At 33, Dancer Jenn Freeman Was Diagnosed With Autism. She Turned to Choreographer Sonya Tayeh to Help Dramatize Her Story | Playbill

Special Features At 33, Dancer Jenn Freeman Was Diagnosed With Autism. She Turned to Choreographer Sonya Tayeh to Help Dramatize Her Story

The pair are collaborating on the dance piece Is It Thursday Yet? at the Perelman Center.

Jenn Freeman in Is It Thursday Yet? Matthew Murphy

When Tony-winning choreographer Sonya Tayeh first saw Jenn Freeman dance, it was a revelation. 

"I was teaching at a dance convention, and I saw her jump," Tayeh shakes her head, smiling. "It was like she was levitating. As I watched her jump, I couldn't help but stare as she went from left to right. I was shocked." 

Tayeh was already a rising star in the dance world when Freeman entered her orbit, and the pair soon established a fiercely creative bond, working together for much of the last 15 years. For Freeman, the start of their collaboration was a leap of faith.

"We met by chance in that class. I was living in New York at the time, and she was living in LA, and out of the blue she called me on, like, Friday, asking me to do a show with rehearsals starting on Monday. And you know what? I showed up in LA." Freeman laughs. "Didn't know anyone, I was sleeping on a friend's couch, but everything that I value and cherish as a dancer is cultivated by Sonya in her rehearsal rooms. So 100 percent of the time, always, I come."

As their collaboration and friendship has deepened, so, too, has their understanding of the other's idiosyncratic needs. When Freeman was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnosis at the age of 33, it was Tayeh that she turned to, processing the revelatory experience into the show Is It Thursday Yet?, now playing Off-Broadway through December 23 at the Perelman Performing Arts Center in Manhattan. 

Collaborating across neurotypes can be a difficult thing, requiring empathy and understanding to bridge the gap between the known and unknown. When Freeman was formally diagnosed, it allowed the pair to look back on the previous decade of their collaboration, marveling at how they had managed to unknowingly bridge the divide. 

"I just got my diagnosis a couple years ago, and we've known each other for many years beyond that. There are so many traits that Sonya and I share, as far as our singular focus and our drive and passion. And Sonya is a really clear, truthful communicator. As an autistic person, I really value that in her, that I always know where she is and how she's feeling. And I had that from her before I even knew I needed it. I don't have to question that when I'm in a room with her. And that is really hard to find." Freeman gestures toward Tayeh, eyes shining. 

Sonya Tayeh Matthew Murphy

A later-in-life diagnosis can be life changing for autistics. For many non-diagnosed autistic individuals, adolescence can be a difficult minefield of exclusion and confusion without an understood source. For many, that misapprehension can lead to immense amounts of self criticism and doubt, with many coming to the conclusion that their differences are an isolating aberration, rather than aspects of a community to which they belong. The unspoken common ground Freeman found with Tayeh was undeniably soul stirring.

"I've just always felt seen by Sonya," explains Freeman. "We have the common experience of feeling othered and on the outside, and we have always taken extra care in our process to get rid of that feeling. Everyone says a safe space, but really, we create a space where we can show up as you are. That has certainly been the guiding principle in this process for creating Is It Thursday Yet? because I'm, for the first time, understanding who I am. And I've never, as an artist, been able to walk into a space, fully standing in my truth. This is the first time, and it's because Sonya has really opened that door for me, and helped me walk through it, and has throughout this process just asked me that I stay in that truthful place instead of falling back into like old patterns, or habits of masking."

Freeman turned to dance as a child as a safe form of non-verbal communication, something that commonly attracts neurodivergent individuals looking to connect in new ways. "It's really one of the only places where you walk in, and you're told exactly how to be, from the way that you stand, the way you hold your body, to which direction you're facing, what exactly you're supposed to do, everything. It's no coincidence that I fell in love with a non-verbal art form. It was a safe way to socialize. I'm seeing the teacher, the teacher is seeing me, I'm witnessing others in the class. But there's no conversation that has to happen verbally."

Outside the studio doors, Freeman struggled greatly with questions of who she was supposed to be. But the moment she entered the studio, she found comfort in the strict order dictated by her teachers. Unfortunately, that immediately changed once she decided to pursue dance professionally.

"Your career becomes all about networking, and showing your personality. That's how you get the job, and that's when I really started to struggle," she admits. "I was my most heavily masked self in like my 20s and into my 30s, just trying to navigate it all. I fell out of love with dance, because I didn't feel safe in the same ways that I did for so long."

Freeman strongly considered leaving dance behind altogether as the pressures to conform to social expectations mounted, both inside and outside of the studio. Whereas the strictures of classical dance had allowed her to silently create inside a predetermined box, Freeman had suddenly found herself stripped of her comforting structure, left to painfully bend to fit the will of others who demanded she create within their expectations of normalcy.

Choked up, Tayeh cuts in. "When I started to lead rooms, I always was confused by the idea that people had to learn the same. The idea that the pace in which everyone learns is the same, that everybody was comfortable just walking in the room and speaking candidly, was always very surprising to me. I have my own anxieties in a social setting, and ways of learning and comprehension. And I have my own unique tools to be clear headed and clear minded. You can say 'come as you are' all you want to, but if you don't act upon that, if you don't allow people soften so they can feel more awake inside themselves, you're making a tough room. And I've been in those rooms. And I'm sure I've been part of those systems, as well, not knowing where to be." 

While Freeman's diagnosis was, of course, a revelation for her, Tayeh was also impacted. Her awareness on the ways in which the industry has undermined atypical artists runs deep.

Jenn Freeman and Price McGuffey in Is It Thursday Yet? Matthew Murphy

"If someone is going to find enlightenment in the space just by turning the lights down, or by putting their glasses on, or by keeping their jacket on... what's the big deal!?" she exclaims. "If you want someone to come into this space, and give their all in a creative way, then you have to acknowledge how hard it is to make art. It sounds simple, but for some people it is not. Some people want to be in control in the room. I want humanity in the room. I have only gotten closer to Jen through opening the dialogue of asking, 'What else can I do in the room for you?' We're finding a way to get to know each other again."

In collaborating on Is It Thursday Yet?, Tayeh has closely observed Freeman's journey towards self acceptance and understanding, which has opened up yet another plane of exploration for them both.

"It's like an elongated exhale, slowly dissipating," Tayeh states, rolling her shoulders back and extending the line of her neck as she attempts to describe the way in which neurodivergent recognition has allowed Freeman to blossom. "The more we live with this together, the more I see breadth and expansion. It's gradual, every day I see her release. Her eyes get bigger, her ears get bigger, it is like her senses have opened. I feel like there's a openness now, which creates space, which creates a path of possibility for her to imagine. There's nothing more exhilarating than the imagination within an artist, and it makes my eyes water just thinking about it." 

Tayeh smiles as Freeman ducks her head down to hide her face. "I always wanted that for her, to just see that these things could be possible. It's heartbreaking to witness when  those possibilities feel so far away because of a system that is broken."

Throughout Is It Thursday Yet?, Freeman dances to the recording of her own diagnostic sessions, as well as with home videos of herself as an undiagnosed child. That latter experience has been particularly moving. 

"It's really validating to see that so many of the traits that I'm experiencing now, and so many things about myself that I'm maybe struggling with, were there from the beginning," Freeman states, referring to her childhood behavior as captured on film. "I was always on a quest to figure myself out. I had internalized that something was wrong with me, in comparison to the rest of the world, so I was on a quest to fix it...I had so many struggles growing up, and into my adult life. Had I had more support, or better tools to navigate the world, things could've been different. I think a lot about what I could've done if I hadn't been so focused on trying to fix myself, when I was never broken." 

Freeman pauses for a moment before continuing on. "I was on a quest of truth, without having any idea where I was headed, or what I was even looking for. All I've ever wanted in life, truly, is to be seen. I feel like, for the first time, that's happening with this piece...There's no more mask: it's just me."

Photos: Is It Thursday Yet? at Perleman Performing Arts Center

Today’s Most Popular News:

Blocking belongs
on the stage,
not on websites.

Our website is made possible by
displaying online advertisements to our visitors.

Please consider supporting us by
whitelisting with your ad blocker.
Thank you!