Out choreographer Sonya Tayeh on “So You Think You Can Dance” and gender-bending performance

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I was a college student at the very peak of my So You Think You Can Dance viewing. My roommates and I had a weekly ritual of watching the show while drinking sangria made from a box of Franzia, so it was obviously a very high brow affair. I remember that you could count on a few things from SYTYCD: Mary Murphy’s Hot Tamale Train™, host Cat Deeley being incredibly charming, and choreographer Sonya Tayeh having the most consistently kick ass performances.

Sonya took some time out of her busy schedule to chat with AfterEllen about SYTYCD, her work, and gender/sexuality in dance.

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AfterEllen: Thank you for taking some time this morning to talk with me. First of all, I just wanted to tell you that I’m a big fan of So You Think You Can Dance. I actually knew essentially nothing about dance when I started watching itand I’m not an expert nowbut I just think it’s great that really good and exciting dance has become so accessible to people.

Sonya Tayeh: Yeah, it’s pretty amazing what that show has done for us and the world of dance, you know?

AE: Definitely. Have you noticed a big change in audiencesoutside of SYTYCDsince the show has become so popular?

ST: Oh, completely and totally. Like, I’ll be at a liquor store at three in the morning, craving some chocolate and some guy is coming up to me saying how he watches the show with his daughter, and it reminded him of something in his life. It’s just crazy, and that’s what I’ve always wanted to do is make it accessible for everyone to feel something. It’s a universal idea now, which is really, really great, because it’s a really beautiful expression and I think people underestimate it. Or maybe underestimate themselves, thinking they won’t understand it, when it’s just your own individual way of provoking a feeling.

AE: Can you tell me a little bit about your process when you’re working on choreography for the show? Do you start with a concept or do you get inspired by music?

ST: It really depends. It depends on if I’m doing a jazz piece or a contemporary piece, because both energies are different. But because the schedule there is very fast and you don’t know who you get until the night before you rehearse with them, I try to be overly prepared. You have to get your music approved ahead of time and create the concept ahead of time. Then, I’ll have a bunch of phrases set up and it just gets adjusted depending on who I have.

FOX's "So You Think You Can Dance" - Season Eleven

AE: Do you have any favorite routines that stand out from the show?

ST: They all, honestly, have affected me in many ways, but I think this seasonbecause I lost two very dear friends of minethat was a really big driving force of inspiration for me. So this season felt very different, it was kind of a surge of re-inspiration, of really being aware and attentive of how I’m sincerely feeling. I felt this was the most emotionally driven season for me.

AE: So, it sounds like you really put what’s happening in your life into all your routines, is that something you’ve always done?

ST: Yeah, it becomes a necessity, a form of expressionlike crying, you know? I need to express it through dance so it’s a very important driving force for me. And, sometimes, it can be strictly the mechanics of dance, and the passion behind how hard it is, but it’s also very emotionally-based, yes.

AE: Do you have any favorite dancers you’ve worked with over the years on the show? I know that’s probably a tough one.

ST: [laughs] It’s hard, because honestlyand everyone gets so mad at me when I say thisbut you really have these powerful moments with them, because this is their dream. I really have had wonderful experiences with all of them. With Cole [Horibe], because we did a play together after his season, we really have a great relationship. Melanie [Moore] is a dear friend of mine, and someone who I work with a lot. Allison [Holker], Ricky [Ubeda]but all of them! In terms of me working with them later, it’s always been a pleasure.

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