Choreographer Sonya Tayeh brings the underground to Broadway
Sonya Tayeh may have choreographed one of the most dazzling spectacles to grace the Great White Way in years with Moulin Rouge! The Musical but her path to the Broadway stage has been anything but typical. Tayeh wasn’t raised on jazz hands and time steps. In fact, she decided to become a choreographer before she’d ever taken a formal dance class.
Tayeh later studied ballet and modern dance at Wayne State University, but it was her experience as “a teenager living in Detroit and being immersed in the underground dance scene, being a part of the birth of House music and techno” that really made her fall in love with movement.
“I remember standing by the speaker and feeling the entire room have the same profound feelings at the same time,” she said. “Isn’t that what dance does when you get a really amazing idea and you see the dance driving, and somehow it all clicks and all the stars are aligned and it’s like electricity in the room?”
She got her big break choreographing six seasons of So You Think You Can Dance and received two Emmy nominations. She also created works for world-renowned contemporary dance institutions, like the Martha Graham Dance Company and Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival; choreographed for pop legends like Miley Cyrus, Florence & The Machine, and Kylie Minogue; and brought her moves to Off-Broadway productions. Tayeh’s work, consequently, can’t be slotted neatly into any one dance genre.
“I don’t live anywhere,” she says. “I live and breathe in what is inspiring.”
New York Theatre Guide spoke with Tayeh about bringing her “boom-bastic” moves to Broadway, the ways that musical theatre dance is evolving, and the reasons why female choreographers are finally getting some of the attention they’ve deserved.
How did you approach the choreography in Moulin Rouge! The Musical, especially knowing that audiences might have a specific expectation from seeing the film?
The dance plays a very large role in our show because the Moulin Rouge that we’re so wonderfully inspired by has such heightened physicality. It wanted [dance] — and it wanted more of it. The one thing I could always feel in the space was how much it needed and wanted that type of physical energy and access to create sexual tension and community at large. And in the Moulin Rouge, all are welcome. So showing who that “all” is in a physical way was incredibly inspiring to me. And in terms of my sensibility, I thrive off of highly physical, full-body energy.
How would you describe the movement for theatergoers who might not be familiar with your work or the medium of dance outside of Broadway?
So, there are a lot of classical genres inside the film — the tango, the can-can — but with an all-encompassing new twist. Because of the speed of the camera, there wasn’t one set dance in the film, and I wanted that type of swiftness. It was a relief that [in the stage production] I didn’t have to hyper-focus on a reference point of a single genre. I could do my twist on the can-can, my twist on the tango, my own style, which is heightened and highly physical and boom-bastic and fiery, and has an edge and sharpness inside of it. So it’s not like you’re walking into a classic; you’re walking into something that celebrates the new while inviting historical ideas.
What are your favorite aspects of the choreography?
Seeing these beautifully stunning men and women move in that way. There’s not a single placeholder inside of the ensemble. They have a lot to do, a huge responsibility, and they show up every time to that fire and to that energy. So when you go in, you feel it’s an all-encompassing world and you hear music that you love and are able to bask in all forms of a mixed-bag genre. It’s like a big candy shop of ideas.
You come from a less traditional background than many of the choreographers working on Broadway. What do you think you’re bringing to the Broadway stage that hasn’t been done before?
I think because I’ve honored my history, I don’t get stressed by my history. I do the work inside of the project so I’m not comparing myself to an idea. I’ve lived in New York and worked in theatre for six years, so I’ve been inside the form, and I’ve worked really hard on digging inside of my own voice. So I don’t get bogged down by the word “Broadway.” But I totally get it. When you get a Broadway show, it’s a whole different type of pressure. But for me, because I have a big old heart, if I think too much inside of that, I will do someone else’s work. I won’t dig inside myself. When I heard we were going to Broadway, my stomach dropped, the pressure jumped on top of my shoulders and pulled me to the floor for a little while. I let it last for a few minutes and then I got up and moved on.
You’ve talked, in previous interviews, about transitioning from So You Think You Can Dance to working with dance companies because you wanted to work on longer pieces with longer creative timelines. Now you’ve choreographed a musical that’s over two hours with an entire narrative arc. Does your work on Moulin Rouge! feel like you’re taking a step even further in that transition?
So You Think You Can Dance was such a wonderful time in my life, but there were all of these other ideas that I wanted to simmer. I wanted to be in a room with writers and directors and designers and just keep on dreaming these ideas and realizing them together. So I needed more breadth. [In theatre] you’re just able make a slew of wrong choices and then get back the next day and try again. I’ve been involved in Moulin Rouge! for three years now.
To be able to have that time is really fulfilling because you have time for breadth. You have time for fear. You have time for confidence. You have time for all of those stumbles leading to the gold. That’s where I thrive. I’m a person who thrives off of study and study takes time. But what I take from that time [on So You Think You Can Dance and working with dance companies] is to be able to trust my instinct and trust my gut. The first choice is the best choice and that this is a very strong idea that can grow into something.
There’s a very exciting trend right now where choreographers who have worked primarily in contemporary dance are bringing a new perspective to Broadway — choreographers like you, Camille A. Brown, Annie-B Parson, and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker. What does it mean to you to be part of this moment, and why do you think it’s happening right now?
It’s about time! I think everybody is ready to feel something. We’re not underestimating our audience, and we’re finding ways to rethink ideas on the Broadway stage and on the concert dance stage. And the choreographers you mentioned are so inspiring and are incredibly strong and gifted women. It’s so amazing to be a part of that sphere. So you’re getting so many unique and strange and beautiful approaches to different types of dance. To keep each person in one lane is just sad and it pulls away from the huge garden of ideas. Because when you really look at it, all of it is the same in terms of the baseline, which is story. The script comes from the root of an idea and we are there to drive that root of an idea. That’s the same for concert dance. There’s a concept and a root and we build from there. So the root is the same. So why hold us to one side?
Broadway is still a very male-dominated industry. What do you think about the fact that it’s primarily female choreographers making these waves?
[As women], we have an emotional focus and an emotional drive that is rooted inside of us and we’re ready. And I think when the world is ready and able to open up is when we can drive in. It’s an exciting time — I’m hearing a lot about this in terms of other collaborators I know that build projects based on hiring women and making sure that’s part of the conversation. They’re looking at their core creative team and saying, “Where are the women?” We all have different eyes. But those eyes need to be there and we need to be representatives of that.
I think the reason why there’s growth now is because we are finally talking about it. Men are talking about it, and women are talking about it, and we’re talking about it together. Also, just look at the work. Look at what these women are doing. Big ideas. Eloquent ideas. Intelligent ideas. Sophisticated ideas. Profoundly inventive ideas. So why wouldn’t you want to continue that track? All genders. All colors. Period. End of story.
Absolutely. To borrow a phrase from Rachel Chavkin’s Tony Awards acceptance speech, this is “not a pipeline issue.”
What she said in terms of the readiness — that’s what really resonated with me. We’re ready. We are out here writing, dancing, talking, and thinking. We’re ready. So open the door.
Speaking of opening the door, what’s next for you?
Working with directors like Alex Timbers, Rebecca Taichman, Leigh Silverman, and Annie Kaufman has fired up my brain and challenged me in such beautiful ways that it makes me feel invincible and it makes you want to do it more and more. I would really love to get into film. I’ve directed before, but I would love to direct more. I really would. I’d love to direct my own work, as well as plays and musicals.
Photo credit: Shervin Lainez