At six foot two, Jillian Davis doesn't fit the classical ballerina mold. Her teachers discouraged her from pursuing a career in ballet because, although she excelled technically as a young student at School of American Ballet and San Francisco Ballet School, her tall frame presented limitations—especially when it came to partnering. Undeterred, she found the training program of Alonzo King's contemporary ballet company, LINES.
From there she was invited to join Complexions Contemporary Ballet by founders Dwight Rhoden and Desmond Richardson. Now in her fourth season, she credits the world-renowned duo's innovative style and edgy ballets performed to David Bowie and Metallica with expanding her ears (and her iTunes library) as a dancer and a teacher. "Even though hitting the perfect line is essential," says Davis, "the music is what motivates a dancer to tell a story."
Photo courtesy of Complexions
When teaching a ballet class on the performance tour, she sticks to the typical class format, but incorporates eclectic music choices to challenge the movement. "Teaching a tendu exercise to a contemporary song changes the feeling of the exercise," she says. An inspiring music choice gives the students something to latch onto and distracts them from focusing solely on the steps. "I'm always thrilled to have a drummer," she says. A live percussionist helps to bring the music to life in a classroom.
Whether it's at the barre or a center adagio, she asks students to imagine being onstage. She encourages them to use their torsos and bring their own personality to draw out their performance quality. Straying from the go-to ballet class music helps to loosen students up, a tactic she learned from Rhoden. "Sometimes people hear the word 'ballet' and they're stuck," she says. "Clean, classical technique is necessary, but let's relax a little."