Sarah Tallman, the ballet master and associate choreographer for Denver-based dance company Wonderbound, has been a Phish fan since a high school classmate asked her to a dance with a mixtape including several of the jam band's songs.
"My first exposure to the band was in 1995. Someone gave me a mix CD, and there were a couple songs on the CD that I thought were pretty fun," Tallman recalls. "I started to listen to their music a lot; I bought all their CDs. At that point it hadn't really occurred to me that they're really a live-music band, that their live shows are really where all the magic happens."
Many years, live shows, festivals and webcasts later, Tallman has choreographed, directed and produced a short film for Wonderbound, "Julius," which includes music from none other than her beloved Phish.
Tallman has always wanted to choreograph to Phish's music, but never imagined she would be able to get the necessary permission from such a well-known band.
"It's always in the back of my mind, because I love the band and I love the music," Tallman says. "I hadn't necessarily considered it in terms of video, but when the season started, I knew we were going to be continuing our round of short films. At that point, I was like, there's really no reason to not think in terms of something different for me."
Although Wonderbound has a tradition of working with local bands, Dawn Fay, president and co-director of the company, encouraged Tallman to think bigger, too. So even though she thought it was a long shot, Tallman decided to take the chance.
"I reached out to several other bands, as well — Colorado bands, because that's something near and dear to our hearts at Wonderbound. Certainly, we have not exhausted Colorado bands by any means, but I just decided I might as well send this email: 'As long as I'm asking for permission from these other musicians, might as well just throw in an email to Phish!'"
She had completely forgotten about the note to the band when she received a surprise response from representatives of the group asking for more information about the project.
"At that point, I was like, 'I have to do this," Tallman says. "Once you get an inquiry like that, I felt it was a pretty good idea to just run with it. I'm so thankful for Dawn, because she was really like, 'Just reach out to anybody.'"
Then came the task of choosing music from Phish's enormous discography. For a dedicated fan like Tallman, narrowing her options was a challenge in itself.
"Every song for me is my favorite song," she laughs. "My husband always gives me a hard time because I'm like, 'I love this song — it's my favorite,' and he's like, 'All these songs are your favorite.'"
Tallman had to create some parameters to help her choose, so she decided to use something from one of the band's studio albums, as it makes the production aspect a bit easier.
"'Julius' is one of those songs that, having been to several live shows, it is one of those songs that I feel like the studio recording and the live version are fairly similar, other than the fact that, again, there's nothing like being at a live show. But the way that it's played and whatnot is closest to the album," she says. "The song is super fun. I love the horns, and there are some other women singing, as well, so it felt really whole, which I appreciated."
The next step in Tallman's process was to print out all the lyrics to "Julius" — even though she already knew them by heart — and study up on the song's history by visiting some of the many online Phish forums.
"The song 'Julius' is loosely based on the story of Julius Caesar. But the other aspect of it is, whenever I think of Julius, I think of Orange Julius," she says. "I wanted to be able to tie that aspect in, too, so that's kind of where that inspiration started. I was just trying to find a way to marry what the lyrics were about and the more abstract connection I had made myself, and I'm sure I'm not the only person that's ever made that correlation in the Phish community."
The short film starts with suited businessmen in a conference room, then transports the viewer to an orange-hued dream sequence that Tallman affectionately calls "the healthy Bacchus scene." As for the plot of the video, "I leaned into way more abstraction with this than actual narrative," she explains. "But the story of Julius Caesar, or rather the moral of it, is that arrogance will get you in the end. I wanted to create a slightly different end to that. If arrogance doesn't get you, maybe you find a way to shift. I have Will [William Clayton], who is the star of the film, this quasi-Julius character, that has some arrogance to him, and in the end, he decides to be part of the fun. He saw the light; he saw the orange."
In Tallman's work, she frequently makes use of text, and Julius was no exception.
"There's a cup in it that says 'Julius,' and it's scripted in...not the exact Orange Julius font, because that's trademarked, but sort of scripted in that way. I also decided to use the 'et tu' to just kind of come full circle," she explains. "I wasn't sure if everybody would necessarily catch that, but I liked the idea of putting things in there that would ask people to watch again. Within the Phish community, there's lots of, I guess you could say, inside jokes, so I wanted to be a part of that as well. I thought about that as trying to create something fun and lighthearted that had little jokes within it."
As far as Tallman knows, the members of Phish have not actually seen the "Julius" video, but many of her fellow Phish fans have.
"I was obviously excited about shooting the video, but I was really excited to share it with our audience," she says.
To her delight, a Wonderbound subscriber and Phish fan posted the video on the forum Phish.net, where many other fans saw and loved it.
"I love Wonderbound so much, and I love this band so much, so to be able to do both of those things was really exciting for me," concludes Tallman. "But to then have someone come back and say, 'These are my two favorite things, too,' was pretty fun."