Dancing her life away

By Dancing Times |  December 1, 2021

Choreographer Sonya Tayeh speaks to Nicola Rayner about her work on Moulin Rouge! The Musical, which has just opened in London’s West End.

Choreographer Sonya Tayeh speaks to Nicola Rayner about her work on Moulin Rouge! The Musical, which has just opened in London’s West End.

The tagline for Moulin Rouge! The Musical, now showing in London’s Piccadilly Theatre, is “Truth, Beauty, Freedom, Love”. The same four words are reminiscent of the club culture of the 1990s in which choreographer Sonya Tayeh danced through her formative years. Born in New York and raised in Detroit, the daughter of a Lebanese mother and Palestinian father, she started frequenting underground dance parties as a teenager. “They were in warehouses, old rundown train stations, huge parking lots or underneath bridges,” she explains.

            “There were these really beautiful rundown old buildings and a DJ – or many DJs – and huge speakers and just a bunch of people trying to understand themselves and each other, before it got a little scary with the substance stuff. It was really about the music and feeling. I remember just looking out through the sea of people and I had so many friends who were DJs and I fell in love there, fell out of love there, found myself, lost myself – all of that stuff happened in those places.

            “When you come from a place like Detroit, the history, what happened there and the rebuilding of it. It’s a really beautiful thing to have instilled in your soul – how to rebuild – and to understand that standing with community is stronger than standing alone. I think that’s one of the many reasons why I love collaborating.”

            Which ties in nicely to Moulin Rouge! – a story about artists coming together in the late 19th century.

            “Exactly, yes.” The stage musical is based on Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 film, a jukebox musical take on Puccini’s opera La bohème, which featured Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor as star-crossed lovers – Satine, the star of the Moulin Rouge, and English poet Christian. The film was a huge commercial and critical success, grossing over $179 million and acquiring eight Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture.

            Taking its name from one of the world’s best-known dance and cabaret venues, it’s also a musical in which movement has a significant role to play. What were the challenges of recreating it on stage? “My sensibility is highly physical action, invention and sudden speed,” notes Tayeh. “So that was one of the really big driving forces of inspiration in the movie – the whip pans and the Steadicams and all of the aesthetic that Baz does, having the swiftness in the cuts of the editing and the way the cameras shift. I feel he invented that type of form, or evolved that type of form.

            “That was the baseline inspiration: how to do that through the body; how to mess with momentum and high speed and then sudden shifts and stops just to keep that intensity going. I really enjoy that type of physicality – I love the hyperphysicality – and I love the art of challenging the science behind the momentum and suspension and use of the floor and full body motion – I really enjoy pushing the body.”

Well-known for her work on So You Think You Can Dance, for which she has been nominated for a couple of Emmy Awards, Tayeh is familiar with the challenges of presenting dance differently on stage and screen. “You don’t have a lot of depth on a flat screen,” she says, “so you’re focusing on a way in which to choreograph so that you can feel the energy and the emotion through the screen, but then, when you’re in a theatre experience, it’s a totally different type of energy.”

            She won a Tony for her choreography on Moulin Rouge! on Broadway – can she pick any favourite moments from the show? “I love the whole thing. I know that’s very general – sorry! – but I just love the show so much. I’m so proud of all my colleagues and what we’ve done but I really love how the audience responds to the opening of ‘Backstage Romance’ and ‘Roxanne’, too.”

            I’m interested to hear more about ‘El Tango de Roxanne’ because it’s such a well-known – and often imitated – number. What sorts of things was she thinking about as she created it? “The narrative structure of it – we’re at a place where Christian is running through the streets of Paris in the rain – that’s what I pictured, just like the movie – trying to get to Satine and to hold on to this love that feels like it’s slipping from his hands. You have all of that hot-blooded tension, and that rigorous desire, and you have danger, so those were a lot of my inspirations in the piece and you have this beautiful synergy inside of it, where these performers have the voice in their bodies to drive the narrative. That’s one of the other reasons why I love Moulin Rouge! because it allows dance to carry the story, because dance can do that. It’s frustrating that we’re still in a world where that’s in question sometimes.”

            The routine is an exploration of desire, jealousy and power dynamics with Nini, one of the Moulin Rouge dancers, at the centre of it, being pushed and pulled between multiple male partners. How do you handle such material sensitively? “What’s beautiful about ‘Roxanne’ is that she’s leading that. I see the world as all spectrums of people, in terms of not just male-female; that’s how my brain works, in the space and in the world… When I think about love, I think about being irrational, having a wild sensibility, and the want and the desire – that’s what Nini really carries inside of Moulin Rouge! and inside of ‘Roxanne’, pushing and being pulled and pushed through this experience, and that’s how Christian sees this moment in time with the Duke and Satine.

            “It’s really hot-blooded, but I teach that there’s an ownership there anytime you’re partnering and anytime there’s aggression in partnering. I’m very sensitive to that and we talk a lot about it and why there’s that aggression, why there’s that pull and what we’re trying to say to empower both parties to carry the partnering. There’s not a submissive someone and then a strong someone. To partner in the way we do in Moulin Rouge! there needs to be a balance of weight and a shared commitment, which I think is beautiful.”

Tayeh has had a richly varied career, mixing company work with stage shows, television and directing and choreographing for artists as huge as Miley Cyrus, Florence and the Machine, and Kylie Minogue. What have been the highlights? “I can’t pick one because I’m really grateful to jump from one part of my brain to the other. For example, I just left New York, working with a dance company, and the next day I flew here to work back on Moulin Rouge!. You know, the one thing I want to feel being on this earth – and I don’t mean to sound hyperpoetic, but it’s the truth – is the aliveness. Just being able to use my mind and have my mind celebrated in terms of collaborating with people that I love. Even more after this year. I can’t say it enough: it just feels dreamy to be able to dance my life away.”

            Her route into the industry was unusual. “I was a big old club kid in the underground dance scene in Detroit, where house and techno music were what saved a lot of us as artists.” She came to formal dance training late, didn’t she? “I don’t know,” she says thoughtfully. “I think we put timeframes on our thing, the glow we find in our life, and I think I was right on time. I wonder if I would have been able to be here if I’d done it at any other time.

            “It was never easy and it took a lot of work, but I thrive in that effort. When I was trying to get that formal training, I went from studio to studio, and they just kept saying, ‘We don’t know what to do with you – these students, these dancers, have been here since they were three and you’re 16 or 17 years old.’ I just think: how many of me have there been? How many stories are like that? How many artists are we losing, because we think that they’re ‘late’?”

Eventually, she got the break she needed, training formally at Wayne State University in Detroit and graduating from there in 2002 with a bachelor’s degree in Dance. It was at Wayne State that she found a mentor in 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,” Tayeh told DanceTeacher in 2018. The experience planted the seed for her own unique dance style, which she calls “combat jazz”, featuring “warrior-like” movement and focusing on “demanding your own voice and being an aggressive woman”.

            She also credits her fresh style to her unusual route into dance: “I was able to not have all these preconceived notions of what company work should look like or what musical theatre looks like. I don’t have all of that in the back of my mind. I just go in with my guts, and I go in with my life experience… You look at what you’re working on – not ‘So-and-so did that,’ or ‘This is what this show looked like before’ – you ride on your instincts and what you see; how you see the world.”

            Does she still dance at clubs now? “You know, it’s so funny, every time I think about it: I’m 44 now and I was 16 or 17 then. I’d do it and go to school or college the next morning. I’m such a hermit now, such a homebody. I really believe that when you have those life-changing moments and you’re young… I want to leave it there. I can’t even imagine staying up past 9pm.”

            The early nights must help with her hectic schedule. “I spent hundreds of hours – I mean hundreds of hours – in pre-production for Moulin Rouge!; I was living in the studio.” Does she do that work alone? “It’s a mixture: sometimes alone, sometimes with a ton of people, sometimes just a few. It depends on what I need.” She’s never truly alone in her studio, though, because her heroes are always looking over her.

            “I have a loft I live in and that’s my dance space,” she says, “and I have their pictures – Twyla [Tharp], Martha [Graham], Frida [Kahlo] and Björk – because I need those references to remind me that these were women who changed the game and who refused to be something they were told they should be; they pushed forth their own voices… They had to fight, over and over, for their right for their own voice. I’m a tactile, tangible person so I need to have them around to remind me.”