “We should be moving shortly”; emerge from train into Broadway-Lafayette cauldron—strip; walk a few more blocks to arrive at studio drenched in sweat; barely keep up with the warm-up, for two hours struggle among dancers way more committed and talented than you—more sweating; class ends; walk out onto sultry street to enjoy the sweat that now cools you; descend once more into the fifth circle of hell; board train—sweat turns to icicles, muscles atrophy.

I loved those NYC summer classes but I didn’t have the right constitution for it long term. Dancing in the Bay Area was a better fit—cool air, for one thing, and I felt like my questions were welcome rather than signs of my inability to just shut up and dance. Then, as I began writing dance criticism here, I started to hear about the tension between the New York and Bay Area dance communities, a tension felt mostly, it seems, in the Bay. In fact, RAPT Productions’ documentary Artists in Exile: A Story of Modern Dance in San Francisco (2002) highlights “the marginalization of Bay Area artists due to the New York dance establishment.”[1] The film does a wonderful job explaining this sentiment while honoring the contributions of Bay Area artists to the dance field.

Earlier this year, I witnessed the tail end of a master class taught by Talli Jackson. Jackson arrived in the Bay Area in 2018 after ten years with the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company. I recognized the tall, sensual mover from his performance in Story/Time (2012) at Zellerbach Hall and was curious about how he came to be in Berkeley, and about what his fresh, newly exiled eyes see here.

Sima Belmar: Give me the quick and dirty version of your life story.

Talli Jackson: I was born in Liberty, NY in 1989.

SB: So it will be a short story. Proceed.

TJ: At 13, I was introduced to The Vanaver Caravan, a wonderful organization based in New Paltz, founded and run by Livia and Bill Vanaver, very inspired by the Denishawn company. They have a passion for bringing different cultural influences into the work they do, particularly their work with children. I had been practicing circus arts for a while, and when I saw my drum teacher walk on stilts, I built myself a pair. The Vanaver Caravan needed a stilt-walker—

SB: —of course. I see those calls all the time—

TJ: —so I ended up doing a gig with them. Then they offered me a scholarship to study at their school. At first I had very little idea of what a life in dance would look like. But early on the Vanavers helped my family find its way to a show by Hubbard Street. Ohad Naharin’s Minus 16 was on the program. I found what they were doing tremendously beautiful.

At 14 I started working with another youth company, Susan Slotnick’s Figures-in-Flight, also in the New Paltz area. It was an exciting and maybe necessary step to go into a space that called on angst as a legitimate source for creative expression. I stayed with The Vanaver Caravan and Figures-in-Flight until I was almost 17. Throughout that time my family lived about an hour and a half drive from where the dance classes and rehearsals were. I don’t think my mother particularly liked driving, but I never missed a class or rehearsal because she was sick of doing it. Her devotion made my dancing possible.

After attending the American Dance Festival’s six-week school when I was 16, I felt like I needed to step outside of those two environments in order to go further on my particular path, so I auditioned for a fellowship at the Ailey School. When I got in, my parents facilitated my move and then relocated to the Bronx a couple of months later to support my training. I think it’s important to say that almost all of my training up to that point was given on scholarship. This is not to say that I was special or uniquely talented, but that other people’s support, generosity and belief was what made it possible for me to do what I’ve been able to do.

SB: How was it to go from New Paltz to NYC, from one summer at ADF to the Ailey School?

TJ: I was doing a lot of dance at ADF so I was prepared in some way for the amount of dancing that it was, 6 days, 15 classes a week, all ballet and Horton except for one jazz class. But the way that their fellowship program works is you get a fellowship for one semester and then you re-audition. And I didn’t get it the second time.

SB: A twist in the plot! Were you devastated?

TJ: I wouldn’t say that I was devastated but I was disoriented and very disappointed. I had worked quite diligently for that time, getting there early, staying there late, never missing a class except to go on a brief tour with the Vanavers. Afterwards Livia Vanaver connected me with a work study position at Peridance and I started taking class around the city.

SB: You’re still so young at this point.

TJ: Yeah, 17. That year I went to the Bates Dance Festival, did a summer dance program at Steps with Heidi Latsky, and performed at the Holland Dance Festival with the Francesca Harper Project. When I was 18, I went back to ADF, this time in the adult program. When I went I had in my mind that this would either be the moment I’d find the dance company I would aspire to join and orient my training toward, or I’d turn my attention to college and find some other thing.

SB: I’m sensing a turning point!

TJ: Yes—I saw the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company for the first time, in Serenade/The Proposition. I thought the dancers were fierce, the vocabulary was articulate, and they had more diversity in that company, racial and of body type, than any other company in the festival. They were bringing together ideas, literature, beautiful speech, and powerful music, and it was everything I wanted to do. In the ADF library I found the documentary Bill Moyers did with Jones on Still/Here, and I was struck with an impression of Bill T. as someone with a truly deep and living heart. I decided that was the company, and the man, I wanted to dance for. I thought if I really focused for about two years, really got my ass in class, then maybe I’d be ready to audition for his company.

The next day, Janet Wong, the associate artistic director, was teaching a master class. I went in with no sense that anything was at stake—I was just going to have a good time and do my best. Afterwards she came up and asked if I would be interested in apprenticing with the company. At the beginning of 2009 I became a member of the company.

SB: Whirlwind!

TJ: When I was invited to join the company I didn’t think I was good enough to be in it, and to a certain extent I wasn’t. I wasn’t really at the level of the other dancers. When Janet and Bill saw me, they were presented with a choice about whether to take this green, solid bodied, racially ambiguous, young male dancer and try to support and cultivate his development, or to let him go on his way. When they took me on it was a risk, an investment, and a generosity. I worked hard, and it wasn’t until about six years later that I felt I was starting to be able to meet the work.

SB: I know you left the company in 2017. Why did you leave and what brought you here?

TJ: When I left, I had been working with the company for about nine years and I wanted to push myself to grow beyond what I had established in the company and in NYC. When I was 16 I started getting involved in Nonviolent Communication (NVC), and at 18 I did the Bay Area Nonviolent Communication leadership program and started making connections with people here. Then, through a different pathway entirely, I met a woman on the east coast, whom I eventually became partners with. She was living out here. And I was hearing about SF as one of the centers of dance in the US, so when it came time to decide where I was going to go, I had my partner here, I had connections here, and there was the possibility of exploring the dance scene here.

SB: So, to address the preamble to this interview, what have you found so far?

TJ: In New York it feels like dance and dancing are tied up with people’s sense of survival. Dancers go to New York often to be in companies, to “be” dancers, and do “the great work,” whatever that means to them. I’m still new to the scene in the Bay, but I haven’t experienced this sort of soul survival tied up in dancing here. It’s probably true for people here in different ways, but to me there is an urgency and a hunger that feels different. When young dancers go to New York, I think many of us are asking, “Do I have what it takes?” The Bay Area is no picnic and it has its own questions to wrestle with, but it doesn’t seem to me to be a place dancers go to find out whether they “have what it takes.”

SB: Can you describe any material differences between teaching or taking class in New York vs. here?

TJ: Terrible overgeneralization: classes in NY tend to be harder—technically harder, longer phrases, longer classes. And people want the hard classes. Something about the culture, the density, the intensity.

SB: I can tell it’s hard to talk about. So let me ask you instead: What perspective do you want to offer In Dance readers? What would you like them to know about you?

TJ: Right now I’m curious about what I could possibly share of my experience in New York that would feed or spark people here. How can I give the people that are hungry a little more momentum or support for their hunger?

SB: I don’t know if this is still true, or if it was ever true, but they say the Bay Area has the largest number of choreographers per capita in the world. Did you choreograph in New York, or did you come here to don that cap?

TJ: In New York I was really focused on my work with Bill’s company. I experienced myself as continuing to train to be good enough to do the work while I was doing it. I didn’t have very much time or energy to be focusing on making my own things. Then as I started to settle and felt like I was good enough inside of the work to turn my attention to mine, I started to make solos and would make about a solo a year. I did a couple of group things. I enjoy dancing but my aspiration has always been towards choreography.

One of the reasons why I was so satisfied with being in Bill’s company for so long was because, at the point of the company’s history that I was engaged with it, a large proportion of the movement material was being drawn from the dancers through tasks. Another large portion was drawn from phrases Janet Wong would make or she would give a seed phrase and then dancers would manipulate it in various ways. And then Bill might give a phrase or we might draw material from one of his past works into a new piece and either put it in whole or manipulate it. So there was always a process of being creatively involved in shaping what was happening. It was not a choreographer’s mind that we were being asked to step into but a material technician’s mind, a composer’s mind in terms of the language of the movement. And then inside of that we were being conducted by Bill’s amazing, richly stocked mind.

SB: So it quenched your choreographic thirst to an extent.

TJ: Yes, but it was not my vision. With choreography, there’s a whole right-brained shift where you’re half in dream space, trying to convert impressions of emotion and image into something that can be actually practiced and refined, and we were not asked to do that. But one of the reasons I stayed so long was that being in the company was a master class in creative process.

SB: What have you been up to since you got here?

TJ: I’m preparing the soil. That soil preparation has involved organizing and assisting in NVC trainings, volunteer work, reading, learning what it means and what it takes to be a loving presence in my partner’s life, and trying to learn from, without collapsing under, the many failures inherent in the attempt to grow.

SB: But you’re teaching dance too.

TJ: Yes. My most consistent teaching has been at ODC in their Hot Spot, but I’ve also been lucky to have the opportunity to teach at Shawl Anderson, Lines, the Berkeley Rep School, and Marin School for the Arts.

SB: How would you describe your pedagogy?

TJ: The role that I want to play as a teacher is an encourager and instigator, someone who offers a space and a structure that says, Here—don’t you just want to step into it and play? I find effort exciting: you sweat a lot and you breathe heavy and your body’s working, and you’re exploring the edge of what is possible. Isn’t it fun to strive and fall and not really know, to just be on the edge of the thing? It’s a question of sharing delight.

[1] From You can stream Artists in Exile on Kanopy with your public library card or university login.

This article appeared in the September 2019 issue of In Dance.

Sima Belmar, Ph.D., is a Lecturer in the Department of Theater, Dance, & Performance Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. She is ODC Writer in Residence and host of the new podcast Dance Cast. She has been writing the “In Practice” column for In Dance since 2017. To keep up with Sima’s writing please subscribe to