SYTYCD Winner Chehon Wespi-Tschopp on Tough Judging and the Meaning of 'The Suitcase'

sytycd chehon wespi tschoppChehon Wespi-Tschopp was well aware that most of his ballet-world contemporaries would think him crazy for abandoning a lead role in the touring production of Twyla Tharp’s Come Fly Away for a chance to audition for So You Think You Can Dance, but he saw it a different way.

“I’m the type of person who never wants to become complacent. Whatever I do, I always want to keep pushing myself and keep growing,” says the the Swiss-raised 23-year-old. “Sometimes you have to take a small step backwards before you can really grow.”

And indeed, while Wespi-Tschopp calls working with Tharp “a breakthrough moment, career-wise,” it turns out that his “small step backwards” paid huge dividends: Last week, he took home the title of America’s Favorite (Male) Dancer and a six-figure cash prize during the SYTYCD Season 9 finale. TVLine caught up with Wespi-Tschopp to talk about his most memorable routines, his difficulty in impressing the judges, and his vision for the future.

TVLINE | For a guy who got a lot of grief from the judges this season about your Latin ballroom routines, did you ever expect your breakout performance would come during the Argentine Tango?
Not at all. Actually, I felt that the judges were very hard on me about the Latin ballroom style. If one of those dances had been given to any other contestant — Cyrus or other people — they probably wouldn’t have critiqued it so hard. But they expected me, as a technical dancer, to be able to pick it up really fast. It was much harder for me to impress the judges, and it was a lot of pressure. But in the end, I feel like each routine helped me grow so much. Even if I hated doing them, every routine helped me gain something.

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TVLINE | So let’s talk about that particular tango with All-Star Anya [Garnis].
When [choreographers] Miriam [Larici] and Leonardo [Barrionuevo] showed me the routine in the studio, it looked so boring. It just doesn’t come alive when it’s not on stage, when the chemistry is not on. The music was quite subtle. I was like, “Oh God there’s nothing expressive in there, there’s nothing people will crave, there’s no dips, there’s no turns.” But that turned out to be my best week. I really enjoy dancing with Anya because she’s such a mature dancer. I completely trusted her because she just has that certain maturity about her that I could feed off.

TVLINE | One of your other big moments was the Tyce Diorio “Suitcase” routine with [All-Star] Kathryn [McCormick]. Did you know right from the get-go this was going to be something pretty special?
In all honesty, when I heard I had contemporary, I was extremely excited. Then they told me I was going to be working with Tyce, and I was really confused because I wasn’t aware that Tyce choreographed contemporary routines. I just thought he did jazz. At first I was extremely skeptical, and it turned out he was skeptical, too, to be working with me. He wasn’t sure if I could bring that emotional side to the piece. After the first rehearsal it was as if me and Kathryn had danced together for years. It was a really amazing bond that we shared. We didn’t need to talk about the piece much because we just felt each other’s energy and intentions. We didn’t want the piece to be overperformed. That might be one of Tyce’s best creations: He has a great ability that he can go from jazz and something funky to something so emotional.

TVLINE | It’s interesting what you say about not talking the piece to death. On the night you first performed the routine, the pre-dance package made no specific mention of what it was about, and I think people took different interpretations from it. When you did an encore in the Season 9 finale, Mary Murphy explained it was about a couple being taken away to a concentration camp. What was your take on the story while you danced it?
It was important that they let the piece speak for itself. In rehearsal, I didn’t like giving myself too much of an idea of what the piece was supposed to symbolize, because I wanted to pull from my emotions. In other words, if I was just portraying a character, then I wouldn’t feel genuine doing it. [And with regard to] the Holocaust, it’s such a tragic thing and something that we probably can never comprehend. I felt disconnected from that idea itself, because I wouldn’t have known how to do it justice. I didn’t want to portray something that I could have never felt or experienced. Instead, I tried to imagine losing my whole family and having nothing but Kathryn and maybe the suitcase. In my head, there was nothing in the suitcase. It was more like I had stored memories in there. That was the story in my head.

TVLINE | Interesting. I loved the silent scream. It’s something that could have come off as corny or contrived, but somehow really worked.
Yeah, I was very surprised. Again, I feel like when I see [a silent scream] done in some pieces, it tries so hard to be something. But for some reason, in “The Suitcase,” it really worked. Again, we didn’t try to force it. During rehearsal, sometimes I wouldn’t do the scream, because if it didn’t really come out of me, then there was no point in doing it.

TVLINE | In the performance finale, you got to do a classical ballet piece with Eliana, but even though it was in your genre, the dance really didn’t showcase you very much.
I know. I was just kind of standing there, feeling awkward in my ballet tights and making sure she wouldn’t fall off point. But all in all, it was a nice representation of really classical, clean ballet. I obviously wished we did something a little more explosive, something where we both would have been able to showcase our strengths. You didn’t see me much, but there’s a lot of work that the guy does [in that routine]. It involves weight placement, the way you place your hands around the waist when she goes to turn. You can’t push too hard. You can’t grip her too hard, it’ll stop her. Her tutu will get in the way. There’s a lot of little things. The great thing but also the unfortunate thing about ballet is that it’s all made to look so seamless and so easy people will never be like “Oh that’s so impressive!”

TVLINE | Did you feel going into the final results that you had a real chance to win this? Or did Cyrus never having been in jeopardy make you think you were predestined to be the runner-up on the men’s side?
I definitely felt that second option. [Laughs] Cyrus was so popular. People are able to connect more to somebody who’s untrained and just has a great spirit. He was never afraid of failing, whereas I had all these expectations to live up to, and I was always scared of failure or not being the best I could be or being vulnerable on stage. All I wanted to do on this show was to grow. Making the finals was like the cherry on top, and so I thought being runner-up would be so incredible. I would have been really happy for Cyrus if he won, because he showed such fortitude. He’s incredible at what he does. But ultimately, I really worked hard and I had to overcome so much in this competition and in my life itself, that it feels like it’s such a winning feels like a great reward.

TVLINE | What’s next for you after the SYTYCD tour?
I feel like I’ve done the concert-dance world. I want to go more into commercial work now. I’d love to do movies. I’d like to go into acting. I really want to choreograph. I might hit up Ballet Boys to see if they’d be interested in me as a choreographer. Maybe I could come back and choreograph in the future on [SYTYCD]. Whatever comes my way, I just hope to take all the experience and what I’ve learned on this show and keep evolving. Even though I made the finals and won, this is just the beginning.

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24 Comments
  1. lara says:

    Congratulations Chehon! Your talent and drive are so inspiring. Can’t wait to see whatever you decide to do next.

  2. bpgal says:

    Congrats Chehon! Btw, he was born in America and was adopted by a Swiss couple, as far as I know.

  3. Ace says:

    Chehon earned the win. He truly evolved as a performer over the course of the season, and I love how thoughtful and intentional he is about everything. I’m glad he’s committed to continuing to grow and develop different facets of his dancing. Eliana said something similar in her interview, too, and I really respect that. Good on you, kids! Bravo!

    (I’m surprised he didn’t know Tyce choreographed contemporary, though. Does that mean he’s never seen the infamous “Cancer Dance”?)

    • Sarah says:

      I was thinking the same thing, Ace. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that the only time Tyce is really good as a choreographer are his contemporary pieces. I never remember his Broadway or jazz stuff, but often his contemporary sticks with me. Kind of surprising to hear that Cheon didn’t realize he did contemporary at all.

    • Rachel says:

      It is possible he blocked the cancer dance out of his head. I know i did

  4. Benitah says:

    He is so right about not talking the pieces to death. Too often the choreographers on SYTYCD over explain their dances when they need to let the steps speak for themselves. Trust that the audience is intelligent enough to bring their own life experiences to each piece. In the real world of dance, most choreographers don’t attach stories to their dances just for that reason, that’s why a piece like Christopher Wheeldon’s “After the Rain” (look it up) is so powerful, if it’s not weighted down with a story then it can be about anything.

    Congrats to Cheon for his dancing as well as his astute observation.

  5. CAG says:

    Great, thoughtful interview. Loved his candor. He is now in my top 3 dancers on the show, and my favorite winner for sure.

  6. Betsy says:

    Thank you for this interview. I’ve watched this show for several years because I love dance, but REALLY love the sheer energy and heart brought to the stage by these amazing young dancers. This intense yet gentle young man, this incredible dancer -Chehon Wespi-Tschopp – has really touched my heart and creative spirit in a way that no other dancer has on this show (or any other dance-related show). I find the need to watch at least one of his solos every day just for the emotional jolt. I’m sure this is TMI, but the impact of his dancing on my sensibilities has sent me reeling. Not sure what to do with it. I sincerely hope it is possible to keep track of his progress. He’s got a wonderful career ahead of him. I believe he will make the world a more beautiful place.

  7. DW says:

    Chehon is a remarkable, stunning, charismatic dancer and human spirit. I’ve watched the show since the first season and no dancer has ever affected me like he has. That includes
    Baryshnikov and Nureyev. I too want to watch his dancing every day just for the emotional high. He has a special gift from God and shares it with the world. How lucky can we get!

  8. KT says:

    I felt the judges started a storyline for Chehon, that of a somewhat emotionless technician, and pounded that to death. Even at the final performance show, they could not give him a well-earned compliment without reminding him and the audience of THEIR perception of him as unable to connect with an audience. Just for the record, he connected with me at his remarkable audition and I did not lose interest at any point in the show. He might have shown awkwardness in his first samba, but he seemed greatly good-humored about it and I felt he gave every effort to nail the fun of the piece, if not the technique. I grew tired of their constant berating of his personality. His personality was and is just fine. As far as his dancing goes, his performances will get many replays at our house. We all loved him. Congratulations to him for the win! He had to fight to get there and I’m so happy at how it turned out. The icing on the cake is that none of the others will “lose”. With a tour under their belts, all of the top ten, plus the alternates, will have some professional moxy to wield as they pursue their careers.

  9. Great interview Chehon. Although I must admit (selfishly) My disappointment in you wanting to go into choreography and acting. You are such a beautiful dancer, I can’t imagine you sharing that with the world. You are awesome!

  10. Theresa says:

    I believe that when Chehon was announced as the winner the whole neighborhood heard myself and my daughter celebrating. During the 1st season my daughter’s dance teachers told them to watch the show. We have been addicted to the show ever since. We love that on this show dance is #1. We liked Cyrus, but LOVED Chehon. Chehon’s dancing is so beautiful. His personality is so sweet and humble. America loves Cyrus and they showed that all year, but America’s favorite DANCER is an amazing dancer. Congratulations Chehon!

  11. Andrew says:

    Congratulations Chehon! It was truly amazing to watch someone who, as Mary said, more than once, achieved greatness.. The dance routine where Stacy Tookey showcased you with Allison was so phenomenal, that we have watched, re-watched, again and again to try to just get a glimpse of “How did he do that?” You were fantastic. We finally got to see you at perhaps your best offering of the season. Wonderful.
    There were so many routines that you excelled in…. and as you say…. so little praise. I believe the judges knew they were looking at ability and potential from a professional dancer who was so far above the others, that it was glaringly obvious. While they criticized you often for not being like the other contestants, they knew. Those of us watching could see it, feel it. Something far above just a “simple little dance show contestant”.
    While Cyrus got the praise for his inspirational journey, there you were… slowly and surely, showing the watching world …. what a real dancer should be….breathtaking, beautiful, and with the right routines, utterly perfect.

    • AnnaMarie says:

      Andrew, you have said what I feel so perfectly that I have little to add. I actually got a little misty-eyed reading it. And yes, we sat with the remote, pausing or “slow-mo”-ing quite often to see “how high did he really go” “how did he lift her/him so effortlessly?” Thank you, Chehon, for a very special, wonderful season of this fine show.

    • Betsy says:

      Wonderful post Andrew! In many ways, watching Chehon in this competition was a little like watching Sir Lawrence Olivier audition for a local music theater production only to be criticized for his superior acting ability. It was wonderful, however, to see Chehon evolve – he did loosen up, he did seem to enjoy the variety of styles more over time, he did seem to be having fun. Watching some tapes of his previous performances as a younger dancer, they were very serious, somber, with the possible exception of the Les Bourgeois solo. Ironically however, Chehon has made it clear – post SYTYCD – that he wants to act, pursue choreography and other commercial interests, so those of us who have experienced the pure joy of watching him dance may not have the opportunity to watch him perform again in this capacity! Personally I am very happy for him and very sad for the rest of us!

    • madeleine says:

      Great post Andrew – I agree with everything you said above. Chehon – you are just an amazing dancer and I saw it when you did the group ballet dance with Eliana and Daniel. The harsh criticisms and few praises from the judges really upset me. I could not believe it. You connected with us with your incredible technique, beauty, humility, vulnerability and gratitude. And I’ve never felt so much emotion in this show before. The week of waiting for the results was pure hell. And when you were announced the winner – all hell broke loose – and we were so happy for you. The best male dancer won and it is you Chehon.
      Thank you, thank you for letting us watch your incredibly breath-taking dancing.
      Please don’t stop dancing yet – many of us really want to see you dance some more. ( Ballet is so beautiful and teaches you great technique, but I think that in order for more people to connect and watch ballet, it has to have a more modern choreography like the group dance you did in the beginning – just a thought).

      • Theresa says:

        I agree with Andrew and all the replies to his post. There have been many wonderful ballet trained dancers on this show, who in my humble opinion should have won, over the seasons. The important point, is that Chehon and Eliana managed to win a dance competition which is geared to a “regular” audience, not one who is accustomed to watching classical ballet. However, Chehon and Eliana both proved that one can be a superbly trained dancer who can pull off the Nutcracker pas de deux, yet do any other dance style you can throw at them. ONLY ballet dancers can do this. They can do every other style, but ask hip hop dancers to put on a pair of pointe shoes, or do a double tour en l’air, or a simple arabesque, and they are lost.

        Go Team Ballet!!!

  12. TH says:

    This was a good season, both on the male and female side. Lots of really talented kids. I do feel they were a little harsh on Daniel, Matthew (seriously, Nigel, you wanted him to know the complete history of Mia’s dad?), and at times, Dareian, who reminded me of Patrick Swayze with his athletic style. The ballroom girls were very versatile and the remaining girls were just as talented. I’m very pleased with the final two winners. I wouldn’t be able to pick between the two of them, so I was especially glad they went with a male/female winner. They should have done that all along. So congrats, Chehon. You did a great job. I hope you don’t limit yourself to choreography. With your talent, you need to continue performing,while you are able to do so. Lots of time for those other pursuits when the joints began to go.

    • Theresa says:

      One more comment by me – Yes TH, I hope that Chehon continues in the dance arena until his joints go!!! He has so much to offer to promote ballet as the perfect training ground for great dancers. You don’t have to be as good as Chehon – that is rare – , just get the good grounding and technique ballet offers you, and then the sky is the limit in whichever style you choose later. You will never regret it.

      So how about it Chehon? Spread the word while you can! You are now an official ambassador for ballet trained dancers!

  13. Sherry Jones says:

    It is now February, and I am still watching Chehon’s dances on my DVR and the internet. I agree with the comments posted in October, and I hope we will be seeing more of this stunning dancer in the near future. -sherry

  14. Mr.Shadriss Wespi-Tschopp says:

    Verry nice.

  15. Malica says:

    I’m from Mozambique (Southern Africa) and I have been watching this show from season 1 and it gets better every season, sometimes I really feel sorry for the judges each and every piece is remarkable. Cheon you and Eliana made me cry at some points and this was because you danced so beautifully, you brought out an emotion with your routines. Your solo’s were mind blowing, I would really like to know where you ventured to after this and what does your name mean please.

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