BWW Interview: SO YOU THINK YOU CAN DANCE's Sonya Tayeh Talks THE LAST GOODBYE & More!
Sonya Tayeh, an undeniable force in the dance world, recently received an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Choreography for her work on Fox's 6-time Emmy-winning show, "So You Think You Can Dance." Sonya creates strong, jarring, aggressive and powerful choreography with an underlying sense of angst, which she attributes to her Detroit roots. Her uniqueness and loud presence has made her a favorite among the judges and fans of the hit show, now in it's 10th season.
Sonya recently made Emmy history as she and the other Outstanding Choreography Emmy nominees from 2013 will join together, for the first time at the Primetime Emmy show, to create and present a dance number during the show built around this year's host, Neil Patrick Harris.
In addition to "So You Think You Can Dance," Sonya is working on "The Last Goodbye," a new rock musical that melds Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" and Jeff Buckley's songs. The play will be directed by 2-time Tony Award nominee Alex Timbers, and opens in The Old Globe in September 2013 in San Diego. She is also working on "Kung Fu," an off-Broadway play about Bruce Lee's life that is set to premiere in the fall/winter season in New York.
Broadwayworld Dance recently sat down to interview Ms. Tayeh.
You grew up in Detroit. Did you have any formal exposure or dance training during your early years, or was it later in college that you became interested in dance?
I always loved dancing, but didn't have much formal training. It wasn't until college when I truly fell in love with dance. I knew immediately that I wanted to be a dance maker.
While at Wayne State University, were you a dance major? Were there any teachers who influenced you in any way?
I received a B.S. in dance from Wayne State. I had amazing professors that changed my life. Erica-Wilson Perkins and Diane Mancinelli were two woman who pushed me and made me into the artist I am today.
After graduating, you went to San Francisco. Was that a natural progression, or just a place you wanted to explore?
I was a bit lost for a while. I went for a visit to San Fran and fell in love with it quickly. My best friend, Chris Jacobsen, had a company there and hired me to teach. That's where everything opened up for me. I basically locked myself in a studio for four years and embraced the way I wanted to move. San Francisco is where I really knew that dance was something I wanted to do forever.
When the company closed in 2007, where did you see yourself going in terms of a career?
A. When Chris decided to close the company, I already planned on moving to Los Angeles. I wanted to tap into the commercial industry. I felt I had something to offer there: a fusion of commercial and concert dance.
How did you get involved with "The Carnival: Choreographer's Ball." You were discovered there by Andrew Jacobs, an agent from McDonald Selznick. What was it about your work that you think piqued the interest of the agency?
I created my own show called The Root of Me. A few weeks before the show, I was asked to do a piece for Carnival. I decided to do one from my show. It was a hard hitting, fully dynamic/athletic piece, consisting of four women. Andrew came up to me after and asked who I was. I said that I was new to the city and having a show. I invited everyone from McDonald Selznick and got signed the next day. It was a dream come true. I think they saw an eager woman with a lot of passion and individuality in her work.
How did you book your first job on So You Think You Can Dance? It was just three months after signing with the agency.
After signing with MSA, they asked me what my dreams were. Big question! I gave them a little list, and SYTYCD was the first thing on it. They submitted me and that was that! It's still so crazy thinking about it!
Since that time you've choreographed for Madonna, Florence and the Machine, Kylie Minogue, Kerli and Miley Cyrus? Do you choreograph a different style for each one? What's your process? Do you talk with the performer and then decide how to proceed, or is it something you present to the performer by yourself?
It depends on the artist's needs and desires. We compile ideas, and then I get into the studio and create accordingly. I try to focus on their strengths and push them to try new things. I always have a bunch of ideas, picture references, and media visuals to show them. I love coming up with new ideas to present to them.
You've also worked with the Los Angeles Ballet? How did you adapt your style to the demands of ballet?
My innate style is very dynamic, athletic, and full bodied. Working with the ballet is very exciting because I get to Fuse craziness with their elegance. LA Ballet is so lovely and open to me to push their dancers and give them a challenge. Working on pointe shoes in my work is very difficult, but also pretty awesome!
You've been the choreographer for two musicals: Spring Awakening, which had originally been choreographed by Bill T. Jones, and an original musical, The Last Goodbye. Could you describe the process of choreographing a musical show, since you have so many other factors to contend with when dealing with a musical?
Choreographing for musicals is a very different process--it's based on a script. One must embody the story first before creating the movement. Once I grasp the details, then I create the movement. Honesty in the work is key. Always make sure the story is clear and the movement just glides with the words.
You're also working on an original musical, Kung Fu. Can you tell me a bit more about that?
Kung Fu is the story of Bruce Lee's life. I'm working with the amazing director, Leigh Silverman. She's so lovely. It's a wonderful emotionally driven play with martial arts, Chinese opera, and contemporary dance.
You also teach. What kind of dancing do you teach, and is this for professionals or non-professionals?
I love teaching! I teach at conventions and for many performing arts schools. It's my favorite thing to do. I love building dancers, helping them with their craft. I learn so much about myself when I'm teaching.
You said you'd love to have your work presented at the Joyce? Why there
The Joyce is where some of the most amazing companies perform. I've shed many tears watching dance at the Joyce! It would be a dream to have my work performed on that stage.
You were nominated for an Emmy Award? Your reactions, comments?
A. Being nominated for an Emmy is such an honor! I still can't believe it! To be recognized for my work is so fulfilling. It was very early in the morning when my phone began ringing off the hook. I woke up to a bunch of e-mails and texts saying congrats! I was in shock, so I called my agent. When she confirmed it, I sat on the bed in shock for a long time, and then called my mother crying! I also jumped up and down on the bed for a bit! What a dream-what an honor!
Photographs: Daniel Trese and MEGA