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Sonya Tayeh is A Dance Force to Be Reckoned With

Tayeh leads her contemporary jazz class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in L.A. Photos by Rose Eichenbaum

One look at Sonya Tayeh and any casual observer would know that this choreographer is far from ordinary. Not only do her jet-black Mohawk and punk-inspired style make an indelible statement, but she's also instantly recognizable as a staple on “So You Think You Can Dance." Having designed memorable pieces like Season 4's “The Garden" and Season 7's “Hallelujah," Tayeh has swiftly become a fan favorite. “People stop me everywhere I go—from the airport to 7-Eleven," she says, “because they love the show."

It's not hard to see why she attracts so much attention. Her essence is pure Detroit-edge-meets-arty-San-Francisco. But more than Tayeh's personal flair, it's her style of movement—along with a compelling empathy for dancers and selfless passion—that puts her in demand everywhere from the convention floor to off-Broadway to the “SYTYCD" stage.


Finding Her Voice

Though Tayeh always considered herself a choreographer, she didn't receive any formal training until college. “I took a ballet class or two as a kid, but it didn't stick," she says. Instead, she immersed herself in Detroit's eclectic art and music scene while growing up, and she read books about legends like Isadora Duncan and Alvin Ailey. At 15, she started regularly attending underground parties her sister would bring her to, a surrounding she found compatible with her unique dance sensibilities. “That was when it was all about the music," she says. “The scene was insane; I remember watching people dancing and getting so inspired."

As a student at Henry Ford Community College in Dearborn, Michigan, 17-year-old Tayeh connected with department head Diane Mancinelli, who introduced her to classical modern dance and ballet. “We would sit in her office and talk about dance. She always gave me anatomy books," says Tayeh. “She was so one-on-one with me, and that was when I started falling in love with movement."

Later, at Wayne State University, Tayeh found another mentor in Professor Erica Wilson-Perkins, whose independent dance company, Counter Groove, Tayeh joined. “Erica had her own jazz technique; it was so inventive and so grounded, super avant-garde," says Tayeh, who recalls choreography set to underground Detroit techno and Chicago house music, and movement that was fierce rather than feminine.

It was the Counter Groove experience that planted the seed for Tayeh's own distinctive dance style, which she calls “combat jazz." Characterized by forceful, “warrior-like" movement, Tayeh says it's about “demanding your own voice and being an aggressive woman." What she most admired about her mentors was that each paid attention to classical form yet retained their own individuality. “That's why I'm so adamant about having my own voice," she says. “It's the root and the regimen of the way I teach class and the way I choreograph."

Manifest Destiny

After graduating from Wayne State at 25, Tayeh settled briefly in Los Angeles before ultimately putting down roots in San Francisco, where she began working with close friend Chris Jacobsen and The Dance Company of San Francisco (which prophetically enough included future “SYTYCD" contestants Melody Lacayanga and Nick Lazzarini). While co-directing the company, Tayeh was able to further shape and define her emerging idea of combat jazz.

“It was such an experimental time for me; Chris gave me the space to create and explore," she says. “I'd lock myself in the studio, and classical movements mixed with Detroit house 3 a.m. club [dancing] would come out of my body. I kept thinking, 'Why can't I put these two together?' It was forceful, undulating, usually to really bass-y music—very sharp and asymmetrical."

“I will be with students until they get it," says Tayeh.

Four years later, when Jacobsen shuttered the company in 2007, Tayeh decided to make the leap to Los Angeles. Though the first 10 months were rocky, the turning point came when she decided to put up her production, “The Root of Me," at El Portal Theater in North Hollywood. Using her own money, Tayeh flew dancers out (many of whom stayed on her living room floor) and held rehearsals nearly every day for eight weeks. She debuted part of the show at Choreographers' Carnival, an influential dance showcase. “Andrew Jacobs from MSA [talent agency] happened to be there, saw the piece and loved it," says Tayeh. “He called me in for a meeting the next day, and the day after the show, they signed me."

Three months later, her agent successfully submitted her for the “SYTYCD" gig. “My whole life changed," says Tayeh. “I knew it would be a ladder for me to do other things, and I want the world to know me."

Indeed, Tayeh is now firmly ensconced among the ranks of established “SYTYCD" choreographers like Mia Michaels, Tyce Diorio and Mandy Moore. Her pieces have received consistently positive feedback from the judges. Executive producer Nigel Lythgoe called Tayeh's “Tore My Heart" his favorite of Season 6, deeming it “brilliance of a different class." Yet she remains down-to-earth in the midst of it all. “Everyone else drives onto the lot with their Bentleys and Range Rovers, and I pull up with my Honda and am like, 'Hi!'" she laughs.

Also distinguishing her from other choreographers is her can't-miss appearance. Tayeh's sense of style is uniquely her own. “I never even knew I had a 'look' until people said I did; I've been cutting my own hair since I was 15," she says. She was completely bald in college and has been sporting her signature Mohawk since 2003.

Reflecting on her time with the show, Tayeh is most grateful for its role in her evolution as an artist. “I've never been one to do super-conceptual or storyboard-style pieces, but this has changed me," she says. “The show has made me realize I have an emotional drive to my choreography."

Creating Her Legacy

Though increasingly busy thanks to “SYTYCD" and her work in both commercial and concert dance, Tayeh still finds time for her first love: teaching. In Los Angeles, she's on the faculty of EDGE Performing Arts Center and also teaches part-time and sets pieces at Loyola Marymount University. She teaches master classes nationwide and for conventions like NUVO and Hall of Fame. “To me, instruction is key—I always think that these are the students who will teach my children," she says. “I really believe in the work of it."

It shows, says Liz Schmidt, artistic director of Chesterfield, MI–based Spotlight Dance Works. A former WSU classmate, Schmidt has enlisted Tayeh annually since 2006 to guest teach and choreograph competition pieces for the studio. “She's a motivator, with extreme creativity, control and power," says Schmidt. “Put that together with her energy, spirit and warmth, and people just respond. They do things they never thought they could do."

So what's Tayeh's secret to inspiring dancers? According to her, it's her words and the intention in her voice. “It's how loud I get, how passionate I am," she says. “I'm always really forceful and engaged. They then emulate that with their bodies." She adds that her choreography is intentionally grounded and sharp, designed to help dancers develop power and strength. To that end, she begins classes with a lengthy, athletic warm-up filled with yoga-esque moves like side plank poses and chaturanga pushups, set to 8-counts and designed to lead directly into the choreography portion. “My warm-up is always a reflection of the combination; my classes are completely cohesive," she says.

Tayeh also uses the warm-up to set a challenging pace for the class to follow, encouraging dancers to channel their energy and using phrases like “Embrace the burn." The movement she teaches requires power and is replete with drops, punctuated movements, floorwork and athletic turns. Once students learn the combinations, they perform them at their own pace within groups—feeling the music rather than being confined to counts. Many students improvise additional partner-work and layer their own emotions onto Tayeh's already “angst-filled" choreography.

Not to say that there's no levity in Tayeh's classes—she often jumps around spastically when students get it right, commenting with “yummy" or “lovely" and nodding emphatically. “I have a streetwise way of explaining things because I know how difficult it was for me at first," she says. “When I didn't have understanding teachers, I would crumble and resist them. I will be with students until they get it."

And she won't settle for less than full commitment. “I say, 'We're all in this together, and this is what I demand—if you're not accepting of it, take a seat.' I won't budge, and I won't take laziness; it's going to be difficult."

It's the same philosophy she applies to herself, constantly striving for new challenges. This summer, she choreographed The Last Goodbye, a Romeo and Juliet–inspired rock musical featuring the music of Jeff Buckley. The production got rave reviews at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts. “We received standing ovations every day for two weeks," she says. “Coming home, I felt like a completely different choreographer. I'd like to venture into more theater—I'm really enjoying where this path is going."

Not surprisingly, Tayeh finds inspiration in two choreographers who have taken their talents to Broadway: Twyla Tharp and Bill T. Jones. Of Jones, she says, “He is an utter genius, and when I met him, I cried my eyes out. That's the life I dream of—creating quality choreography both commercially and concert-based, staying true to myself and doing amazing, timeless work."

Dancer Diary
Claire, McAdams, courtesy Houston Ballet

Former Houston Ballet dancer Chun Wai Chan has always been destined for New York City Ballet.

While competing at Prix de Lausanne in 2010, he was offered summer program scholarships at both the School of American Ballet and Houston Ballet. However, because two of the competition's winners that year were Houston Ballet's Aaron Sharratt and Liao Xiang, dancers Chan idolized, he turned down SAB. He joined Houston Ballet II in 2010, the main company's corps de ballet in 2012, and was promoted to principal in 2017. Oozing confidence and technical prowess, Chan was a Houston favorite, and even landed himself a spot on Dance Magazine's "25 to Watch."


In 2019, NYCB came calling: Resident choreographer Justin Peck visited Houston Ballet to set a new work titled Reflections. Peck immediately took to Chan and passed his praises on to NYCB artistic director Jonathan Stafford. Chan was invited to take class with NYCB for three days in January 2020, and shortly thereafter was offered a soloist contract.

The plan was to announce his hiring in the spring for the fall season that typically begins in September, but, of course, coronavirus postponed the opportunity to next year. Chan is currently riding out the pandemic in Huizhou, Guangdong, China, where he was born and trained at the Guangzhou Art School.

We talked to Chan about his training journey—and the teachers, corrections and experiences that got him to NYCB.

On the most helpful correction he's ever gotten:

"Work smart, then work hard to keep your body healthy. Most of us get injuries when we're tired. When I first joined Houston Ballet, I was pushing myself 100 percent every day, at every show, rehearsal and class. That's when I got injured [a torn thumb ligament, tendinitis and a sprained ankle.] At that time, my director taught me that we all have to work hard, memorize the steps and take corrections, but it's better to think first because your energy is limited."

How it's benefited his career since:

"It's the secret to me getting promoted to principal very quickly. When other dancers were injured or couldn't perform, I was healthy and could step up to fill a higher role than my position. I still get small injuries, but I know how to take care of them now, and when it's OK to gamble a little."

Chan, wearing grey pants and a grey one-sleeved top, partners Jessica Collado, as she arches her back and leans to the side. Other dancers behind them are dressed as an army of some sort

Chun Wai Chan with Jessica Collado. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, courtesy Houston Ballet

On his most influential teacher:

"Claudio Muñoz, from Houston Ballet Academy. The first summer intensive there I couldn't even lift the lightest girls. A month later, my pas de deux skills improved so much. I never imagined I could lift a girl so many times. A year later I could do all the tricky pas tricks. That's all because of Claudio. He also taught me how to dance in contemporary, and act all kinds of characters."

How he gained strength for partnering:

"I did a lot of push-ups. Claudio recommended dancers go to the gym. We don't have those kinds of traditions in China, but after Houston Ballet, going to the gym has become a habit."

On his YouTube channel:

"I started a YouTube channel, where I could give ballet tutorials. Many male students only have female teachers, and they are missing out on the guy's perspective on jumps and partnering. I give those tips online because they are what I would have wanted. My goal is to help students have strong technique so they are able to enjoy the stage as much as they can."

Music
Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.


"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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