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How Sonya Tayeh Makes Musicians Dance
Creating movement for non-dancers presents certain challenges. But even tougher is creating movement for a band of musicians, all with instruments behind pesky microphone stands.
What's the first step? Listening to their music and watching how they already move, says choreographer Sonya Tayeh. Her latest work is the off-Broadway musical Hundred Days, starring Abigail and Shaun Bengson, founders of the indie-rock band The Bengsons.
Tayeh has choreographed for top dance talent, from the Martha Graham Dance Company to multiple seasons of "So You Think You Can Dance."
But for this show, at New York Theatre Workshop, she let go of the scorching combinations she's known for. Hundred Days is a gentle, but intense love story, told in song and spoken word, of how Abigail and Shaun met and married within three weeks.
When Tayeh started work on Hundred Days, she already had a firm understanding of what the Bengsons needed from a choreographer because she had seen it several times: In 2014, she had traveled to San Francisco to visit her girlfriend, Jo Lampert, who was and still is one of the bandmembers in the show.
Watching Hundred Days repeatedly at San Francisco's Z Space gave Tayeh intense observations about the Bengsons' music, lyrics and onstage habits. She also developed close creative ties with the group. They've since composed music for her dance work you'll still call me by name and for routines on "SYTYCD."
The key, she says, to creating movement for any musician is "really understanding their music and asking the history of it. 'Why did you make this song? Do you need me to remind you?'"
Photo by Shervin Lainez, courtesy Tayeh
By watching the Bengsons, she saw naturally occurring gems of movement—maybe a hand gesture, a kick or a weight shift—that they didn't even know they were doing. Using already occurring material to illuminate lyrics, she says, can be more effective than pushing musicians to memorize choreography.
In one sequence from Hundred Days, Abigail describes her childhood belief that her dollhouse furniture are her friends; Tayeh noticed how Abigail pinched her fingers together to suggest a very small object. That's now in the show.
For the band members, she incorporated everyday movement such as steps, lunges and reaches of the hand. "Their partners are the instruments," she says.
Abigail and Shaun Bengson in Hundred Days at New York Theatre Workshop. Photo by Joan Marcus, courtesy Hundred Days.
Striving for symbolism can also deepen moments. Abigail's biggest movements include low squats and some wild banging on a drum. Tayeh equates those movements to an expressive lift and a toss that heightens emotion in choreography.
Tayeh allows the band to improvise, but not too much. "If the nuance isn't cohesive and they totally change or Abigail just walks down the aisle, that will shift the energy."
She may be a stickler at times, but the Bengsons are on board with her instructions.
"I think what Sonya is interested in is raw body truth," says Abigail. "And she can express that on one body in one way, and on my body in a pretty different way!"
Bales of hay, black umbrellas, bicycles—this Midsummer Night's Dream would be unrecognizable to the Bard. Alexander Ekman's full-length, inspired by Scandinavian solstice traditions and set to music by Mikael Karlsson, is a madcap celebration of the longest day of the year, when the veil between our world and that of the supernatural is said to be at its thinnest. The Joffrey Ballet's performances mark the seductively surreal work's North American premiere. April 25–May 6. joffrey.org.
"There's an ancient energy in Fana's movement, a deep and trusted knowing," says Jeff, director of the Chicago-based Deeply Rooted Dance Theater. "Because I witnessed the raw humanity of his dancer's souls, I wanted my dancers to have that experience."
When I wrote about my struggle with depression, and eventual departure from dance because of it, I expected criticism. I was prepared to be challenged. But much to my relief, and horror, dancers from all over the world responded with support and stories of solidarity. The most critical response I saw was this one:
"Dance isn't for everyone."
This may as well be a mantra in the dance world. We have become entrenched in the Darwinian notion that the emotionally weak will be weeded out. There is no room for them anyway.
In his final bow at New York City Ballet, during what should have been a heroic conclusion to a celebrated ballet career, Robert Fairchild slipped and fell. His reaction? To lie down flat on his back like he meant to do it. Then start cracking up at himself.
"He's such a ham," says his sister Megan Fairchild, with a laugh. "He's really good at selling whatever his body is doing that day. He'll turn a moment that I would totally go home and cry about into something where the audience is like, 'That's the most amazing thing ever!' "
Growing up in a family-owned dance studio in Missouri had its perks for tap dancer Anthony Russo. But it also earned him constant taunting, especially in high school.
"There was a junior in my sophomore year health class who was absolutely relentless," he says. "I'd get tripped on my way to the front of the classroom and he'd say, 'Watch out, twinkle toes.' If I raised my hand and answered a question incorrectly, I'd hear a patronizing 'Nice one, Bojangles.' "
Choreographer Sergio Trujillo asked the women auditioning for ensemble roles in his newest musical to arrive in guys' clothing—"men's suits, or blazers and ties," he says. He wasn't being kinky or whimsical. The entire ensemble of Summer: The Donna Summer Musical is female, playing men and women interchangeably as they unfold the history of the chart-busting, Grammy-winning, indisputable Queen of Disco.
Have a scroll through Agnes Muljadi's Instagram feed (@artsyagnes), and you'll notice that in between her ballet shots is a curated mix of lifestyle pics. So what exactly sets her apart from the other influencers you follow? Muljadi has made a conscious effort to only feature natural beauty products, sustainable fashion and vegan foods. With over 500k followers, her social strategy (and commitment to making ethical choices) is clearly a hit. Ahead, learn why Muljadi switched to a vegan lifestyle, and the surprising way it's helped her dance career.
He may not be a household name, but you probably know Brandon Stirling Baker's work. The 30-year-old has designed the lighting for most of Justin Peck's ballets—including Heatscape for Miami City Ballet, and the edgy The Times Are Racing for New York City Ballet—but also Jamar Roberts' new Members Don't Get Weary at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and a trio of Martha Graham duets for L.A. Dance Project.
He's been fascinated by lighting ever since he attended a public performing arts middle school in Sherman Oaks, California, where he had his first experiences lighting shows. He also has a background in music (he plays guitar and bass) and in drawing. Both, he says, are central to the way he approaches lighting dance.
Update: Due to an overwhelming response, the in-person audition has been moved to a larger location to accommodate more dancers. See details below.
For the first time in more than 10 years, Janet Jackson is holding an open audition for dancers.
Even better? You could land a spot in her #JTribe simply by posting a video on social media.
What does it take to become an international superstar? Carlos Acosta might have a few ideas.
At the Oxford Literary Festival earlier this month, the BBC sat down with Acosta to ask for his life lessons. His answers—which he says he will pass on to his kids one day—give incredible insight into how he's become such a beloved worldwide success.