SYTYCD Vets Sonya Tayeh, Allison Holker on Creating Emmys' Big Dance Number
Sonya Tayeh, Allison Holker
Dance is hoofing on up in the world.
For the first time ever, the award for Outstanding Choreography will be presented at the Primetime Emmy Awards ceremony Sunday night (8 pm ET / 5 pm PT, CBS), accompanied by a big dance number created by the nominated choreographers. "We were all freaking out," Sonya Tayeh, who received a nod for her moody and mesmerizing routines on So You Think You Can Dance, tells TVGuide.com. "It's just such a real honor to be there and also to show our work together as a collaboration. It's amazing."
All the Emmy nominees
Previously, the category was relegated to the Creative Arts Emmys ceremony, which is not broadcast live. (This year's Creative Arts Emmys airs Saturday at 9/8c on FXX.) Former So You Think You Can Dance contestant Allison Holker -- who is featured in one of Tayeh's dances and is nominated for her own choreography on Dancing with the Stars -- credits Emmys host Neil Patrick Harris for the recognition. "Neil Patrick Harris is one of the biggest supporters of dance," she says. "To be honored on such a high scale, it's because of supporters like him why the Emmys is taking us so seriously. The dance world has taken off and grown, just like it used to be in the Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Cyd Charisse time. I feel like that is our time now."
Tayeh and Hollker, the latter of whom collaborated with Derek Hough for her showstopping Dancing number, join an impressive list of nominees: Warren Carlyle for Live From the Lincoln Center: Carousel, So You Think You Can Dance choreographers Mandy Jo Moore, Travis Wall, Napoleon and Tabitha D'umo (aka Nappy Tabs), and Hough, who scored a second nomination for his individual work on Dancing. Together, this group will collaborate on a big number that will also incorporate Harris. "He has a really big job that evening, so we're not trying to make it too extensive, but also to present him in a way because he's an amazing performer anyway," Tayeh says. "It's not going to be this huge thing where we throw him into the thousands of dancers that will be there. It's suited around his needs and what he wants to do."
Adds Holker, "Neil Patrick Harris was so ecstatic to see what all of us would create together, and he really wanted to be hands-on with the experience with us. He's so excited, and it's so cute to see how excited he is."
Check out the rest of the interview with Tayeh and Holker for more on the Emmys dance, insights into their nominated routines and more:
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What was the game plan to create this Emmys dance piece with the other choreographers? You've collaborated before, but not on this level.
Sonya Tayeh: We decided to meet once a week. I'm in San Diego doing a show so I've been up every other week. So we all Skyped in with the producers for the Emmys to figure out how to build this piece, and then we're doing this together, but we're also doing our own section. We threw all of our ideas together and came up with one big idea. We have rehearsals in the middle of September, right before the Emmys happen.
Allison Holker: The difficulty is not necessarily the process. Dancers and choreographers are really good at compromise. That's what we do best. But what we have found is that all the choreographers are so busy, so it's the time.
Will you be performing yourself as part of the big Emmys dance?
Holker: I can't tell you how we'll be in the piece, but I'll say you will see all of us throughout the number, which I think is super-exciting. We're doing a lot of different things and repping the dance world and ourselves. Then we'll be presenting after.
Were you able to get some of your favorite dancers into the piece also?
Holker: Yes. But most people will probably expect to see tWitch since he is my fiance, but he'll be filming Step Up 5, so you will not see tWitch at the Emmys. I was disappointed, and Nappy Tabs wanted him too, but there will be some other familiar faces from our TV shows.
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Let's shift to your nominated routines. Sonya, what's the backstory with Bjork approving the use of her song "Possibly Maybe" for the routine featuring SYTYCD Season 9 contestant Cole and Allison?
Tayeh: It was impossible to get Bjork to approve any music, but I try every season. She's my ultimate hero. I asked again, and then finally her manager said that she wanted me to write a little treatment about the piece, what the song meant to me. So I wrote it down -- and of course it was dramatic and long and I sent her a bunch of images. She approved it. Then there came the pressure because I love her music, but I get terrified to choreograph to it because it's so good. But she saw it and sent a really great thank-you letter.
What does Allison bring to the routine? We hear all the choreographers fight over her.
Tayeh: Allison is an amazing artist all around. We connect on this really crazy level. She's really honest in the way she dances. She's lived a lot of life, and there's not one particle in her body that's contrived when she moves. She becomes the character that you ask for. ... She works beautifully with her partner, she's selfless in her approach to dancing, and she loves dancing. She's one of the most fearless dancers that I know. I could talk all day about Allison. She dances from her gut.
Allison, what was it like to perform this routine, in which you play a woman who is hopelessly devoted to this soulless and cruel man (Cole)?
Holker: It was one of my favorite dances of all time. Working with Sonya Tayeh has completely changed my life as a dancer and a choreographer. That number pushed me beyond my whole belief of being an actor and a dancer. I found myself so enthralled and so committed to that character that I would come home still in the character after rehearsal. ... I had to tell my fiance at the time, "Listen, I'm not going to be able to talk to you this week because my character is with a guy who is demeaning and so controlling and is a terrible person." Every day I got deeper into it and more angry at Cole to the point that I couldn't talk to him, I couldn't look at him. ... I thank Sonya every day for that experience.
Watch the intense and powerful "Possibly Maybe" below:
Sonya, what was the trickiest thing about "Sail," which to us looked like synchronized swimming, but on land.
Tayeh: [Laughs] Oh wow, cool. I've never heard that before. That's pretty awesome. There were many tricky things about that one. The first was that it was supposed to be a trio, but one girl got injured, so she couldn't dance, so I had to make it into a duet very fast. But Audrey and Tiffany, I call them them the little firecrackers because they're like spitfires and have an amazing approach to athleticism and dancing. You can have an emotional connection to dancing athletically, especially as a lady, and I wanted to show them off. So we made it very physical, and this hooked in terms of the unison and the dynamic and the partnering. It was very fun to make because of the art of their facility.
Check out the athletic "Sail":
Finally, Sonya, you also submitted "Turning Page," which SYTYCD producer Nigel Lythgoe said showed off your more romantic side. How have you changed as a choreographer to this point?
Tayeh: I'm in tune with myself in terms of what I'm going through and I express accordingly. I think that when I heard that song, it made me think about the moment when you're in love and you feel that desire to celebrate it and not be afraid of it and not resist it. That you just want to express this emotion you have with this person, express this feeling of your mortality when you're in love. It's fragile, you're in love and you never want it to end. That was the base of it, wanting it to last forever.
Feel the love with "Turning Page":
Allison, you and Derek showed off your choreography skills with an insane routine. How did that all come about, especially with the slow-motion and rain effects?
Holker: We approached Dancing with the Stars producers with a million ideas, and they decided to allow us to use a slow-motion camera, which in the history of TV, no one has ever used a slow-motion camera live. It's actually very difficult to choreograph. You have to minus seconds out of your choreography... Also if you use a slow-motion camera and have bad timing, that could be a bad bum shot. They could have caught us taking off at the wrong time, and you have to live with that moment for eight seconds. You're really exposing yourself as a dancer and you can't really make up for a loss. We also had it rain on us, which was absolutely incredible. I think it's anyone anyone's dream to be in a Nicholas Sparks film. I feel like that's what we kind of did with this. We had slow-motion cameras, the romantic element and it rained on us. We just did it live. We took so many risks.
Witness the craziness of "Heart Cry" here:
Allison, how does being a mother affect your choreography?
Holker: Being a mother has improved my life and my choreography and my dancing 100 percent. Before being a mom, I think you never ever experience life at its fullest until you have something that you have to fully take care of and keep on your own, without the help of anyone else. ... I'm also a lot more relaxed in creating. Sometimes when you're younger and you're creating, you question yourself a lot. As a mother, I've learned that I can't question myself, I need to go with my gut feeling and go with what I believe in. That's what I do best. I have more direction now.
Does your daughter Weslie dance yet?
Holker: Yes, she does, but she thinks contemporary is boring, unfortunately. But what she does love is hip-hop. In fact, my daughter's name is B-girl Wes. My daughter has these gloves. They're actually her bicycle gloves, but she turns them into her b-girl gloves. When she puts these on, it transforms who she is. She'll become this totally different girl. She'll go from wearing dresses with heels, and the moment she puts these magical gloves on, she becomes this total tomboy that does hip-hop. She walks with a different slant in her legs. She's a b-girl all of a sudden. It's so crazy!
Sonya, you've mentioned this San Diego project, The Last Goodbye. Could you describe what that is and what you're doing for it?
Tayeh: Michael Kimmel was the director, but now he's the conceiver, and the director is Alex Timbers. It's been a six-year project. It's the Shakespeare story Romeo & Juliet, set to Jeff Buckley's music. Immediately, when I heard that, I was totally sold. It's been a battle to stay when they changed directors. I had to re-audition again for the show. After a workshop it usually takes a year to see where it's going to go, but The Old Globe called us immediately and said that they wanted us. So now we're here, and we open for previews Sept. 22. We actually open on Oct. 6. It's a pretty magical show. It has dancing in a sense and a gestural move for storytelling.
Let me get this straight -- previews start on Emmys day?
Tayeh: Yep, I miss the first preview of it. Alex has been amazing because I was definitely afraid to tell him that I'll be missing it, but he was like, "This is such an honor. You need to be there. We'll take care of it." I'm back the next day.
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Who will be your Emmys date?
Holker: My Emmys date is my manager, my other biggest supporter ever. His name is Nelson Diaz. He is a huge part of my career, a huge supporter and a family friend, so it was the perfect fit to bring him along.
Tayeh: I'm just totally stoked to take my mother with me. I live in New York, and she lives in Detroit, so I'm flying her here and we're going to get all dolled up and take a limo there.
Have you already planned what you'll wear?
Tayeh: Yes! Jay McCarroll, the winner of Project Runway Season 1, is making me a suit. I've been a fan of his forever, so when I got this, I called him immediately. Chris Habana, this amazing jewelry designer is making me jewelry.
The 65th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards will air live at 8 pm ET / 5 pm PT on CBS.
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