Talli Jackson: How I Teach Contemporary

Talli Jackson is inverted into a shoulder stand, talking. “The swinging of the torso displaces the left toes,” he matter-of-factly explains to a group of students, his legs helicoptering effortlessly from one side to the other. His ease with the intricate, twisting floor phrase he has just demonstrated is what draws a mix of pre-professionals and pros to his classes here at the Gibney Dance Center in New York. As a member of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company for the past eight years, the tall, stately dancer is known for his malleable clarity. He renders the tricky combination, with its unexpected directional changes and complicated unfurling of limbs on the floor, into something doable, patiently workshopping sticky passages and answering questions before they’re even asked.

Over the course of a class, Jackson says, he hopes to inspire the joy he feels when dancing. But first he must address a common mind-set. “The thing that kills play and learning is the belief that we can’t, that we’ll never get to that place where we’ll be satisfied,” he says. “When you can release those thoughts, people learn and dance and experience themselves differently.”

Jackson has honed his calming presence and easy rapport while teaching Jones’ full-bodied repertory and style during company residencies and workshops. He constantly checks in (“How’s that?” he asks the dancers, or “Slower tempo, or no?”) and troubleshoots tricky weight shifts and other problem spots. To a student struggling with an inversion, he offers the tip, “I keep my left hand close to my pelvis.”

Each time an exercise is finished, he has everyone take a walk around the space to reactivate awareness and clear any frustration before beginning anew with a clean slate. And he’s quick to laugh at himself: When he accidentally stumbles out of a swift weight transfer and takes an unexpected dive to the floor, Jackson quips, “We won’t add that in, only because I don’t think we have time for it in the music. Otherwise…”

As the class nears the end, it’s clear the dancers are simply enjoying the movement without second-guessing themselves or their abilities. When one student manages to sustain a difficult tilt position, she jokes, head upside down, “I like this place!” Jackson smiles: “Yeah? You can stay there.” DT

Before joining the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company in 2009, Talli Jackson (at left) studied at The Ailey School. He began studying dance under Livia Vanaver at The Vanaver Caravan Dance Institute (now the CaravanKids Project) in upstate New York and attended the American Dance Festival and the Bates Dance Festival on scholarship. In 2013, he was nominated for the Clive Barnes Award and was honored with a Princess Grace Award.

Ainesh Madan and Rebecca Lubart are professional modern dancers in New York City.


Photography by Kyle Froman

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