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.
As the fall performance season kicks into high gear, we've been cramming as much excellent dance on our calendars as possible. But if you're feeling overwhelmed by all the options, we've got you covered: From rare U.S. appearances by one of our 2018 "25 to Watch" to an autumn mainstay for New Yorkers, Romeo and Juliet to The Handmaid's Tale, here's what caught our eye.
You nominated the best performances you've seen so far in 2018, and we narrowed them down to our favorites. Now it's time to cast your vote to decide who will be featured in our December issue!
Voting is open until September 17. Only one submission per person will be counted.
Paris, 1900. A penniless writer and a prized courtesan fall in love to a soundtrack mashing up Christina Aguilera with Nirvana and David Bowie with The Beatles. Baz Luhrmann's opulent Moulin Rouge! arrived on the silver screen in 2001 perfectly poised for a stage-musical adaptation, and this month it's finally happening—with Broadway darlings Aaron Tveit and Karen Olivo in the lead roles and choreography by Sonya Tayeh, no less. July 10–Aug. 19. emersoncolonialtheatre.com.
New York City Center just announced programming for the 2018-19 season, and we're frantically marking our calendars for all the must-see dance. This year is the venue's 75th anniversary, and they're pulling out all the stops—from the reliable fan favorite Fall for Dance to the most epic Balanchine celebration and more:
For many performers, dancing in the original cast of the phenomenally popular Hamilton is the epitome of "making it." For film and history buffs, contributing a documentary to the Smithsonian's collection might be a bucket-list item. And for those with a heart for giving back, creating an organization that leads arts workshops for youth is a powerful accomplishment.
Morgan Marcell has done all those things, proving that dancers needn't limit themselves to one passion. We caught up with the former swing and co-dance captain of Hamilton to chat about The Eliza Project, her budding film career and her next Broadway-bound show.
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.
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Ever since it was announced that Baz Luhrmann's spectacular (spectacular!) movie musical Moulin Rouge! would be adapted for the stage, we've been cautiously excited. The 2001 film feels like a natural fit for Broadway, what with its genre-bending soundtrack stocked with absurdly catchy mash-ups, decadent costumes and sets, epic production numbers and show-within-a-show premise. Not to mention the romance. (Come on, who didn't fall in love with Ewan McGregor watching this movie?)
We're still in early days—the Alex Timbers–directed musical is scheduled for a lab presentation at the end of this month. But thanks to some news that broke last week (while we were all pretty distracted by World Ballet Day), we're moving past cautious excitement and into high-key freaking out quicker than Satine can purr "Diamonds are a girl's best friend."
Last year, it looked like "So You Think You Can Dance" might be on its final season. Viewership and ratings were down, and the show seemed to be trying to hang on by switching up its format, focusing on young talent ages 8 to 13 instead of the adult dancers audiences were used to.
But this summer it's back to its traditional formula, and embarking on a 14th season starting next Monday. That means we get another summer where dance gets an audience numbering in the millions.
That much exposure for that many seasons begs the question: What kind of mark has the show made on the dance world?
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.
An eclectic mix of artists reenvisions Martha Graham’s Lamentation.
PeiJu Chien-Pott in Lamentation. Photo by Hibbard Nash Photography, Courtesy MGDC.
They’re choreographers you would never expect to see sharing a bill with Martha Graham: Modern dancer Kyle Abraham, tapper Michelle Dorrance, contemporary abstractionist Liz Gerring and Sonya Tayeh of “So You Think You Can Dance.” But each has created their own version of her historical work Lamentation to premiere during Martha Graham Dance Company’s season at The Joyce Theater, February 10–22. “Lamentation was a radical departure from what had come before, stripping everything away and representing the essence of emotion,” says artistic director Janet Eilber. “That seismic shift still resonates today.”
The project, Lamentation Variations, began in 2007 as a way to commemorate September 11. Come this season, MGDC will have 12 Variations in its repertoire. Eilber hopes that the range of choreographers participating this year—part wish list, part kismet—will bring something new to the Graham repertoire and grow MGDC’s audience by making the 85-year-old Lamentation more accessible.
Some of the choreographers feel like a natural fit. For instance, Kyle Abraham has built his Variation from his Graham and Cunningham training. “There’s a fear of doing too much of a derivative. I’m giving a nod to the technique, but allowing it to be my take,” says Abraham. “Knowing that Merce had studied with Graham, I found myself wanting to pair Cunningham curves and Graham contractions.”
Other choreographers’ works, like Dorrance’s, will introduce a new style to the Graham aesthetic. “I am not using tap dance as an acute technique in this work, but I am using its foundation,” says Dorrance. “This opportunity allows me to branch out and apply the way I see rhythm as a driving force for non-percussive dancers.
What would Martha think about all of this? “As we move forward on all of our experiments, I believe she’s cheering us on,” says Eilber. “She was all about the future.”
The “So You Think You Can Dance” choreographer tackles martial arts and opera in off-Broadway’s Kung Fu.
When Sonya Tayeh got a call from her agent last summer about choreographing Kung Fu, she didn’t hesitate. The off-Broadway play, which tells the story of Bruce Lee’s life, has a team the hard-hitting, edgy choreographer dreamed of working with: creator David Henry Hwang, director Leigh Silverman and “So You Think You Can Dance” Season 9 dancer Cole Horibe as the lead. Lee’s dramatic life, told through dance, martial arts and Chinese opera, previews February 4 and opens February 24 at the Signature Theatre in New York City. Tayeh, who recently moved from L.A. to New York to pursue theater work, spoke with Candice Thompson during the show’s initial two-week workshop.
With many disciplines in the show, what’s your vision for the dancing in Kung Fu?
Lee’s father was a Chinese opera star and trained him, so it is back story important to show. We have a Chinese opera choreographer and a fight choreographer. I’m basically in charge of separating these beauties and blending them into one, so it all makes sense. The mix bleeds throughout all of the scenes, like a connective tissue.
Are these two movement vocabularies difficult to blend with dance?
Yes and no. Both disciplines move through space and are grounded, big and theatrical—so that part is easy. Well, I shouldn’t say easy. I am used to building my own work, but there is a lot of rep in this already. It is crucial for me to maintain the established movements of martial arts and opera. Not to contemporize these traditions, but to use dance to enhance the story instead of define it.
What is it like to work with Horibe as he channels Lee?
Cole has discipline like no one I have ever seen. He has been training in martial arts, so his body looks insane. He studies his craft obsessively. It’s a necessity for him, not a hobby.
Are there any elements of martial arts or Chinese opera that you might bring to “SYTYCD”?
I’m sure. I feel like my movement really connects to the martial arts posture—the aggression and dynamics, the use of space and the sharpness.
How does choreographing for theater differ from choreographing for TV?
One of the reasons I moved to New York was to work in theater. It’s an artistic shift, but I am falling in love with the process more every day. Plays and musicals take a long time to build. You revise scripts, change directors, change venues, you start over. Yes, it can take awhile. But it’s about being meticulous and perfecting it before it goes up. That’s the beauty of theater.
Photos by Rose Eichenbaum, Courtesy Dance Teacher