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EXCLUSIVE TV Goodness Q&A: SYTYCD’s Emmy-Nominated Choreographer Sonya Tayeh [INTERVIEW]

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I’ve been a Sonya Tayeh fan since she appeared on So You Think You Can Dance in season four. I’ve watched the show since the beginning and enjoyed it this entire time, but I feel like she brought a new energy to it that helped me fall in love with it all over again. Known for her visceral and memorable style of dance, Sonya has been nominated for 3 of her routines. We got the chance to talk exclusively with Sonya about how she got started in the business, her inspiration behind her Emmy-nominated pieces and what she’s enjoyed about this season of So You Think You Can Dance.

TV GOODNESS: Congratulations on your Emmy nomination. 

Sonya Tayeh: “Thank you. Thank you very, very much. It’s very exciting.”

TV GOODNESS: Before we talk about the 3 routines, I want to hear more about this dance number you’re putting together for the Emmys. What can you tell me?

Sonya: “Well all I can tell you is that we’re doing it. [Laughs.] We’re meeting a few times a week to talk about concepts and ideas together. We’re all very excited to collaborate. It’s gonna be really awesome and fun and that’s all I know right now honestly. They’re giving us free rein, so we’ll see what happens. I’m excited to work with such amazing choreographers. It’s gonna be so fun. And it’s the first time, so that’s exciting. The first time that the nominations are gonna be on the primetime Emmy awards so it’s pretty exciting.”

TV GOODNESS: As far as the performance goes, will you be dancing or are you casting dancers?

Sonya: “Dancers. Casting dancers.”

TV GOODNESS: Are we ever going to see you dance? A lot of people want to see that.

Sonya: “I don’t know. We’ll have to see. There’ll be some surprises for sure.”

TV GOODNESS: Tell me a little bit about what it’s been like to be on So You Think You Can Dance. 

Sonya: “It’s completely life-changing. It was a dream of mine to be on the show, so when I got the call for it I was so excited and honored to do it. I mean the minute you’re on the show everything shifts ’cause the world sees your work, you know? To be acknowledged and to have the world acknowledge your work and have the non-dancers enjoy your work and say they’re inspired and provoking, it’s just an honor for me. We’re like one big happy family there and I just love that show. It’s really changed everything. It’s shifted my career in so many beautiful ways. It’s pretty awesome.”

TV GOODNESS: Let’s talk about each of the nominated routines. Let’s start with “Possibly Maybe.” Can you tell me about how you picked the song, the story you want to tell and maybe more about the process?

Sonya: “We couldn’t approve Bjork‘s music for a while and when I kept trying to get that song she asked me to write a treatment about what the song meant to me, what the lyrics meant. I created this big old treatment of photos and broke the lyrics down to explain to her how I felt about the song and what the intention behind that piece was going to be. And she said yes. She is my hero. She is my all-time favorite artist. Something comes over me when I choreograph to her stuff. Having Allison [Holker] and Cole [Horibe], these amazing dancers, was just a dream. They worked so hard and they’re so talented. They have such depth in their craft that relating to this deep intention was really intense. It was about this desperate woman who lacks in self-worth and is feeling worthless in all aspects and begging for this love that I don’t even know if she knew that she needed. She just felt like she did. This really cold, disconnected man who is entertained by power, by feeling power, by feeling powerful by someone’s weakness. So it’s very deep and dark and it was a dream. It’s one that sticks to me, in all forms: the dancers, the music, the intention. I’ve been those two characters before in my life and I’ve loved working with Allison and Cole and I loved creating to Bjork’s music, so it was just a dream.”

TV GOODNESS: How about for “Sail.”

Sonya: “Sail were these two crazy ladies, these little powerhouses [Audrey Case and Tiffany Maher]. They’re just so strong in their facility and so athletic and they’re so willing to be open. The piece is really about being strong and athletic and excelling in their craft and excelling in their facility and showing their strength and showing them off. If was very show off-y, if you will. It was a trio at first and one of the girls got injured, so having them learn that so fast was insane to me. They really had to start over and they learned it so fast. They were so open. They didn’t distract. It was just amazing. I love those little girls. I call them the firecrackers, they’re just two firecrackers.”

TV GOODNESS: How about for “Turning Page.”

Sonya: “Turning Page was this idea of, I kept thinking about when you love something and you just celebrate it, about the power of possibility of love lasting forever. Whatever forever is. Just this sense of feeling content and happy and in love and not worrying. It’s a celebration of happiness and a celebration of love. Tiffany and George [Lawrence II] just did it so eloquently. It was just so light and seamless to me. It was just like a celebration between the two and you could tell when they had their solos, they were really expressing that and it was nice. It was a nice release for me.”

TV GOODNESS: When you pick the music and put the choreography to it, at what point do you know which dancers you’ll be getting for the piece?

Sonya: “The night before we start.”

TV GOODNESS: Wow. Do you ever have to modify anything when you’re in rehearsals with them to play up their strengths?

Sonya: “Yes. I always call it adjusting. I don’t like to say modify for some reason, I feel like it’s a matter of shifting it. It’s adjusting to their strengths. I like to play off of what their strengths are and who they are as human beings and who they are as dancers and then from there we build the piece. I prepare the piece before I get there, but I also leave a bunch of holes so they could feel like I’m putting them in it and we’re creating this together and they feel a part of it. I like to do that. There’s definitely some adjusting. There’s lots of dancers that have never had that type of style before or it doesn’t suit their body, or one way looks better and we build off of it. But I always have a base to start.”

TV GOODNESS: What have been your favorite pieces to choreograph or see performed?

Sonya: “I don’t have a favorite. Is that bad?”

TV GOODNESS: No. That’s ok.

Sonya: “I really don’t. I love everything. I’m really proud of my body of work. They’re all really amazing experiences, even when they’re hard, such a learning experience for me.”

TV GOODNESS: Who have been your favorite dancers or who has really surprised you throughout the season you’ve been on the show?

Sonya: “That’s a tough one. Who surprised me? That’s a tough one. It’s so tough ’cause they’re all amazing. I hate this part.”

TV GOODNESS: I won’t make you play favorites, just ruminate on that one. I should’ve asked you this earlier. How did you get started in the business? What made you want to do this?

Sonya: “I knew I wanted to be a choreographer at a young age. I just knew, I fell in love with it. I got a late start when I was in my teen years, but I just knew that I wanted to be a choreographer. I went to school, I got my degree in dance, my bachelor’s in dance. I went to the University of Detroit and then I went to San Francisco and worked with some companies there. I moved to LA when I was 30. By the time I moved there I knew what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to choreograph commercially and delve into the culture of dance and work to be versatile and be consistent at working. When I got there I had my own show. I rounded up a bunch of my favorite dancers had my own show called ‘The Root of Me’ and an agency I wanted to sign me happened to be there and they signed me. [I] told them what I wanted to do, told them I loved So You Think You Can Dance and then I got it a month later. It was just explosive. Everything shifted from there.”

TV GOODNESS: Did you know early on that you wanted to focus on Jazz and Contemporary or did that come later?

Sonya: “It’s a mixture. In the show it’s a genre, but I feel like I’m a mixture of sorts. I took a lot of time exploring the way I wanted to move. It’s kind of a hodgepodge of my approach to things. In terms of being dynamic, I love the Contemporary side of being open and the Jazz side of dynamics. I love athletic movement, full-bodied movement.”

TV GOODNESS: What do you have coming up and what would your dream project be?

Sonya: “I have a rock musical in the works called, ‘The Last Goodbye.’ It’s directed by Alex Timbers and the music is by Jeff Buckley. It’s Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliette. It will be at the Old Globe in San Diego. That’s been a dream for me. That’s the one I’ve been holding onto for three years now. I’m also working on a play called, ‘Kung Fu’ and Cole is the lead. It’s about Bruce Lee’s life. I just moved to New York. My dream is to indulge in theater more.”

TV GOODNESS: That’s a good place for it. I’m gonna go back to your favorite dancer question, but maybe just tell me one or two dancers who surprised you for whatever reason.

Sonya: “I think this year Malece [Miller] really surprised me. It’s been a tough road and she really progressed and was open to learning. We got really emotional about life, which I found shifted her approach to dancing which was really great.”

TV GOODNESS: I like that answer. Is there anything else that been different or interesting about the show this season?

Sonya: “They’re very versatile. They all carry a different type of strength. They’re younger too.”

TV GOODNESS: And it seems like they’re getting better and better every year.

Sonya: “Oh yeah. And they really all have this really great drive…oh, wait. You know who really surprised me?”

TV GOODNESS: Who?

Sonya:Fik-Shun.”

TV GOODNESS: Yes, he’s been so good.

Sonya: “That’s the one. Fik-Shun. For sure.”

TV GOODNESS: He’s been surprising in such a great way.

Sonya: “Yeah. He’s crazy good.”

TV GOODNESS: Any final thoughts?

Sonya: “I just feel super honored and grateful to be nominated. It’s a dream to be on the show and this is just a fun bonus. To work with great choreographers and to perform, I’m just excited to be there.”

TV GOODNESS: I wish you the best of luck. I’m eagerly anticipating the Emmy dance performance and I’m rooting for you.

Sonya: “Thanks so much.”

So You Think You Can Dance airs Tuesdays at 8/7c on Fox. The 65th Emmy Awards will air Sunday, September 22nd at 8/7c on CBS.

Edited for space and content.

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