"It's an iconic piece of art that you wanna be part of," says Sonya Tayeh, who is choreographing the upcoming live telecast of Rent. Photo courtesy Tayeh

Why Sonya Tayeh Leapt at the Chance to Choreograph Rent Live

When the live broadcast of Jesus Christ Superstar won NBC a ratings bonanza and a slew of Emmys last year, it was a good bet more rock operas would follow. Now Fox has lined up Broadway's Michael Greif to direct Brandon Victor Dixon, Vanessa Hudgens and Keala Settle (among others) in a live telecast of Rent on January 27 at 7pm (tape-delayed in the Pacific time zone). Jonathan Larson's 1996 hit musical, a rock remake of La Bohème, moves Puccini's aspiring artists from Paris to the Lower East Side to struggle with art, poverty, AIDS and drugs. It was a sensation, winning multiple Tonys and the Pulitzer Prize, and made stars of Greif (who directed the original production), its young cast (which included Idina Menzel, Taye Diggs and Daphne Rubin-Vega), and Larson, who died tragically the day before its first preview. Sonya Tayeh, whose visceral style has much in common with the show's mood, is choreographing Rent Live, and we spoke with her last week.


How did you get involved in the project?

I feel like it was kismet. It was at the opening or the closing of a show I did off-Broadway [The Lucky Ones at Ars Nova] and Michael came. I'd never met him, but of course I admired his work so much. And then I heard the next day that Rent Live was in the works. I called my agent and said, "This is the stuff I believe in—paths crossing surprisingly—and I would just love to have my name in the hat." And a week later Michael called! He felt the same way, which was really awesome. And we met, and it just made sense—it just exploded. He came to Boston, where I was doing Moulin Rouge; he came to see the show, and we sat for our first meeting for four hours.

Did he give you notes on Moulin Rouge?

Of course!

What appealed to you about doing Rent?

It's one of those shows that was ahead of its time, and incredibly thought-provoking—so conscious of the experience that Jonathan had in New York and in the world. It's about struggle and sexual orientation, death and sorrow—all of these really hefty, hefty emotions. For my friends in theater and my art friends, it stuck with them, and it stuck with me as well. It's an iconic piece of art that you wanna be part of. Such a gritty, honest, raw, beautiful, personal piece of art.

How do its poor, struggling artists intersect with your own experience?

I was that—having big dreams and afraid of the scale of your dreams. And not having the means to go to that really amazing school or take that big risk. It's scary when you don't have that. And also to be in a time where people were dying—hundreds of people were dying and no one was helping. But for me, in terms of the starving artist part of it, my dreams got bigger. And I wouldn't trade it for the world, honestly. It really made me a disciplined, super-driven person. But it was so difficult. I had a super-crappy first car—a Ford Escort stick shift with just rust. I would scrape underneath the seat to find change to pay for gas. The owners of studios that I taught at during college would drop off soup to me at school. But I was the happiest; I was the most fulfilled, because I was surrounded by people who thrived inside of their craft and did the work—a community of people that supported me.

And how is all that going to inform the choreography?

We're just dreaming up ideas. It's such a beautiful piece, it doesn't have to have an immense amount of revision. The intimacy behind the story is so inside of it, and vivid. It's just a matter of making sure we hold on to that depth. I will be in the studio just starting from the top, seeing what comes out. I have every desire to pay homage to iconic moments physically that I think are in the show. But we have a bigger ensemble. What does that look like, a bunch of East Villagers, New York artists? What does it feel like to multiply "La Vie Bohème"? What does it feel like to multiply "Contact," "Santa Fe"? And I want to connect and intertwine them, make sure it all makes sense—not just, now we have this exciting dance number. Which sounds easy, but is actually very difficult.

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Brandt in Giselle. Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy ABT

Skylar Brandt's Taste in Music Is as Delightful as Her Dancing

American Ballet Theatre soloist Skylar Brandt's dancing is clean, precise and streamlined. It's surprising, then, to learn that her taste in music is "all over the place," she says. (Even more surprising is that Brandt, who has an Instagram following of over 80k, is "in the dark ages" when it comes to her music, and was buying individual songs on iTunes up until a year ago, when her family intervened with an Apple Music plan.)

Though what she's listening to at any given time can vary dramatically, the through-line for Brandt is nostalgia: songs that take her back, whether to childhood, a favorite movie or a piece she's recently performed. Brandt told us about her eclectic taste, and made us a playlist that will keep you guessing:

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Ailey II artistic director Troy Powell teaching an Ailey Workshop at NYCDA. Courtesy NYCDA

NYCDA Is Redefining the Convention Scene Through Life-Changing Opportunities

Back in 2011 when Joe Lanteri first approached Katie Langan, chair of Marymount Manhattan College's dance department, about getting involved with New York City Dance Alliance, she was skeptical about the convention/competition world.

"But I was pleasantly surprised by the enormity of talent that was there," she says. "His goal was to start scholarship opportunities, and I said okay, I'm in."

Today, it's fair to say that Lanteri has far surpassed his goal of creating scholarship opportunities. But NYCDA has done so much more, bridging the gap between the convention world and the professional world by forging a wealth of partnerships with dance institutions from Marymount to The Ailey School to Complexions Contemporary Ballet and many more. There's a reason these companies and schools—some of whom otherwise may not see themselves as aligned with the convention/competition world—keep deepening their relationships with NYCDA.

Now, college scholarships are just one of many ways NYCDA has gone beyond the typical weekend-long convention experience and created life-changing opportunities for students. We rounded up some of the most notable ones:

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Courtesy The Joyce

Dance Magazine Chairman's Award Honoree: Linda Shelton

In an industry that has been clamoring for more female leadership, Linda Shelton, executive director of New York City's The Joyce Theater Foundation since 1993, has been setting an example for decades. As a former general manager of The Joffrey Ballet, U.S. tour manager for the Bolshoi Ballet, National Endowment for the Arts panelist, Dance/NYC board member and Benois de la Danse judge, as well as a current Dance/USA board member, Shelton has served as a global leader in dance. In her tenure at The Joyce, she has not only increased the venue's commissioned programming, but also started presenting beyond The Joyce's walls in locations such as Lincoln Center.

What brought you to The Joyce?

That was many years ago, but it's still the same today: It's a belief in and passion for the mission of the theater, which is to support dance in all of its forms and varieties—every kind of dance that you could imagine.

Diversity is so important in dance leadership today. How do you approach this at The Joyce?

Darren Walker said something interesting at a Dance/NYC Symposium, which was that The Joyce is a disruptor. It was nice to hear in that context, because we don't think of it as something new. We didn't have to change our mission statement to be more diverse. We've been doing this since day one.

Is drawing in new audiences and maintaining longtime supporters ever in conflict?

Of course. I call it the blessing and the curse of our mission. We do present more experimental companies that may attract a younger audience. But it's very tricky. You're not going to tell your long-term audience, "Don't come and see this because you're not going to like the music." We've had people walk out of the theater before, but it's a response. It's important to spark those conversations.

What experimenting have you done?

We've tried a "pay what you decide" ticket the past couple of seasons with some of our more adventurous programming. You would reserve your seat for a dollar and after seeing the show pay what you decide is right for you.

Do you have advice for other dance presenters?

Find opportunities to sit with colleagues from around the country. At Dance/USA there's a presenters' council where we come together and talk about what we're putting in our seasons and what we're passionate about. Maybe there are enough presenters to collaborate and make it possible to bring a company to New York or to do a tour around the country.

Also, remember what it's all about: making that connection between what's onstage and the audience. If we can do that, despite every visa issue and missed flight and injury and changed program and whatever else comes our way, then we should feel good about the job we're doing.

To purchase tickets to the Dance Magazine Awards or become a sponsor, visit dancemediafoundation.org.

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