A Chat with Your Favorite 'So You Think You Can Dance' Choreographer, Sonya Tayeh
Let me be clear on something: I’m obsessed with So You Think You Can Dance and I’m doubly obsessed with one of the show’s choreographers, Sonya Tayeh. Known for her aggressive, athletic routines, she’s an absolute genius with a unique grasp on her craft and the dance world at large.
I had the chance to chat with Sonya late last month ahead of the Emmys, where I got to pick her brain about SYTYCD, future plans and the craft of dance. It’s safe to say I love her more than ever.
Congratulations on your Emmy nomination this year! You should have won – but then, you should have won years ago. How does it feel?
“I mean, it’s nice to hear people say that but it’s not something that I was waiting for or would define my work by. But it’s such an amazing bonus and an amazing honor to be recognized in this way. It’s totally an honor and I think my mom is pretty excited, too. I’m never going to fit this experience. My mother always taught me to do the work because you love it and if something else comes, that’s great, so it’s awesome.”
The three pieces that were up were ‘Turning Page’, “Sail’ and “Possibly Maybe”. Were those three pieces particularly special to you?
“That’s a great question. I think mainly it’s that I really appreciate those pieces being nominated because it shows the versatility in my work, which I really love. It makes me feel like I’m doing something right. We’re so hard on ourselves as artists and I love that it showed a range of myself. I think it showed the softer edge, the dark edge, the athleticism behind my movement which is important to me. I definitely felt like it represented my trying new things.”
“Possibly Maybe” was a really powerful, completely different piece.
“It was an important piece to me. It was something that I wanted to really… it can be jarring for people but that’s an emotion I’ve felt before. A woman who has no self-worth and is vying for this love she thinks she needs, so… it’s an acknowledgment of that. It was about a man who’s entertained by her sadness and worthlessness and is enjoying that type of power, you know? It was very personal for me. And then also, it was a challenge to get Bjork’s music approved on the show. Just that I was able to get that song approved – she’s my hero! I can literally choreograph to every single one of her songs.”
Your style in particular is very easily identifiable – it’s so different. Is that sense that you have of the way you work…did that evolve over time or have you always had a strong sense of the type of work you were meant for?
“It took some time. I was raised by a really strong-willed mother. Growing up, I thought she was strict on me and she was hard on me but now I understand. It was an unknown thing to demand your own voice and what you believe in, so when I started training in college, I did a lot of work on myself to see how I wanted to move. I was very tight in the shoulders and rounded. My whole body was always aggressive and there was always an aggression and angst behind how I moved. I embraced myself and learned to get really smart about how to explain how I wanted to move. That’s all I know. I’ve come to terms with who I am over the years.”
You started formal training in college. What was the turning point for you that made you know that you wanted to pursue it?
“I always wanted to be a dancer, we just didn’t really have the funds when I was younger to get childhood training. But I knew the minute I started training that I wanted to be a choreographer. Immediately. And once I did that, I had the most amazing professors who had so much patience with em. I didn’t know how to dance – I had no formal training – so it took a lot of patience with myself and from the people who were working with me. I didn’t stop having the desire, so my lack of training behind my ability didn’t bother me. I knew I was late and I needed to catch up.”
I also read that you spent some time working with the ballet. Does that still inform the way you choreograph?
“The form of technical facility of ballet, I love – the lines, I love. It was really hard for me. I pride myself on the difficulty level of the dances, the sport of it all. That’s my driving force sometimes. I called a piece one time ‘The Art of Facility’ – what your body can do. So I love that type of technique and it’s utilized naturally.”
Can you walk us through how a piece of choreography comes together for you?
“Well, mostly it’s emotionally driven first. I always harken back to what I’m going through and it’s difficult. Most of the time, I choreograph with no music first – I just start moving around loosely and I fill in a bunch of phrases and I try not to stop. I try to keep the movement going. I have this thing of going with instinct so whatever comes out of my body is meant to be. From there I adjust it, but I like to focus on what naturally comes out. Usually what happens after is that a song comes to me that’s perfect. Somehow… but it has to feel emotionally connected and natural.”
I know that you’ve worked with Florence Welch, Kylie Minogue… what has that been like? What’s the best project you’ve worked on?
“It’s really hard to pick those because it’s hard for people to believe, but I love everything I’ve done. Even if I wouldn’t do it again or it was a harder experience, I learned so much from people, from experiences, so I’m just honestly so blessed and grateful that I can have a consistent career. That was always my dream. I don’t have a dream job – the dream is to maintain movement that’s timeless and to be a choreographer that moves.”
We have a lot of younger readers. What advice would you give to any aspiring dancers, choreographers or anyone with an artistic passion?
“I think in general, when I think about it, anything that you want, I just always say what’s getting me through this is being smart in it, meaning studying where dance came from and where it’s going. I am who i am without all the expectation and pressure or the perspective of what people think of me. Taking all that aside and really honing in on who you are and embellishing it with your craft is the way to go. You might not prefer my work, but you can appreciate it because it comes from me.”
A lot of artists would say honestly is the best policy.
“Yeah, and I think that’s inevitable. People are going to like you or not like you and that’s not the point. That’s not what I’m trying to achieve. Of course I want people to be effected by my work, but I have one life and I’m going to do hat I want to do and I’m not going to arrange that to appease anyone. I don’t think that’s healthy for any artist. You just have to tap into who you are, but I also think studying is key. I’m big on education. Study your craft, respect it, where it came from and where it’s going. Do the work on yourself and be smart about it.”
Sonya is currently providing choreography for The Last Goodbye, playing at the Globe Theatre in San Diego through November 3. Tickets are available here.