Sonya Tayeh: Dancer in Armor

Sonya Hero

For a woman who coined the term “combat jazz,” Sonya Tayeh is quite a softie.

“People think I have more armor than I do,” she says. “Really, I am very sensitive, very shy. I’m very socially awkward. I want to be heard. Things hurt my feelings.”

It’s an understandable misapprehension. From the shaved sides of her hair to the vivid tattoos that snake up her arms, Tayeh comes across as one tough cookie—with a bold dance technique to match. “There’s an underlying aggression to it,” she admits of her style, a pulsing, dynamic blend of pregnant pauses and quick-fire starts. “There’s a physicality that I really enjoy. I love pushing the heart. I love to feel my muscles sore and my body sweat. It’s definitely combative.”

She’s bringing that sucker-punch of passion to the Encores! Off-Center production of The Wild Party. (Sutton Foster and Steven Pasquale play tortured lovers in the manic, brutish Roaring Twenties musical.) “It’s dangerous, it’s violent, it’s sensual, it’s sexy, it’s dark,” she says of Andrew Lippa’s book and score. “The music is astounding, and that makes me want to move. It’s completely stretching me.”

For the show, Tayeh reunited with director Leigh Silverman, whom she worked with last year on the off-Broadway Bruce Lee bio-play Kung Fu. (Tayeh won a Lucille Lortel Award for her choreography.) “I love this process and just wish that it was longer because you just want to immerse yourself in it and you never want it to end,” she gushes. “To be able to be part of it with Leigh is amazing. We are having so much fun in this short amount of time.”

After a brisk two weeks of rehearsals, the show runs July 15-18 at New York City Center. (A frenetic few weeks for Tayeh meant we rescheduled our interview 11 times.) But it’s not her first experience creating on the fly: For the past seven years, she has been a regular guest choreographer on So You Think You Can Dance, teaching contestants 90-second routines in the contemporary category.

“I learned how to work fast, to think ‘first instinct, best instinct,’” she recalls, adding the biggest challenge was creating a connection with her dancers in such a brief period.

Though she’s appearing less often on the show since moving to New York a year and a half ago, the Emmy nominee credits the experience for teaching her to “focus on being myself, standing my ground and keeping my voice in it regardless of people’s opinions.”

Raised by her mother in Detroit, Tayeh has been honing her creative voice for two decades. As a teen, her older sisters turned her on to the city’s underground rave and house music scene. “The music did something to my body,” she says. “At these underground parties, dancing and individual self-expression was the emphasis and so that’s what I based a lot of my dance skill on.”

She studied dance at Wayne State University, graduating with a BFA. “I got a late start but took to it quickly and was obsessed with it.”

After SYTYCD, she landed gigs staging Madonna and Miley Cyrus concerts, but the leap to musical theater has been a natural—if not obvious—move for Tayeh.

In 2010, she got her first taste of the theater when she was asked to choreograph The Last Goodbye at Williamstown Theater Festival. The show, a retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, featured songs by singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley. (Her now-girlfriend, singer Joanna Lampert, played Mercutio in the production.) “It ended up being such a wonderful experience, and I saw there are so many worlds to tap into,” she says. And she was thrilled at the chance to collaborate: “It was a time where I felt really lonely in the dance world. Jumping off ideas and trying things felt really like a wonderland of ideas, and I fell in love with it.”

While concerts could be all about her vision, dance in plays and musicals required serving the story’s journey. “I have to let the body express how the song builds when you can’t find the words,” she explains. “I’m learning a lot about how the body moves when it’s singing loudly and hard. Those are all really amazing challenges.” (Her next challenge will be Euripides’ tragedy Iphigenia in Aulis in September, directed by Rachel Chavkin at Classic Stage Company.)

Like most dancers, the freedom to move dictates much of her wardrobe. Baggy pants, layers and ample black are de rigueur, but Tayeh adds “90s flare” too. Her daily must-haves include big earrings andeye shadow, and she “can’t live without stacks, some sick shoe with height.”

Every night, Tayeh carefully lays out her clothes at the Fort Greene, Brooklyn, apartment she shares with Lampert. It takes forethought to feel effortlessly “messy and put together,” at the same time, she claims. Her bedroom closet is packed with flea market and thrift store finds—and even some picks from her own archives. “I held onto lots of those Buffalo stacks shoes, with the six-inch platforms from the 90s,” she confesses proudly. “My Mom had the biggest pairs in the basement of the house that I grew up in, and she mailed them to me.”

And each project influences her fashion. While doing The Wild Party, she’s found herself gravitating even more to dark and twisty looks, particularly a long, black “trenchy suit coat I wear every day,” Tayeh muses. “I’ve just got to feel funky. It’s important.”

Outside the studio, Tayeh sticks to baggy bottoms but tighter tops—or plots her version of day-to-night dressing. “I change it up or think what I’ll wear to dance and what I’ll wear out, like if I can throw on a heel after I’m done,” she says. “I like to get dressed up.”  If she could afford it, Tayeh would be “totally draped in Comme des Garçons and Rick Owens,” two brands she calls inspirational.

Since she was 16, Tayeh has cut and dyed her own hair. Before honing in on her signature shaved sides and jet-black tone with the occasional colorful accent, she had an “awkward stage” as a rite of passage: “I went completely bald first, then I grew out just the middle.”

But Tayeh always dreamed of having a long, silver Mohawk. At 38, she’s finally finding a few stray greys, she reveals, “which is very exciting for me!”

Perhaps the most eye-catching aspect of Tayeh’s look, especially in the somewhat staid area around City Center (just a few doors down from Carnegie Hall), are the tattoos that run up and down her body. “They all mean something important to me,” she says. “I have pride in them.” One of the most meaningful is the tiger on her right shoulder, an homage to her Palestinian father. She explains, “My father, who passed when I was little, used to call me Tiger.”

Just below the fierce feline is her favorite quote, a lyric from “Crystalline” by Björk: “It’s the sparkle you become when you conquer anxiety.”

“That’s a big one to remember because I really battle anxiety,” she admits, which sounds either unlikely or especially terrifying for someone who pours herself into every dance she crafts. “It’s a very exposing life emotionally and physically.” But Tayeh draws inspiration from the Icelandic singer, who ranks among artist Frida Kahlo and dance legend Martha Graham as her personal heroes. “They were all self-inventors, self-made women who worked really hard and defined their work by their life experience.”

Tayeh’s own life will be on display next year during her New York Live Arts Residency, where she’s doing a biographical performance. “It’s a dream memoir, which is hard to explain,” she says of the piece, which will reflect some of the tension from her personal life. “It’s a work in progress of personal issues and shifts.” The show will have a workshop this fall, followed by a one-week run in the 2016-2017 season.

“I try to approach things in a fearless fashion, but I have many fears,” Tayeh says. “Still, I trust my instincts and know that I have this one life, this one body, so I try to respect and embrace it.”

And the armor crumbles.

Sonya Closing Image

Clothes by Harbison and Sachin and Babi
Shoes by Noah Waxman
Styling by James Brown III
Hair by Aubrey Mae Davis
Make-Up by Steve Schepis