Daring Choreographer Sonya Tayeh Breaks Down Some of Her Most Iconic Numbers

Interview   Daring Choreographer Sonya Tayeh Breaks Down Some of Her Most Iconic Numbers
The Lortel- and Obie-winning innovator gives an inside look at her past work and biggest challenge staging Hundred Days Off-Broadway.
Shervin Lainez
Shervin Lainez

Choreographer Sonya Tayeh burst into the mainstream nearly ten years ago when she began choreographing for Fox’s dance reality competition So You Think You Can Dance. But the visionary artist allowed for flexibility in her work and soon found herself in the world of theatre dance—her first piece was The Last Goodbye at Williamstown Theatre Festival. She made her New York theatrical debut with Kung Fu, a play by David Henry Hwang, at Off-Broadway’s Signature Theatre. She won a Lortel Award, an Obie, and was Drama Desk-nominated for her inaugural work—and that was enough to convince her to stay. (She’ll be choreographing the upcoming Broadway-bound stage adaptation of Moulin Rouge!, not to mention, she continues to proliferate in the concert dance world.)

Strength, athleticism, and explosiveness punctuate her style of dance. “It has a large sense of dynamics to it,” she says. “The overarching feeling for me now is how to push the body and how to tell a story through heightened physicality.” She enjoys testing “how resilient the body is. I want to push the science behind momentum and gravity.”

Her latest collaboration, Hundred Days, with director Anne Kauffman, friends and musicians The Bengsons, and New York Theatre Workshop continues Tayeh’s experiment to challenge the body—albeit in subtler ways. “For Hundred Days they are a band, and they have instruments in their hands, and they are musicians first,” says Tayeh. “So how do I execute physicality inside of them that feels natural and honest and that it works with a guitar in their hands or an accordion on their chest?”

For tickets to Hundred Days, click here.

Here, Tayeh breaks down a selection of her most versatile collaborations clip-by-clip, the stories behind them, and the motivation for her movement.

Kung Fu, Signature Theatre Off-Broadway

“Bruce Lee is a historian and an artist in all forms—and he was a dancer, he was a ballroom dancer. But to be able to fuse dance with martial arts was so inspiring to me because I realized in building this piece that’s how I moved: low base, utilizing the floor, utilizing the ground, trusting your instincts, finding that one inch of space that makes things look really exciting and scary. It’s not seeing where one step begins and one step ends, because of the use of momentum and strength from the body and the ground you’re seeing bodies constantly in motion. Being able to indulge in that for eight weeks was a playground of so much fun. And to maintain the integrity of someone’s life is very important to me. I would want that to be done to me when I’m no longer here.”

“Lift Me,” So You Think You Can Dance

“When you feel like there’s so much tragedy in your presence that you just want to be lifted off the floor, just lifted off the ground, just [feeling] ‘Where do I go? Who am I? What do I do with all this weight?’ That’s this. The tree [you see] is about the trunk of a tree and how it carries so much weight. And that’s how I feel sometimes, that I’m trying to be so strong and stable and sincere in my life with all this weight on top. When it breaks open, we lift this woman in a split position and we circle her around, just trying to embody the idea of floating in air and not knowing where to turn. Then when the music elevates, I like to elevate with it. I love to form pieces, and then in the midst break out into a unison section. I feel that that’s very exciting to my eye: to see all of these conversations happening in different forms, and it explodes into one unified thought. There’s a moment at the end where we toss a woman in the air a couple of times. I’m really sad that what goes up must come down, so I just try to play with the idea of how high human forms can go by throwing.”

“You’ll Still Call Me By Name,” New York Live Arts

“Hard stops. I love the idea of being immersed in momentum and then suddenly shifting to a hold, because that’s how I feel about life. That’s my representation of it physically in terms of momentum and having the rug pulled out from underneath you. I’m constantly talking about that and constantly in process with that idea of momentum and the sudden shift that the body has to resist and stop. [In terms of story] we were talking about the barriers of family dynamics—what that means in your life as a daughter, as a mother, as a brother, as a sister. When you have these bonds of these families that you’re in and that you don’t choose and what happens when the family dynamic changes. No matter what, even if the bond becomes unrecognizable, you still call this person your sister or your mother or your brother.”

“Where Does It All When It Goes?,” 2nd Avenue Dance Company/Tisch University

“I just wonder where it all goes when I’m gone. What will stay? Does anything that I do now, will it stick? Will it impact someone or the world? We tried this footing that’s so hard for [the dancers] because it kills your calves, because of the way they shuffle the whole time. I want to hear their feet, and I want to hear their breath and the exhale and the inhale and the trying—the trying to maintain a connection because there’s no counts. It’s just timing together. But that’s what it feels like, all these little cells or planets that just keep bouncing into each other, in and out and around, and people get left behind and people stay and people stay longer, leave your life sooner, and this piece just navigates all of those ideas.”

The Wild Party, New York City Center

“This is Andrew Lippa’s Wild Party, so what does that mean? It means evolving and enhancing and being hot-blooded and uber sensual, as empowerment as opposed to obvious sexuality. Especially utilizing jazz [here], isolating the body and having dynamics and moving from the pelvis, and resistance of the arms. It has to feel super-stylized. In the span of The Wild Party, something dark is going to happen, so how do you continuously build that tension?”

Lamentation Variation, Martha Graham Dance Company

Martha Graham’s inconic solo is based on grief and sorrow, love and loss. The Lamentation Variation series was created by the legendary Janet Eilber (Artistic Director) where she invites choreographers to create new interpretations of Graham’s iconic solo. It was my first year living in New York when I was asked to work on this project. I remember it was like floating to rehearsal everyday. I couldn’t believe it. Working with this incredible company was an absolute dream come true. Graham is a big influence of mine and I only strive to have that much courage and fearlessness in my work.

Check out more of Tayeh’s work and upcoming projects at SonyaTayeh.com.

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