Many believe art should always emphasize the beautiful and balanced. Can art help us understand and heal our dark side?
Sonya Tayeh is best known as a choreographer on So You Think You Can Dance, but this brilliant dancer, dance teacher and choreographer is enjoying a tremendously varied career, premiering works with the Los Angeles Ballet and the Martha Graham Dance Company, choreographing musicals such as Spring Awakening, The Wild Party, Kung Fu and The Last Goodbye, as well as creating moves for Madonna, Florence and the Machine and Kylie Minogue, among others. You might not realize that this is a career that very nearly didn’t happen.
As a teenager, Sonya was a house dancer. House dancing grew out of the party scene in large cities of the American Northeast, and involves intricate footwork and fluid torso movement that follows the rhythm of the music very closely, punctuating much smaller, subtler details than many forms of dance. It is often improvised and can require a great deal of skill, but it isn’t recognized as a formal dance style. When Sonya realized she wanted to continue dancing in college and beyond, she applied to dance schools, only to be rejected six times on the grounds that she was too old to begin training.
Sonya did not give up, despite the voices that told her she was wasting her time. She graduated from Wayne State University with a B.A. in Dance, blending her previous skills with a knowledge of art history and anatomy as well as new skills gleaned in formal dance performance. Over time, this blend solidified into a new style, one she calls “combat jazz”. Combat jazz retains the intricacy and intensity of house dancing, combining quirky, often aggressive, non-classical movement with elements of more formal dance. It is a striking union, as you can see in her short piece, Baggage.
What is so shocking about this work is its honesty. We see these partners are sometimes baggage for one another, heavy and difficult to move. In turn, we see them treat one another like baggage, slinging each other around and asserting control. How many people, particularly women (but not exclusively), can see this piece and walk away gratified that someone has noticed their struggle?
The jerky, house dance derived movements that are Sonya’s bread and butter highlight the conflict. As opposed to the more refined lines of ballet, they connect with our emotions at a visceral, non-intellectual level. When we look at these dancers, we don’t see performers using their technical skills. We see ourselves.
There are those who say that the aggressive, abusive relationships portrayed in Baggage have no place onstage, that we should spend our time looking at things that are more positive and harmonious. There is value in order and beauty. There is also value in truth. If we are unwilling to see that there is much in human relationships that is controlling and aggressive then how will we confront and deal with that behavior? Performance, with its suspension of reality, gives us a place to work through difficult situations and to recognize and identify human darkness, within and without. It can also give those who have lived through abuse a voice to tell their story, creating opportunities for catharsis, empathy, and healing.
The danger in turning away artists who don’t fit the mold and in censoring art that doesn’t conform to predetermined standards is that we will lose voices that we need to hear, or even worse, that we will become unable to hear at all.
Video via Sonya Tayeh Choreography on YouTube.
Tayeh Dance performing at the El Portal Theatre
Dancers: Cheryl Smith, Adrian Lee, Jill Chu, Will Johnston