It's impossible to miss Complexions Contemporary Ballet's Jillian Davis onstage. Tall and glamorous, her commanding stage presence, luxurious movement quality and intuitive musicality have made her one of the company's standout stars. But her road to Complexions was anything but linear. The 6'2" dancer worked tirelessly over several years to find her place in the dance world, ultimately reinventing herself and creating her own path to success. At a time when many early career dancers may be facing uncertainty, her story shows the power of resiliency.
Davis grew up on a dairy farm in Kutzstown, Pennsylvania, where she studied dance at a local studio and in the Philadelphia area, and took private lessons at home. She also started growing, shooting up seven inches over one summer. At 13, she and her family decided to take her daily training up a notch, commuting 100 miles each way to the Princeton Dance & Theater Studio, where she studied under Risa Kaplowitz and Susan Jaffe. By then she was already 5'7", and she soon realized—especially as she started learning how to partner—that her height might be an issue if she wanted to dance ballet professionally.
Jillian Davis and Kayr Muhammad in Dwight Rhoden's Love Rocks
Justin Chao, Courtesy Complexions Contemporary Ballet
"I remember Susan Jaffe telling me, 'You're tall, but we think you're strong enough the break the mold,'" says Davis, now 27. "I always kept that in my head, and made it my goal to be strong enough to dance on a soloist level."
At 16 she enrolled in Pacific Northwest Ballet School's Professional Division. The next two years proved very challenging, however. Davis was now over 6 feet, and her growth spurts started taking a toll; she suffered nerve damage in her back and other injuries as a result. And in an early meeting with artistic director Peter Boal, she learned that she had little chance of getting hired at PNB. "With the ratio of tall women to men, they were already at capacity," says Davis. "It makes sense now, but it was hard to wrap my head around at 16."
In 2012, after two years at the school, Davis decided to change her focus. "I was fighting against something that wasn't going to happen," she says, so she enrolled in Alonzo King's LINES Ballet summer program in San Francisco. "I didn't understand the contemporary ballet world at the time, I just knew they liked tall dancers." Then 18, she quickly realized the steep learning curve ahead of her. "They pushed me to move my body in a new way that I didn't understand," says Davis. With her long limbs, she found floorwork especially challenging. But by the intensive's last week, she finally started to feel more confident. "That's when I really fell in love with contemporary ballet."
Davis spent the fall semester training at LINES' school and the following spring studying and performing with smaller contemporary troupes in San Francisco. At the encouragement of colleagues, she moved to New York City later that year to audition for companies while building a freelance career.
Jillian Davis with Brandon Gray in Dwight Rhoden's BACH 25
Steve Vacariello, Courtesy Complexions Contemporary Ballet
Within two weeks of her arrival Davis broke her foot, delaying her ability to audition for several months. She started waiting tables and bartending to make ends meet, and once she healed took on small projects with pick-up companies around the city. She also attended Complexions master classes and workshops whenever she could. "I knew about them and loved everything I saw, but I didn't fully comprehend the physicality required to do their work," she says.
Two years passed, and Davis still wasn't performing consistently. "I was getting frustrated—I just wanted to dance, and serving people at restaurants was not my goal," she says. That's when she decided to take matters into her own hands. She had dabbled in choreography while in San Francisco, and had recently created a solo for Missouri Valley College's Emerging Choreographer's Showcase. "I decided if I can't dance somewhere, I'll do my own stuff," says Davis. She started the Jillian Davis Dance Project in 2014, after being selected as a finalist in a choreographic competition. "I worked mainly with friends since I couldn't really pay anyone," she says. "But creating work gave me the chance to be in a place where I wanted to be."
Davis hadn't completely given up on her dream to join Complexions, though. Later in 2014 she attended the company's open call—by then she had become a familiar face at their workshops and auditions—and directors Dwight Rhoden and Desmond Richardson approached her with a job offer. "They said, 'We'd knew you'd be coming and that you'd hand us that resumé. This time, you're ready.'"
Looking back on those early years, Davis says her biggest lesson was learning to believe in herself. "I knew my height was against me, but I also knew I was a strong dancer. As soon as I got past the fact that my height was something I couldn't control, I stopped getting in my own way. And through my choreographic project, I found my own way around it." (She's been so busy since joining Complexions that JDDP is currently on the back burner.)
Davis hopes her story can inspire other struggling young dancers, especially those facing disrupted career plans in the wake of the coronavirus shut-down. "Keep your options open," she says. "It's important to have goals, but don't be afraid to veer slightly off your path; it's difficult to stay on a direct career path." Exploring other interests while you stay in shape, she adds, allows you to feel like you're progressing forward. As for Davis, she just enrolled in an online college course and is brushing up on her algebra skills. "I'm hoping our fall tours happen, but instead of getting stressed I'm going to use this time to grow."