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Why Sonya Tayeh Hasn't Slept This Month
I'll admit it: I've been a Sonya Tayeh fangirl since I was a teen. Like many aspiring dancers from areas of the country where dance is a less appreciated art form, I watched "So You Think You Can Dance?" religiously. Living in a town hundreds of miles from anything remotely resembling contemporary dance, Tayeh's first choreographic outings on the show had me cycling through shock, bewilderment and awe in quick succession. The appreciation I gained for the unexpected and athletic served me well when I later transitioned from being a bunhead to a BFA candidate taking contemporary technique and composition. So when I got an email asking me if I wanted to interview her, I immediately said yes (and fangirled internally for the rest of the day).
Sonya Tayeh. Photo by Maria Baranova.
Tayeh (one of our 2009 "25 to Watch") is perhaps most widely known for her Emmy-nominated work on "So You Think You Can Dance?" In 90-second snippets, viewers are treated to hard-hitting, hyper-physical movement that veers from the hypnotically strange to the delicately, emotionally raw, her solid concert dance foundation shining through as compositional clarity. Since moving to New York, the choreographer has been steadily building a body of work for such disparate destinations as off-Broadway musicals and the Martha Graham Dance Company. Now, she’s raising funds for her first self-produced, evening-length concert piece that will premiere in December through a commission from New York Live Arts. I spoke to Tayeh about the project and the experience of self-producing her work.
You’re at work on your first evening-length dance piece, you’ll still call me by name. Can you talk a bit about what you’re exploring with it?
It’s about the desire and need for acceptance and mutual respect in your family, and the barriers that it causes when you don’t have that. I think it’s such a universal, ageless idea. I’ve been working on it for about a year and a half.
Did it start as an evening length, or did it evolve?
It definitely evolved. The Bengsons, Joanna Lampert and I were in the midst of recording these conversations about our family, and we were asked to do this works in progress show. We got into the space the first time and were just spewing ideas—it was crazy how fast it came about. So we did about 12 minutes, and the crowd really took to it. It was such personal responses that I knew there was something there.
Photo by Shervin Lainez
How has your success on "So You Think You Can Dance?" impacted your work in concert dance?
It’s been amazing and challenging. SYTYCD changed my life, but they’re really short pieces, so the concert world questions whether you can do a full length work. It just takes people getting to know me and understanding my story. I didn’t start on SYTYCD—I was immersed in other forms of dance prior to that. I have my degree in dance, I was in concert pieces, I took Graham. I’m knowledgeable in that sense, it’s just a matter of people understanding the root of who you are, and showing them that you’re going to do the work. At NYLA I’m under the direction of Janet Wong and Bill T. Jones, so I better have my stuff together!
You self-produced this work. Was there anything that surprised you about that process?
Raising money is really difficult! Any time I do a project I do everything in my power to pay who is helping feed this project. It’s never easy, and it’s not always possible. The beauty of getting a commission is that they give you an amazing amount of space to rehearse and then a show in their theater. But they give you a small portion of money and then you raise the rest. I promised myself that I was going to use the people that I dreamed of using, and that I would do anything in my power to raise the money. We’re 75 percent funded on Kickstarter, which is exciting, but with Kickstarter, if you don’t raise all of the money you don’t get the money, so I’m hoping we make it. My goal is to pay the designers and dancers what their fee is, as opposed to paying them whatever we can pay them.
Funding is always a challenge, isn’t it?
I haven’t slept in a month, honestly. But it’s also been really inspiring; it made me remember how human I am. Sometimes in this industry people think you’re invincible. Especially the way I look and speak, people think I’m just this beast of a person that doesn’t carry vulnerability, and it’s frustrating. I am, I’m nervous, and to share that with my students really has put us into an even playing field that I’m really enjoying.
Do you have any advice for up-and-coming choreographers who want to self-produce?
When you have a big dream, do the work. Be honest about what you need, be demanding about who you want in your team and your crew. Don’t lower your abilities, really strive for it. In terms of raising money, it takes bravery to talk about yourself, to talk about why this piece is important. It takes a lot of work.
A few weeks ago, American Ballet Theatre announced the A.B.T. Women's Movement, a new program that will support three women choreographers per season, one of whom will make work on the main company.
"The ABT Women's Movement takes inspiration from the groundbreaking female choreographers who have left a lasting impact on ABT's legacy, including Agnes de Mille and Twyla Tharp," said artistic director Kevin McKenzie in a press release.
Hypothetically, this is a great idea. We're all for more ballet commissions for women. But the way ABT has promoted the initiative is problematic.
Some dancers move to New York City with their sights set on a dream job: that one choreographer or company they have to dance for. But when Maggie Cloud graduated from Florida State University in 2010, she envisioned herself on a less straightforward path.
"I always had in mind that I would be dancing for different people," she says. "I knew I had some kind of range that I wanted to tap into."
On the occasion of its 70th anniversary, the Ballet Nacional de Cuba tours the U.S. this spring with the resolute Cuban prima ballerina assoluta Alicia Alonso a the helm. Named a National Hero of Labor in Cuba, Alonso, 97, has weathered strained international relations and devastating fiscal challenges to have BNC emerge as a world-class dance company. Her dancers are some of ballet's best. On offer this time are Alonso's Giselle and Don Quixote. The profoundly Cuban company performs in Chicago May 18–20, Tampa May 23, Washington, D.C., May 29–June 3 and Saratoga, New York June 6–8.
We all know that the general population's knowledge of ballet is sometimes...a bit skewed. (See: people touching their fingertips to the top of their head, and Kendall Jenner hopping around at the barre.)
Would your average Joe know how to do ballet's most basic step: a plié? Or, more to the point, even know what it is?
SELF decided to find out.
New York City Ballet is celebrating the Jerome Robbins Centennial with twenty (20!) ballets. The great American choreographer died in 1998, so very few of today's dancers have actually worked with him. There are plenty of stories about how demanding (at times brutally so) he could be in rehearsal. But Peter Boal has written about Robbins in a more balanced, loving way. In this post he writes about how Robbins' crystal clear imagery helped him approach a role with clarity and purpose.
Who says you need fancy equipment to make a festival-worthy dance film? Right now, two New York City–based dance film festivals are calling for aspiring filmmakers to show their stuff—and you don't need anything more cumbersome than a smartphone to get in on the action.
Here's everything you need to know about how to submit:
When Lisset Santander bourréed onstage as Myrtha in BalletMet's Giselle this past February, her consummate portrayal of the Queen of the Wilis was marked by steely grace and litheness. The former Cuban National Ballet dancer had defected to the U.S. at 21, and after two years with the Ohio company, she's now closer to the dance career she says she always wanted: one of limitless possibilities.
For 17 years, James Samson has been the model Paul Taylor dancer. There is something fundamentally decent about his stage persona. He's a tall dancer—six feet—but never imposes himself. He's muscular, but gentle. And when he moves, it is his humanity that shines through, even more than his technique.
But all dancing careers come to an end, and James Samson's is no exception; now 43, he'll be retiring in August, after a final performance at the Teatro Romano in Verona, where he'll be dancing in Cloven Kingdom, Piazzolla Caldera and Promethean Fire.
The wait for Alexei Ratmansky's restaging of Petipa's Harlequinade is almost over! But if you can't wait until American Ballet Theatre officially debuts the ballet at the Metropolitan Opera House on June 6, we've got you covered. ABT brought the Harlequinade characters to life (and to the Alder Mansion in Yonkers, NY) in a short film by Ezra Hurwitz, and it's a guaranteed to make you laugh.
When an anonymous letter accused former New York City Ballet leader Peter Martins of sexual harassment last year, it felt like what had long been an open secret—the prevalence of harassment in the dance world—was finally coming to the surface. But the momentum of the #MeToo movement, at least in dance, has since died down.
Martins has retired, though an investigation did not corroborate any of the claims against him. He and former American Ballet Theatre star Marcelo Gomes, who suddenly resigned in December, were the only cases to make national headlines in the U.S. We've barely scratched the surface of the dance world's harassment problem.