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!”