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