This month’s interview is with talented young choreographer Sienna Lalau. Originally from Hawaii, she moved to LA, eventually becoming a part of The Lab Creative Arts Studio team.
The Lab Creative Arts Studio is home to World Champion dancers; dancers who have performed with global music artists like Rihanna and Cardi B, and on numerous television shows. The team includes the winners of the World of Dance Season 2, featured on the NBC television network in America.
Sienna fast developed her skills, moving from performing to competing. With encouragement, she ventured into choreography after showing promising early signs of talent in this area. Her ability to understand the nuances within the music and lyrics further helped her to create formidable formations and impressive stage dynamics.
Adding to her growing list of accomplishments, Sienna helped to choreograph BTS’ ‘Dionysus’ together with The Lab’s Andrew Elam this year — a song that was included on the Map of the Soul: Persona album. The BTS ARMY were treated to a special stage performance of ‘Dionysus’ on M Countdown as part of BTS’ comeback, complete with capes and props. The choreography was marked by dynamic and powerful movements, and creative use of the stage, showcasing each member at key points of the music. This was no mean feat considering Sienna is still only 18 years old!
You can follow Sienna Lalau on Instagram or learn more about The Lab Creative Arts Studio by clicking on the appropriate links:
The Lab: https://the-lab-creative-arts-studio.myshopify.com/collections/back-to-school-2019
Many thanks go to Sienna for granting us this interview and allowing our readers to learn more about a choreographer’s world.
When did you start dancing and how did you get into choreographing? Were you inspired by anyone or did you simply find it to be an enjoyable way to express yourself?
I started dancing when I was three and a half years old at my home studio in Hawaii, as part of the Hypersquad Dance Company.
I got into choreographing when I was 10 years old with my church hip-hop dance team (Creative Arts Ministry, also known as CAM), that consisted of high school and college students. At that time, I was the only kid on the team. They were looking for a choreographer and since I was the only one with years of dancing experience, the director asked if I would be willing to choreograph for the team. I agreed to give it a try and instantly fell in love with creating.
Ever since I was a child, I have loved to dance. It was a way for me to express myself through music. Growing up, I was inspired by so many people. From my choreographers/mentors at my home studio in Hawaii to the dancers I’d seen on YouTube.
Who did you learn from, or did you find your own way from watching others?
I’m so thankful to have many choreographers who taught me over the years from my home studio in Hawaii. At that time, our studio offered teaching in many styles and set classes based on ages, so I would take the junior level classes, however, I would always sit and watch the senior level classes, too, with amazement at how they would dance. I would often be one of the last kids to leave the studio because I would challenge myself to learn the senior level choreography all while sitting and watching from outside of the studio. I was able to find my own style by watching the older dancers.
What is a typical week like for you? Do you balance your dance activities with school/work?
Since moving and living in LA, and dancing and teaching at The Lab, a typical week for me depends on what we have going on at the studio. If we are in the thick of competition season, we can have rehearsals anywhere between 5-8 hours a day, and as competition day approaches, we can be rehearsing for 10-12 hours a day. If we just have training or are working on certain projects, then we can take shorter rehearsals from 3-8 hours a day.
When I was in school, I definitely had to balance both school and dance, especially with all the international traveling I was doing. It was hard to juggle everything, but I managed and graduated from West Covina High School in 2018.
Is the dance world competitive or is your experience of it largely supportive?
The dance world is both. There is a competitive side, especially if you are trying to audition for a job or participating in a community dance competition, however, from my experience I find the dance world is also supportive. I have witnessed people and teams wish each other luck before auditioning or competing and congratulating each other on their wins or their performances.
What would you say is the most important attribute of being a good dancer and a good choreographer?
The most important attribute of being a good dancer and choreographer is one’s character. A person’s character speaks a lot about someone. A person’s great character can be seen in how they work, how they act, and most importantly how they interact with people. They are also coach-able and teachable and they don’t give back attitude when provided with criticism or corrections. I believe a person’s character is what helps shape a dancer or choreographer into someone whom others can get behind and support.
How did you become involved in putting together a routine for BTS? Had you ever choreographed for pop groups before? What was the process like?
I submitted my choreography for their song ‘Dionysus’ and they loved it so they used it for their comeback special and also on their recent tour. I had done submissions for previous K-pop groups where they incorporated some of my choreography, but this was the first time seeing my entire choreography being used. I was super excited because I’ve been a fan of K-pop music since I was 11 years old.
What initial ideas did you have for the routine, and how do you tend to knit these together? Is there anything you must consider more for a group with many members compared to a smaller number?
Most of the time, I get a theme, or an idea of what people are looking for which helps me to brainstorm. However, there are times where I have to create from scratch. To come up with ideas, I basically would submerge myself into the song, listening to it over and over again, imagining what the singer is trying to portray in the lyrics. This helps me to feel and create ideas. Once I create, I have to consider each dancer’s strengths and capability.
When I’m pressed for time, I need dancers who can learn and execute the moves quickly. Smaller dance groups are easier to work with because you can quickly see how you can add or make changes on the spot. With a large group of dancers, it is more challenging because any changes will have to be considered in the context of how it affects the overall group, especially with regards to formations and transitions.
What is next for you? Will you work with more groups?
I just recently came off a two-month tour with Jennifer Lopez (aka JLo) and it was the best experience ever. JLo wanted to include some of the dancers that competed in her World Of Dance (WOD) competition on NBC in her “Its My Party Tour” and The Lab was fortunate to be included as they were the Season 2 winners. I was blessed to be chosen as one of the dancers to be included on The Lab team for this tour. Although I wasn’t on The Lab team that competed on TV for WOD Season 2, I was part of the team behind the scenes as one of the choreographers during that season.
Being on tour with an artist has always been a dream of mine and to be able to do it with JLo was certainly a dream come true. Not only was I able to dance with The Lab on JLo’s tour, I was also able to create the dance routines used for the pre-show performances as well as some of the routines that were used in the show. To be able to travel across the USA and Canada with my dance family and doing what I love to do is priceless.
After finishing the JLo tour I went straight into creating for my studio as we were taking a group of 40 dancers along to compete at Hip Hop International (HHI) in Arizona in the Mega Crew division. HHI is considered the Olympics of Hip Hop as the best dancers and teams from around the world come together for this yearly competition to compete on this grand stage. I had less than 5 days to put together a 3.5-minute routine for 40 dancers, with half of them being under the age of 18 having never experienced this competition before. It was a challenge and our team did their best and danced their hearts out. I’m happy to say that we finished in the Top 10 in the world in the Mega Crew division and I was so proud of my team for pushing through and never giving up!
There are so many styles of dance around the world, both contemporary and traditional. For you, how would you describe modern dance now and how would you describe your own style? What is it that evolves over time – would you say it has an element of relation to how music has evolved? Or do you think that it’s more to do with expressing movement in different ways?
For me, modern dance is a style that is very expressive in movement. I guess I can relate to that because when I dance, I’m very expressive in not only my movements but also with my face. When I’m dancing to music, I can’t help but feel the music with every inch of my body, from my head to my toes. Music is what helps me to create what I am feeling inside and then expressing those feelings through movements. The beauty of music is that no matter how it evolves over time, dancers will always find ways to express themselves and create their movements.
What excites you when you watch someone dance? Is there anything you particularly look for?
What excites me is seeing how they express themselves as they execute the moves. Anyone can learn how to dance, but it’s that one person who is so passionate for dance that they move a certain way, express themselves through their movements, and creates an excitement when they dance. This is what I love to watch.
What advice would you give to someone starting out who thinks they have two left feet or someone who wants to take the leap from being a dancer to choreographing?
The advice I would give to someone starting out would be to ‘just start!’ Anyone can learn how to dance, but you must put in the time, dedication, and work behind it. It’s not going to happen overnight, but if you stay consistent you will get there. In learning anything new, you have to start somewhere. Find a dance studio near you that offers the style of dance you want to learn and start taking classes. If there isn’t a studio near you or you can’t afford to take classes, watch dance videos and learn online. There are many online dance tutorials for all types of dances.
As for someone wanting to take a leap from being a dancer to choreographing, make sure you have taken lots of classes on different styles and from different people. You can learn a lot by watching and learning from others especially those who have been doing it for years. Allow yourself to be open to explore different dance styles because they can add interesting elements to your choreography. Growing up, I trained and danced in different styles from Hip Hop, Popping, Bboy, Waacking, Voguing, Krump, Ballet, and Jazz, and I can say ‘til this day that all that I’ve learned has helped me to create choreography. When you want to begin choreographing, start by teaching your choreography to a small group of dance friends and then filming it. When you film it, you can watch and see what your choreography looks like when performed by others. In that way you can see what you need to work on and what you can adjust. However, once you start choreographing, it doesn’t mean you should stop learning and taking classes. Always be a student of your craft and consistently take classes and learn from others. There is always something new you can learn.
(Responses have been partially edited for clarity)
Featured image and in-article images source: © Sienna Lalau. 14.11.2019. All rights reserved. Images were provided for use with permission from the interviewee. No reproduction of images is permitted without permission.
© Interview with Sienna Lalau. 28.11.2019. Inspire Me Korea.