Five slender women in flesh-toned leotards emerge from shadows into powerful spotlights. They unpin their ballet buns. Long brown, black and blond hair cascades down.
Leaning toward the audience, they sweep their hair over their faces; for most of the next 20 minutes, Los Angeles Ballet's classically trained ballerinas dance with their hair covering their faces during a dress rehearsal for Sonya Tayeh's Beneath One's Dignity, her fourth LAB commission. It's one of two world premieres and two company premieres in LAB's Quartet, onstage at Glendale's Alex Theater this Saturday and UCLA's Royce Hall next week.
Tayeh first drew widespread attention for her ferocious combat-jazz choreography on television's So You Think You Can Dance, but she has been extending her artistic horizons since her first LAB commission enhanced her cred as a multifaceted choreographer. She relocated to New York City to choreograph Kung Fu, an off-Broadway musical bio about martial arts movie legend Bruce Lee, but returned to create Beneath One's Dignity for LAB.]
Known for her own distinctive, often asymmetrical hair – sometimes shaved, sometimes punctuated with red and blue – Tayeh keeps her long, wavy dark mane pulled to one side, low-key for her, as she watches the dress rehearsal. When her dance ends, Tayeh bounds onto the stage. As she gives the dancers notes, her flannel shirt and combat boots contrast starkly with the women in their flesh-colored leotards and the quintet of men in diaphanous, long black skirts. During the ballet, the women don dresses in the same black see-through material, but at this moment the dresses lie crumpled around the stage, shed and kicked away by the women, with the men repeatedly retrieving and throwing the dresses back at the women, who continue to furiously kick the dresses away. In the final moments, they finally move their hair away from their faces.
After notes, in an interview, Tayeh talks about the hair and the dresses as props.
“My starting point was in the title; acts or behaviors I've done, sometimes repeatedly, that I felt uncomfortable about or even shame, things beneath my dignity, but that I found myself repeating and the shields I built up to hide behind to protect myself and keep going,” Tayeh explains. “I wanted the women to start out like newborns but then put on the dress, develop the emotions and the realization of something demeaning, something beneath their dignity. The hair is like a protective mask – they want to go without it but retreat behind the hair for protection.”
Tayeh says she knew working with their hair in their face was asking a lot of the dancers. “Dancing blind” was LAB principal dancer Alyssa Bross' description.”But we have come to trust Sonya,” Bross adds. “Many ballet choreographers come in, tell us the steps, turn on the music and we dance. Sonya certainly has a direction in mind, but she wants feedback. She asks us to try things and then asks what we need to be comfortable to take it further. Finding that comfort level with her allows us to find the forceful movement and even more powerful emotional levels she wants from our dancing.”
The hair made unison dancing particularly difficult. “Working with the music helped, and Sonya developed breathing cues, so we were listening to each other rather than relying on visual cues,” Bross explains.
The next night at the premiere, the audience cheers. Tayeh is pleased. “I had a tear in my eye,” she admits. “The dancers captured my struggle and I feel I can make my own positive changes.” Like her dancers, kicking the dress away.
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