Sonya Tayeh's versatile choreography drives dance symphony at Jacob's Pillow


BECKET — Few choreographers, if any, are as versatile as Sonya Tayeh. The Detroit native emerged as a dance world force through her Emmy-nominated choreography on "So You Think You Can Dance," but her work has also spanned theatrical, musical and non-televised contemporary dance realms.

"I didn't have one focused dream," Tayeh told The Eagle during a Tuesday telephone interview. "I come from the concert world. I have my degree in dance. I come from that side of things, but I never wanted to hold onto one unit. I feel like there's inspiration in so many venues."

Her range has been recognized — in addition to the Emmy nominations, she picked up Lucille Lortel and Obie Awards for her choreography of David Henry Hwang's 2014 dance-play "Kung Fu" — but some detractors feel that excellence requires specialization.

"People want to pigeonhole you in one sphere and say, 'We've been doing this for this many years. Pick a lane.' And ... it's just not something that I can connect with. I just want to collaborate and express myself through dance in different ways," she said.

Tayeh's array of interests will be on full display in "you'll still call me by name," a dance symphony that Jacob's Pillow Dance will host for a series of performances beginning on Wednesday at Doris Duke Theatre. Featuring 10 dancers and six musicians onstage, the 2016 piece comments on society's most intimate relationships through aggressive movements and an accompanying score created by Jo Lampert and indie duo The Bengsons.

"It's about family and the bond that you create cellularly with family, and then when ideas about the world and about yourself shift, how to navigate when that shift [occurs]," Tayeh said.

Inevitably, conflicts arise.

"When you have a problem with one family member, all units kind of get into it with you. All of the family starts to intervene," she said. "So, you see a lot of that in different ways, of how those family members intervene with each other. There's a lot of connecting. There's a lot of gripping, holding on, flailing, trying to navigate how to handle the situation."

The work's title alludes to these relationships' perseverance through different feuds.

"The reason that we titled it that way is to say, 'No matter the strife, I still call you my brother. I still call you my sister, my mother, my father, etcetera, that we are bonded by blood,'" she said.

Tayeh's dances are renowned for their physicality; this dance's subject matter lends itself to feats of athleticism.

"I'm really sad about science sometimes, [that] what goes up must come down. So, I try to suspend and speed up as much as I can, and then I love those sudden stops because that's how it feels when you feel like you don't have that bond anymore," she said. "It's like someone's just pulled the rug from underneath you."

The piece emerged from conversations about family among Tayeh, Lampert and Abigail and Shaun Bengson, who have all collaborated before on musicals. (Lampert, a Lucille Lortel-nominated artist, is also Tayeh's girlfriend.)

Musically, Tayeh said that this performance has the "ebb and flow" of a concert. Working in breaks for the audience isn't easy for her.

"The one thing I have to consciously work on is air because I'm highly physical, so it's hard for me to feel that breath a little bit more. But because there's strife in this piece, it works," she said.

The Wayne State University graduate has long been known for her combative dance style, cultivated from dancing in Detroit's underground scene before she started choreographing on Fox's dance competition show during its fourth season in 2008.

"I learned how to trust my instincts more intensely on 'So You Think You Can Dance' than I have anywhere else because of the pace, because it's so fast. You have like two days [to choreograph 90-second routines]," she said. "And there, I was also able to have an emotional connection or intention behind the piece. Sometimes, it gets a bad rap in terms of having somewhat of a generic tone to it, but it really didn't. I had profound experiences on that show."

Tayeh subsequently choreographed Miley Cyrus' "Gypsy Heart" tour, Kylie Minogue's "Aphrodite" tour and performances by Florence and the Machine. But she also wanted to work on plays. Williamstown Theatre Festival's 2010 musical, "The Last Goodbye," was a starting point; she spent that summer choreographing the production in the bucolic North County town.

"That's what got me to move to New York. I fell in love with [theater]," she said.

Since that time, she has earned acclaim for her work on productions of "Kung Fu," "Hundred Days," "The Lucky Ones" and, most recently, "Moulin Rouge! The Musical," which is in the midst of a run at Boston's Emerson Colonial Theatre.

While she has been focusing on theater lately, Tayeh isn't prepared to settle down with any one particular artistic arena. Her movements are solely married to her individuality.

"It comes down to inspiration. I really love to dance," she said. "I really love to create the way I want, the aesthetic that comes from me."

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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