The Big Picture Man

Long before “vision boards” were made popular by the best-selling book The Secret, Tyce Diorio was designing his destiny. “As a teen, I used to take pictures of Michael Jackson and the cast of Jerome Robbins’ Broadway and wallpaper my room,” Diorio says. “All the pictures of everything I wanted to do were on my wall.”

Diorio’s long-range vision and tenacity have clearly paid off: As a dancer, he has appeared in commercials, music videos and films, as well as world tours like Janet Jackson’s “Velvet Rope” and Broadway shows including Fosse and Chicago. Most recently, he has garnered fame as a featured choreographer on Fox’s “So You Think You Can Dance.” Here, the rising star shares his inspirations and creative secrets with DT.

Steppin’ Out
For Diorio, all the world was a stage from very early on. “I came out of the womb dancing, I know it,” he says, laughing. Growing up in Brooklyn, he had his sights set on stardom—he did numerous commercials and print ads as a child, and went on auditions for movies like The Champ. “I wanted to do it all!” he remembers. “I used to watch television and say, ‘That’s going to be me.’” Diorio’s Greek-Italian family nurtured his love for dance before he began studying it formally: “We used to do ‘Soul Train’ and listen to Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye—it was pure fun,” he says.
Dance training entered the picture at the urging of Diorio’s cousin, Christopher Stryker, a successful sitcom and Broadway actor. Stryker introduced the 10-year-old Diorio to Linda Abbatte and Rachel Bascietto, teachers at Brooklyn’s Horizons Dance Center. Soon he was studying tap, ballet, jazz, modern and African at the studio, and winning awards at such competitions as United States Tournament of Dance, American Dance Awards and Dance Masters of America.

At New York City’s renowned Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, Diorio studied with master teachers like Bob Heath, Lisa King and Michelle Benash, and looked up to then-students Desmond Richardson and Movin’ Out star John Selya. “Desmond Richardson was a senior, and seeing him dance at school changed my life,” he says.

Even so, teachers told him that he wouldn’t make it as a professional dancer. “I had come from a jazz background, and they were all about modern and ballet so they didn’t take me seriously,” he recalls. “I remember one teacher saying, ‘He’ll be 35 and behind the desk at Steps.’”
Intent on proving the critics wrong, Diorio left school his junior year, procured an agent and dove headfirst into auditioning for professional gigs. He got his first big break in a commercial for Teddy Grahams. From there he headed to L.A., where he scored an unprecedented run of perfect ratings en route to winning “Star Search”—and caught the eye of judge Paula Abdul, who cast him as a backup dancer for her “Under My Spell” world tour in 1991.

It wasn’t long before Diorio’s career kicked into full gear: “As soon as I started working with Paula, it was a snowball effect—I kept getting job after job,” he says. For Abdul’s part, she wasn’t surprised to see Diorio succeed so rapidly. “He has such an extraordinary technical ability and always adds a special flair to everything he does,” says Abdul, who now calls him a close friend. “When you watch him dance, he definitely stands out.”

After the “Under My Spell” tour, Diorio went on to work with such stars as Janet Jackson, Ricky Martin, Jennifer Lopez, Mya, *NSYNC and Toni Braxton in concert tours, TV appearances and music videos. He also hit the big screen, dancing in films like Robin Hood: Men in Tights and Showgirls and the television versions of Annie and Cinderella.

Yet even though Diorio was getting a lot of work in L.A., he’d left a big piece of his heart in New York—on Broadway. In 2000, an opportunity arose that he couldn’t pass up: a leading role in the Tony Award—winning Fosse. Diorio was tapped by choreographer Ann Reinking to take over several of Desmond Richardson’s solos in the show. “Gwen Verdon said I looked exactly like Bob when I danced!” he says.

More Broadway opportunities followed, including a featured dancer role in Chicago. He was soon approached by Twyla Tharp for a starring gig in Movin’ Out, but ultimately turned it down. “I was trying to go in a different direction,” he explains.

As a matter of fact, he was starting to transition to choreography. First up: a Fosse-themed piece for the new Fox television show “SYTYCD.” Diorio came up with a sensual, sassy number to “All That Jazz” for contestants Melody Lacayanga and eventual winner Nick Lazzarini. “The routine was a smash hit!” Diorio says of the judges’ reaction. “I’d assisted choreographers along the way, but this was my first big job on my own.”

Small Screen, Big Future
Since the first season, Diorio has become a regular presence on “SYTYCD.” Each week, he choreographs at least one piece in the jazz, modern or Broadway genres. Two of last season’s most well-received routines were ones he created for runner-up Katee Shean and winner Joshua Allen: a Broadway rendition of “All for the Best” from Godspell and a contemporary number to Celine Dion’s “All By Myself.”

“When we learned the Broadway routine, we ran it so many times until it was instilled in our heads. Tyce would be like, ‘Again! Again! Again!’ and Katee and I thought we were going to die,” Allen recalls, laughing. “Tyce’s work ethic is out of this world, and that’s why he won’t accept anything but greatness.”

Abdul, who was spotted in the audience last season supporting Diorio, says she is proud to have watched his choreography evolve over the years. “Tyce is one of the funniest people I’ve ever met, and he plays off that quirkiness to create choreography with levity and limitless boundaries,” she says. “He’s a perfectionist who is constantly challenging himself to stretch and grow, and that is something I truly admire.”

Though Diorio genre-hops on the show, he’s best known for his innovative Broadway routines. With such a wide (and often young-skewing) demographic watching the show, he hopes to make Broadway accessible—and appealing—to all. “I want Broadway to meet Hollywood,” he says. “I don’t like my theater stuff to look cheesy—I mix in funk and hip hop, even African. I’ll pull from every style to make it more edgy and give it a raw feeling.”

“SYTYCD” Executive Producer Nigel Lythgoe praises Diorio’s willingness to break all the rules: “The first season, Tyce . . . played it safe,” says Lythgoe. “This season, he really exploded into many genres, and he’s been one of the few choreographers to do that. Mia does what Mia does, Wade does what Wade does, but you can’t pin Tyce down to any one style—and he has done an absolutely superb job.”

On the show, Diorio also relishes the chance to work with contestants one-on-one. In fact, the off-camera prep time is one of his favorite parts of the job, enabling him to combine two of his dance loves: teaching and choreography. Although he is very demanding of the dancers, Diorio says they appreciate his challenges to excel. “I give all my knowledge and experience for them to use when they step onto that stage,” he says. “That is why I’m on the show every week.”

 Diorio’s hard work hasn’t gone unnoticed—several celebrities have requested private sessions after spotting his work on the show. Chief among them is Katie Holmes, with whom Diorio worked on an episode of the TV show “Eli Stone” that he also choreographed. Along with four-hour privates several days a week, Diorio sat down with Holmes to educate her about dance history. “We studied the famous legends and great women of dance, like Cyd Charisse,” he says. “Our work together has really brought her out physically, and she is comfortable in her body as a dancer now. She can hang with Catherine Zeta-Jones!”

“SYTYCD” has also opened up more dance and choreography opportunities for Diorio. Since the show’s debut, Diorio has appeared in the movies Mr. and Mrs. Smith and Epic Movie and choreographed a stage production of Oklahoma! for Pennsylvania’s Fulton Theatre. He has also formed Entyce Productions, through which he holds twice-yearly dance workshops featuring alumni and choreographers from “SYTYCD.”

Behind the Scenes
Though the fast pace of “SYTYCD” and other projects keeps Diorio constantly on the move, he is always careful to devote adequate time to the creative process. When choreographing a piece, Diorio typically gathers dancers in the studio to play, improvise and move for hours at a time. “We just feed off each other and start moving with no inhibitions at all,” he shares. “The music and energy in the room are key.”

Though he typically has a vague vision of the piece ahead of time, he prefers to leave room for fresh ideas to present themselves in the moment. “I like an organic process because it feels natural and not forced,” he says. Often he and the dancers will revisit the piece for days until he feels it is ready to debut: “It’s like a puzzle—I keep working until I feel I’ve exhausted all of the possibilities.”

So where does Diorio draw his inspiration? Fittingly, his muses are as varied as the styles in which he choreographs. Art and nature play a large role: “I’m inspired by angels, horses, pictures of old Europe, Japanese art—one little image can spark so many ideas,” says Diorio. “I’m constantly watching how dancers process movement, and when I can see beauty in it, I think, ‘Now we’ve got it.’” Diorio also gleans inspiration from the work of Broadway legends Jerome Robbins and Bob Fosse. “Robbins was a genius,” says Diorio.

Forever a Teacher
Teaching is something else that Diorio always makes time for—and has, since the age of 15. “I’ve always taught—always,” he says. “[In the early days,] I was tough on people because I had a lot of success as a dancer early on. When I was passing [my knowledge] on, my expectations and standards were extremely high.”

His own instructors were just as tough: In addition to his teachers at LaGuardia, Diorio credits L.A.-based instructor Paula Morgan with helping him develop into the dancer he is today. “Paula is one of the world’s greatest technical teachers,” raves Diorio, who once privately studied with Morgan for four hours a day, four days a week. “Her class was about the science of the body—strengthening, stretching, longevity, technique. It was like going to the army for dance!”

Morgan remembers well the flexibility and endurance training she put Diorio through: “The stomach exercises we did were so grueling, they would make a boxing champion look like a skinny underfed boy,” she laughs. “He was special in that he was willing to do the work. He’s a dynamo in a small package!”

Today, Diorio brings his dynamic approach to conventions like Co. Dance and The Pulse. He teaches master classes and sets competition choreography for select studios across the country and in Canada. He especially enjoys working with kids. “I feel the mark of a great teacher is someone who can work well with a 9-year-old,” says Diorio. “Kids tell you the truth—and working with them requires being patient and responsible.”

No matter what age group he is working with, he maintains that teaching is a magical experience for him. “When I’m putting out my choreography in class, I’ll look around the room and see a dancer shaping the movement to their body, and it turns into something I envisioned. It becomes this thing that I really wanted it to be,” he says. “Teaching is like discovery for me.”

No Limits

Looking ahead, Diorio has big plans for the future. On top of returning for Season Five of “SYTYCD,” Diorio is focusing on accomplishing two of his biggest goals: choreographing for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and choreographing and/or directing a Broadway show. “Being so visible on TV and doing musical theater, I think a Broadway show is a no-brainer,” notes Diorio. Once he gets there, he says, he’s interested in shaking up traditional musical theater choreography. “I like Broadway musicals, but I always imagine what they could be,” he says. “Cookie-cutter and predictable has its place, but that’s not what I want to do. Let’s lose the cheesiness and go to another place!”

Whatever Diorio does, you can be sure he’ll do it full-force: “I’ve always wanted to be the kind of dancer who could write his own ticket and not have anyone tell me what I’m good at,” he says with conviction. “I want it to be like there are no limits.”

Jen Jones is a freelance writer and certified BalleCore instructor in Los Angeles.

Studio Owners
Megan McCluskey, courtesy Lown

Door-to-door costume delivery. Renting a movie screen to screen your virtual showcase as a drive-in in your parking lot. Giving every dancer the chance to have a private, red-carpet experience, even if it means sanitizing your studio 20-plus times in one day.

While these ideas may have sounded inconceivable a year ago, they are just some of the ways studio owners got creative with their end-of-year recitals in 2020.

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Higher Ed
Getty Images

As we wade through a global pandemic that has threatened the financial livelihood of live performance, dancers and dance educators are faced with questions of sustainability.

How do we sustain ourselves if we cannot make money while performing? What foods are healthy for our bodies and fit within a tight unemployment budget? How do we tend to the mental, emotional and spiritual scars of the pandemic when we return to rehearsal and the stage?

The pandemic has highlighted this shared truth for dance artists: While we've been trained to dedicate our lives to the craft of art-making, we lack the knowledge to support ourselves when crisis hits. While we may have learned much about performing and creating dance in our college curriculums, most of us were not taught the answers to these questions of sustainability, or even those that come up in the normal life of a dance artist, like how to apply for a grant. Indeed, even before the pandemic, far too many dance artists faced abuse, harassment, mental health challenges, financial stress and other issues that they weren't equipped to deal with.

In 2017, inspired by the fact that dance curriculums so often hyper-focus on making and performing art but leave out the task of supporting an artistic life, choreographers David Thomson and Kate Watson-Wallace created The Sustainability Project, which seeks to create and expand discourse addressing the gap between technical and performance knowledge, and the knowledge that supports a healthy, sustainable life.

Since 2018, The Sustainability Project has been offered as a course called Artists' Sustainability at the Pratt Institute's Performance & Performance Studies graduate program, open to students of all disciplines at the undergraduate and graduate levels. The course incorporates goal-setting workbooks, discussions and projects that model artistic life postgraduation, like getting a grant funded, complete with artistic statements, proposals, budgets and a panel review.

Pratt isn't the only school to begin addressing this hole in their curriculum. At Shenandoah University, for example, Rebecca Ferrell has students in her first-year seminar for dance majors create personal and artistic budgets, and identify their personal and professional support systems.

We still have a long way to go, however, until this kind of learning is embraced as an essential part of any dance curriculum. Thomson says that while dance artists and students have embraced The Sustainability Project, school administrators have been reluctant to incorporate life-learning courses into their programs.

But if college isn't the time for this learning, when is the time? The fast-moving, demanding and exhausting life of an artist often does not leave space to learn new skills, such as balancing a budget, conflict resolution or creating a nutrition plan. And without these tools, dance artists often won't be able to put to use the artistic skills that their college programs focused on. (You can't show off your great training if you haven't been taught how to find a job, for instance.)

As the dance field struggles to survive the pandemic, it's more important than ever that dance education demystifies the working life of dance artists. Dance students are already taught to prevent injuries for the sake of their body's sustainability. Let's start thinking of dancers' careers the same way. As Thomson put it, "Would you send your child out into a snow storm with a pretty coat, hat and scarf without any shoes?"

Teachers Trending
Cynthia Oliver in her office. Photo by Natalie Fiol

When it comes to Cynthia Oliver's classes, you always bring your A game. (As her student for the last two and a half years in the MFA program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I feel uniquely equipped to make this statement.) You never skip the reading she assigns; you turn in not your first draft but your third or fourth for her end-of-semester research paper; and you always do the final combination of her technique class full-out, even if you're exhausted.

Oliver's arrival at UIUC 20 years ago jolted new life into the dance department. "It may seem odd to think of this now, but the whole concept of an artist-scholar was new when she first arrived," says Sara Hook, who also joined the UIUC dance faculty in 2000. "You were either a technique teacher or a theory/history teacher. Cynthia's had to very patiently educate all of us about the nature of her work, and I think that has increased our passion for the kind of excavation she brings to her research."

Coming off a successful choreographic and performance career in New York City and a PhD in performance studies from New York University, Oliver held her artistic and scholarly careers in equal regard—and refused to be defined by only one of them. She demands the same rigor and versatility from the BFA and MFA students she teaches today—as in this semester's aptly titled Synthesis, a grad class where students read female-authored memoirs (Audre Lorde's Zami, Gabrielle Civil's Swallow the Fish) and then create short movement studies from prompts based on a memoir's narrative structure or content. It was Oliver, too, who advocated that grad students should be required to take at least one class outside of the dance department, as a way of guaranteeing a cross-disciplinary influence on their studies.

Oliver, wearing black pants and a green shirt, dances on a sidewalk outside a building

Natalie Fiol

But alongside her high standards, Oliver has also become known for holding space for students' complexity. "I have a tendency for a particular kind of disobedience or defiance, and people usually try to punish that," says Niall Jones, who graduated from the MFA program in 2014 and has also been a performer in Oliver's work. "But Cynthia finds a way to see and attend to what's really happening in that posture. She has a capacity to listen. There's a space for otherness in her work and in her teaching, to allow people to step into different ways of being."

Though Oliver's role at the university has undergone some shifts over the last few years, the connection between her work and her art remains a thread through everything she does. Three years ago, she began splitting her time between the dance department and the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research, where she helps scholars and faculty in the humanities and arts find support for their research. And over the summer, Oliver was named a Center for Advanced Study professor, an appointment that she'll hold until she retires, which comes with an annual research stipend and the chance to engage with other scholars across campus.

I sat down with Oliver over Zoom to pick her brain about how she crafts her legendary syllabi and what it's been like to watch dance academia slowly embrace her approach.

Oliver sits at her desk, surrounded by books and papers, leaning forward onto her forearms

Natalie Fiol

What's kept you here at Illinois for 20 years?

I came here as an experiment. I had been an independent artist in New York for many years, and I intended to continue doing that, because that was a life that worked for me. But at the same time, I would have these periods where I thought, "What am I doing?" During one of those periods, I went to grad school for performance studies. As I was finishing up, Renée Wadleigh, who had been my undergrad teacher [at Adelphi University, before Wadleigh joined the UIUC faculty] reached out to me and said, "I've been following your career. If you ever think about teaching at a university, consider Illinois." [My husband] Jason and I decided to try it for three years. We always felt like we could go back to the city if we hated it.

Many of us think: "I'm going to go into the academy, and my career will be over." It doesn't. It might amplify it in certain ways, and it might ebb and flow. For me, I needed that ebb and flow, so I could recover from a really active period and then focus on my writing and teaching for a period. It's a different kind of intellectual engagement. That's what's kept me here.

How has your approach to pedagogy changed over your time here?

In New York, I had a class that I would teach that generally was offered to other professionals who were preparing to go to rehearsal. In the academy, I had to learn a different kind of teaching, and that's where my real education started around pedagogy.

I realized that I could either continue in a kind of dominant aesthetic vein, or I could figure out what I had to offer that was different from what the students were getting from my peers in the department. So that's what I did. I called on my Afro-Caribbean background, my club dancing background, my time with Ronald K. Brown and Baba Richard González, my growing up in the Caribbean. I started to pull that material into a structure that reflected the values that I have around community and bodies being together—people understanding a depth of engagement that is not immediately Eurocentric. There was space to do my own investigation here, to think about my own pedagogical aesthetic and cultural interests, and incorporate them in my teaching. That's also what keeps me here. I can continue to question and shape and change according to certain values and attach those to my research interests.

Oliver stands in her office, leaning back against a filing cabinet and smirking at the camera

Natalie Fiol

I've always assumed that the seminars you teach in the grad program are so writing- and research-intensive because of your experience getting your PhD in performance studies. Is that true?

I have a strong intellectual interest. My experience going into performance studies enriched my practice in ways that I could not have imagined. I remember what it felt like to have all of those pistons firing while I was making work. It was overwhelming, it was stimulating, it was exciting. I wanted to cry, I wanted to scream—all at once. I think I offer that to our program. There's also my insistence on the cross-disciplinary requirement in our program. You all have to reach outside of the department to engage with other intellectuals and creative practitioners across disciplines to inform your own.

There are grad students who have cursed me for bringing that kind of rigor. But my experience in the field has been about my being able to talk about my work in-depth—about the choices I make, about epistemologies around it, about world views, influences, all of that. In order to do that convincingly, you have to have a foundation. I want you all to be legit, to know what it is you're talking about your own work in relation to. And that comes from an intellectual heft.

The syllabi you create for the grad classes are incredible. They're so thoughtful, so detailed, so well-crafted. How do you do that?

I work on my syllabi like I work on my choreographic projects. I piece these bad boys together over time. I do not do it in a rush. I take notes. If I come across something—a scholar, what I've read, what someone said—I'll jot it down. Eventually, I'll pull all of those notes together. That's when it gets exciting. There's always something serendipitous about it.

There are people who don't see the labor that goes into my class. And that's when I say, "OK, I'm going to reveal the bones of this in a way I wouldn't, ordinarily." For example, in a course I'm teaching this semester, I only used texts by women. I didn't walk in and announce it—"Well, if you would notice, all of these authors are women"—I just did it, because, for me, that was a feminist act. Because that's how a white, patriarchal voice works: It presumes authority, and it offers you this information—and you are supposed to take it, as if that's the law of intellectual curiosity, of how one should think.

Oliver, in black pants and a green shirt, dances in a grassy area by a street. She leans to the side, her arms swaying beside her

Natalie Fiol

Your longtime approach is finally being picked up by dance programs across the country that are slowly decolonizing their curriculums. Does that make you feel excited? Relieved?

There's a part of me that is tired, to be honest. Because artists of color have been doing this work for a really long time—that labor has always rested on our shoulders. I have to resist any moments of cynicism and really be willing to just seize the moment and work with folks to make the changes happen. I don't know that America as a whole is ready for it, but it feels like institutions are finally ready to look at the ways inequity has historically been established and continues through the systems in place.

So how do you combat that feeling of tiredness?

I think by seeing things happen, by seeing change—seeing more students of color in our program, for example. I'm excited that I have two additional colleagues of color [associate professor Endalyn Taylor and assistant professor C. Kemal Nance] on our faculty. We're not a perfect situation, but our department head, Jan Erkert, has made this a priority. That makes it easier to make people feel more welcome. At the same time, you have to understand that if you change your curriculum to be more inclusive—as it should be—you also have to be nimble and responsive to what the needs are of that diverse community. Those are the growing pains that have to happen.

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