Taryn Kaschock Russell, the acting director of the Dance Division, joined the Juilliard faculty in 2014 after setting a duet for Senior Showcase. She became associate director in 2016 and acting director this summer when Lawrence Rhodes became artistic director emeritus. Another Juilliard connection was that her mother-in-law, Ilona Hirschl Russell, graduated from the Dance Division in 1958. After a career with the Joffrey Ballet, Taryn was the rehearsal director for Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and the director of Hubbard Street 2; she’s also taught ballet, improvisation, and repertoire at university programs all over the country and taught company class for many of today’s top companies. Taryn describes her parents raising “a tribe of individuals—four siblings—who could double as cast members in a Robert Altman film. We love to talk (often over each other) when we are together, and we are endlessly excited about music, poetry, philosophy, movies, and just life in general. The conversations at the dinner table always ended in someone getting either an encyclopedia or a dictionary.”
When did you realize you wanted to be a dancer?
By the age of 7, I was taking ballet six days a week, as well as studying modern, jazz, and tap. My siblings and I all danced, but I was also a natural mimic and loved trying to turn myself into different shapes, portray different emotions. I took my own dance classes, then stood in the doorway of my older siblings’ classes and did all of the exercises too until the teacher just let me take those classes as well. When I turned 11, I was diagnosed with severe adolescent scoliosis. After seeing our first specialist, my parents asked me if I wanted to become a professional dancer, and when I responded yes, we set out on a quest to seek out a doctor who would think outside the box to help us follow that dream. Many doctors and three years later, my scoliosis stopped progressing; my curvature was 54 degrees to the right in my thoracic spine and 38 degrees to the left in my lumbar spine. By 14, I had decided that no barrier existed that would derail me from achieving my goal of dancing professionally. I entered into my career with both a fierce determination and an enormous sense of gratitude for each and every physical achievement.
Who most inspired you in your career?
During the early years of my career with the Joffrey, I was incredibly fortunate to perform the Bride in Martha Graham’s (faculty 1951–77) Appalachian Spring. I was one of the few company members who had studied modern techniques prior to being in a ballet company; I’d had four years of Graham technique. The dancer known as Yuriko, who was one of the original cast members of the followers in the Graham Company, came to stage the work. She imbued every movement with generosity, meaning, and passion, and the process that led up to the performances was revelatory. I felt honored to be dancing Martha’s role, I felt the responsibility of history, I felt full from the inside out in a way that I had not yet in my professional life, I felt that I was taking a journey each time we began the piece. Yuriko pushed me past what I knew was possible, and then allowed me to grow and expand. She taught me how to encourage others while holding an extremely high bar for their capabilities, and she did all of that while supporting me through the process. Her guidance on that journey was invaluable and informed who I am as an artist and educator.
Is there a performance that changed the way you think about being a performer?
Seeing Jiří Kylián's Petite Mort was a game changer. As a ballet dancer who was regularly chosen to dance modern works when they came into the company repertoire, I was hungry for different approaches to choreography, for different physicality. I wanted to use my ballet and modern training to speak a different language with my body, and the repertoire that Hubbard Street Dance Chicago was acquiring at that time seemed to be the answer. I was very fortunate to have performed Petite Mort dozens of times there and every time I left the stage I wanted to dance it again.
What are you reading/listening to?
I just finished reading Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates but have also started Cheryl Strayed’s 2005 novel Torch. As for music, my 9-year-old son, Donovan, and I have been obsessively listening to and singing the Hamilton soundtrack in the car for the past year. Now I think I’ll stick to jazz for a while to take a vacation from all of the words I’ve absorbed.
What would people be interested to know about you?
The moments that I treasure most recently seem to happen when I am dancing around my kitchen or in my home with my family. I love to hear my children’s laughter and witness their unbridled creativity and also to catch the rare moments that my husband allows himself to just be silly.
If you weren’t in the career you are in, what would you be doing?
It’s a three-way split between a lawyer, a physical therapist, and a stand-up comic.