Pop-Culturalist Chats with Sonya Tayeh
The work of dancer and choreographer Sonya Tayeh is not something you’ll easily forget. Popularly known for her work on the TV show So You Think You Can Dance, Sonya’s pieces are, in one word, emotional. Her talent is in drawing audiences in and making them feel exactly what the performers are feeling and what the essence of the music is. In addition to short-form dances, Sonya has also choreographed a wide-variety of pieces for theater.
Currently, you can see her work as the movement director of New York Theatre Workshop’s Hundred Days. We were really excited to get the chance to talk to her about the evolution of this gorgeous show, what working with non-dancers was like, and what inspires her.
P-C: How did you get involved with Hundred Days?
Sonya: My girlfriend, Joanna Lampert, is in the show, and I was visiting her at Z Space when they performed it there in 2014. I was there for two weeks and saw the show. I was completely mesmerized by it and fell in love with The Bengsons. We then started working together and collaborating. Then, they asked me to choreograph it when it came to New York, and I was so excited. We had some dancers in that [original] version. It’s had many lives. This version is now a full concert without dancers, but [the band] moves in it.
P-C: What was the development process like, then? How much did you work with the performers to come up with the movements?
Sonya: Because it’s a story-built narrative concert about Abigail and Shaun, I wanted to watch them throughout the years and how they actually move and what the instruments do to their posture. [I wanted to see how] I could make those instruments be emotionally-driven, just like the music is and the lyrics are. I just watched how they moved, and then I’d say, “You know, Shaun, you usually do this on this verse. Let’s define it. What does it mean? How does it feel?” and we built from there.
It’s actually beautiful to see how the band—Jo, Shaun, Abigail Colette, Reggie. and Dani—move with their instruments. There’s some weight and heartbreak and confusion in the piece; you can feel the weight of your accordion, or the weight of your guitar and try to connect that to the whole atmosphere emotionally. So, that’s how I built the movements. Also, they’ve been singing these songs for so many years, so just saying, “Do you need a refresher or reminder of why we’re singing these songs and what the verse means?” We had a lot of conversations and built from there.
P-C: Do you have a favorite moment from the show?
Sonya: Oh god. That’s so hard! [pause] I have three. I mean, they’re all my favorites, but the song “The Years Go By,” I’m obsessed with. I love the visual image it carries and the repetition of saying “The years go by” because that’s how life feels—this circle. It’s so beautiful to hear that repetition. I love “City Boy,” the story of Shaun and his best friend. And, I love “Lift Me.” I love all of them, but those really hit home for me.
P-C: Was there a particular number that was super challenging for you to work on?
Sonya: In a sense, it’s all challenging: to have musicians understand that their movement are important too and it tells a story. [In order] to follow the story through a concert with a narrative of people speaking then singing, what do you do? How does the movement elevate that? Just shifting [the band’s] focus, or lowering their body was very effective. I was so surprised by it.
The scope of it was challenging because I love to dance, big-bodied dancers. At first, I was afraid of not knowing what to do because they’re contained in a space; they can’t move around a lot because they have to play and sing. But then I just used that as inspiration. Although they’re dancers in their own right, they’re musicians first. So, just to understand that energy was a challenge.
P-C: What do you hope audiences will take away from the show?
Sonya: I tried to connect a word in the piece to [movement]—”you’re suspended,” or “lift me,” or “I’m hovering”—so being able to see the band kind of floating or bending and lowering and lifting. I want them to feel that energy of feeling trapped in this emotional conflict and not knowing how to get out of it. I hope that the movement enhances and makes the overall piece more vivid. It doesn’t define it; it just enhances it which then will pull some lyrics out. I want people to remember lyrics of the songs because of that gestural connection with the music.
P-C: You’ve choreographed shorter pieces with other projects you’ve done. You’ve also, like with Hundred Days, done this long-form narrative. Do you have a preference between the two? Or do you find one a little more satisfying?
Sonya: I love being in long-form things now. [I love] collaboration, discussing, having this space to have a bad week of choices, wanting to change my mind, and knowing I have time. [The Bengsons] have been working on this piece for ten years. That’s exhausting and also exhilarating. You get all these chances, and you’re able to embody who you are per year with it. It evolves with you. You birth it and watch it grow—that process for me is much more fulfilling. But I do love thinking on my feet in terms of having a shorter amount of time, but my preference is being in a room with collaborators and talking about art together, having this one focus together and having the same baseline of wanting it to succeed.
P-C: Is there a style or a particular story—like, you’re working on Moulin Rouge now which has source material—that you want to work on that you haven’t already?
Sonya: I just want to do things that inspire me and drive me. Right now, for myself, it’s about self-identity. [It’s] who I am, who I am now at forty, where I come from, and my roots. That’s something for myself that I’m working on in my own pieces.
Pop-Culturalist Speed Round
I have a top three! Dancer in the Dark, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and A Single Man
Artist You Could Listen to on Repeat
Bjork! Bjork, Bjork, Bjork. she’s my constant inspiration since the early 90s. I would do anything to work with her.
Someone You’d Like to Meet
I’d like to meet and make art with Bjork for the rest of my days. I think she’s a goddess.
Three Things You’d Want on a Desert Island
Water, my girlfriend, and my dogs.
Photo Credit: Shervin Lainez