Reimagining a Classic

As a student at Wayne State University, Sonya Tayeh had one of those experiences that seem to change everything: She saw Martha Graham’s seminal solo, Lamentation. Fast-forward a decade or so, and Tayeh is revisiting that defining moment. Fresh off another groundbreaking season on “So You Think You Can Dance,” Tayeh was one of four choreographers chosen by the Martha Graham Dance Company to create a new addition to Lamentation Variations—a series of four-minute pieces inspired by the original.

Several other choreographers, including Larry Keigwin, Aszure Barton and Yvonne Rainer, have made their own Lamentation Variations in the past, and this year’s crop of commissioned dancemakers are Tayeh, Kyle Abraham, Michelle Dorrance and Liz Gerring. Each choreographer is given just 10 hours to complete his or her piece and must start from scratch—pre-planned ideas aren’t allowed.

Dance Spirit caught up with Tayeh to talk about her Variation, which premieres this month at the Joyce Theater in NYC.

Sonya Tayeh working with Martha Graham dancers (photo by Brigid Pierce, courtesy Martha Graham Dance Company)

Dance Spirit: Can you talk about the first time you saw Lamentation?

Sonya Tayeh: My dance history teacher Georgia Reid showed me a video in class. Seeing all the restriction, grief and constraint in the piece—along with its pounding aggression—made me cry. I felt such a visceral connection to the work and to Graham’s idea that dance should make you feel something.

DS: What are you trying to convey in your variation?

ST: This year, I’ve lost two close friends. I’ve been feeling a sense of intense anxiety about getting as much done as I can before everything ends. I’m inspired by the moment when you’re in mourning and you feel stifled, but you tear away all that constraint and say, “Enough is enough.” I see it as a Part 2 of Graham’s Lamentation—if she tore away the fabric and all that weight lifted, what would happen? It’s like being shot out of a rocket.

DS: What is the music?

ST: I’m using a piece by Meredith Monk that consists of all these crazy breathing sounds. When I watch Graham’s original, I feel myself making those kinds of sounds, like my body can’t breathe and I need air. I want my piece to feel like the dancers are out of breath from the beginning. They’re exhausted, running around, trying to get so much done. I’ve been telling the dancers to let the music drive them.

DS: Everyone fell in love with your “SYTYCD” piece for Ricky Ubeda and Jessica Richens, which used Meredith Monk’s “Vow.” What’s your connection to Monk?

ST: I’ve been a huge fan of hers forever. And when my friends passed away, I just kept listening to one of her albums with “Vow” on it. I knew I wanted to use the song for “SYT,” and the producers agreed. I was also looking for music for my Graham piece, and I wrote a letter to Meredith explaining my situation and how I’d love to use her music. She gifted me the two scores. I’d love to work directly with her one day.

DS: What’s next for you?

ST: When I moved to NYC, my plan was to start anew, pay my dues and build my voice as a concert and theater choreographer. So this project, and being mentioned in the same breath as people like Kyle Abraham and Michelle Dorrance, is amazing. I also have a crew of dancers I’ve been working with, and I’d love to get some work commissioned. I’m just really honing in on the NYC dance environment.

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