Mike Tyus, photo by Jacob Jonas
Mike Tyus, photo by Jacob Jonas

Dancer Mike Tyus Makes the City His Stage

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In the endless scroll of Instagram, this dancing figure kept catching my eye as he spun his body like a beautiful broken doll around rooftops and city bridges, flinging himself across concrete landscapes to break free of gravity’s shackles.

This person turned out to be dancer-choreographer Mike Tyus, a gift from the extreme randomness of Instagram bot-generated suggestions. His movement is slinky sea creature meets Shaolin drunken master meets street-style jester. His facial expression reads as if he is waking up in a strange new world, discovering the surroundings by exploring with his unfurled tentacles.

These short-burst Instagram dance videos took shape as a creative collaboration with his photographer roommate when everything shut down. It turns out Tyus spent years in Cirque du Soleil and is a member of Jacob Jonas The Company, which put on L.A.’s first drive-in dance performance back in May.

Recently, the Broad unleashed Tyus on the museum floor for their new video series, “L.A. Intersections: Music, Language, Movement,” in which musicians, poets and dancers interact with the museum space in their chosen medium. It is the perfect project for Tyus. From the way he rolls into frame down the sidewalk and practically explodes against the gallery walls, tumbling and spinning in response to Ellsworth Kelly’s color field paintings and slithering beneath Robert Therrien’s “Under the Table” sculpture a la Alice in Wonderland in Converse chucks, then ascending the escalator upside down and backward — it’s awesome.

How did these little dance burst videos come about?

It really started as a way to stay creative. I moved back to L.A., and I have a roommate named Joy Isabella Brown, and she has a really fantastic eye. And a great iPhone 11 camera. We’ve been trying to find, as artists, how to give people levity from the chaos that’s happening in the world and still speak to the times themselves. Like “Parked” was a project that Jacob Jonas came up with, and I was the assistant choreographer. It really came at a time that we felt incredibly despondent and hopeless. All of our touring was canceled, and all of our shows and all the theaters were shut down. So we wanted to come up with an opportunity for dancers to continue to dance. It was a really fantastic project.

My 10-year-old niece describes your dancing as “you have no bones.” It’s so fluid.

Fluidity is at the center of it. It’s the easiest way to combine multiple dance languages into one, trying to find the fluidity and the water between each kind of movement. I was trained in ballet and jazz, breakdance, street styles, tricking, acrobatics and circus arts. They all are incredibly unique, and they’ve translated in my body in a fluid way. I love to transition from one style to another seamlessly. So I guess it’s become a sort of watery thing. I think Bruce Lee once said, “Be like water.”

Many of us can only move that way in the pool.

I helped Jacob Jonas create a piece called “Crash” in 2017 with eight dancers, and it was all about the ocean and waves crashing. We created the patterns of waves crashing in the body. We did a lot of studying. Well, studying? We went to the beach. We enjoyed it. Then we went to the studio for three months and created what we thought was water in our bodies. And I think that stuck with me. He always says things like, “I want you to move through the air like it’s made of molasses.” So there’s a sense of tension and tangibility. It’s a fun movement practice.

You were one of the founding members of this company?

Yeah, I met Jacob 10 years ago. He said he wanted to make a dance company, and I said I’d be right there when he did. This year, I was able to jump on full-time, but I’ve been working with him for the past 10 years on developing what it would look like.

In the meantime, you did some Cirque du Soleil?

I joined Cirque du Soleil in 2008. It was kind of my first big job. I played the Trickster in “Kooza,” who was kind of the master of ceremonies. He was a harlequin character who ran the show. I played that character from the end of 2008 to the beginning of 2011, and then they hired me to be part of the creation of a new show that opened at the Kodak Theater called “Iris.” I did that show for a year. Then I left the circus for five or six years to pursue other kinds of dance. I studied at Alonzo King Lines Ballet for several months in San Francisco. I just wanted to expand my creative potential. Then, I joined a dance company called Pilobolus in Connecticut for three years. After that, I rejoined the circus for another three years, and I just left in December. Altogether, that’s seven years of the circus. And it’s home. So to hear how hard it is for the company right now is really sad.

Everything has exploded.

Pretty much. I think it’s put myself and my artist friends in a position of being proactive and really actually doing what we have been wanting to do for so long but have been scared of losing stability financially. And since that’s happening anyway, why not create our own projects and work with the people we’ve wanted to work with all along.

Did the IG video project result from this newfound free time?

Before, I was doing more still images, specifically with Jacob. And when I would go on tour, I would find photographers to work with. I did a lot in Spain. I did a lot in Australia. It wasn’t until Jacob told me one day, “You should really start doing video.” I didn’t have a videographer or an outside eye until I moved to Los Angeles and COVID hit. It was kind of a mix of all these serendipitous events that created a perfect storm of creativity. There was no stage. I now had a roommate who had great camera skills, and we had wonderful ideas. And it blossomed from there.

What kind of spaces speak to you?

I love nature. At the beginning of lockdown, I wanted people to still experience the outdoors and being outside. And because everyone was inside, when you did go outside, there were no people. So it really made it easy to find locations to shoot beautiful things. We would go to the beach or the mountains of Malibu, just hike until we found something. It really started for us as an experience of escaping. What we started capturing was an experience for other people to then escape and find beauty in the outdoors. I love architecture. I love concrete. I love linear spaces. I love clean spaces and blue skies. We would play in the space and capture what we would capture as a creative process in itself and a way to share with other people the creative rebellion or revolution that we were feeling.

Is it all improvised?

Often, we create the movement first and then film it, but some of my favorite stuff has been improvised. There’s so many movement patterns in my body, and you never know that they’re there if you try to get them out. Sometimes just turning on music and flowing, you find different pathways, and it’s really exciting.

Do you bring music along or just dance to the tune of your brain?

We have a JBL boombox with a shoulder strap. So we are just walking down the street with this awesome Bluetooth boombox just trying to find a vibe. It’s a lot of fun.

I love the soccer field one.

The Mar Vista Recreational Center has this awesome gigantic soccer field with fake grass. Fake grass is one of the best things to dance on. It’s soft, it’s short, and it’s not itchy. That was with Emma Bock. I was making fun of ballet that day, and she was like, “You should make up something.” So we did, and everyone loved it! And, look, I love ballet, too. I love the lines and linear shapes of the body, but it’s usually not something that’s comfortable on my body, so making up my own was a great exercise. Anyone with an iPhone and a sense of adventure and a little bit of creativity can do it themselves. This is my opportunity to show people. Look what we can do. You can do it too.

How do you suggest a person get comfortable? Like, how do you get free?

Mmm! How do you get free? I love that. I think a lot of what freedom is, is mental. People have fears of what other people think, and it holds them back from pursuing an art form that they enjoy. Maybe what you want isn’t making little dance videos. But what is it that is holding you back from what you want? Is it as simple as what other people might think? In terms of physical freedom, I think a physical practice is important for everyone to have. I try to do a yoga class every morning that I find online or a simple stretch outside on my balcony or a walk around town. Everyone has a movement. Everyone moves naturally. To find your own way of moving is so important and not as hard as everyone thinks.

One thing I found inspiring about your story is that you had a disease as a youngster where you had to get your bones broken.

Oh man, you went way back. I haven’t talked about this in forever. I had Blount’s disease, which affected my knee joints. Your legs start to grow incredibly bow-legged. It was inflamed by me playing soccer, and I was a gymnast. I had to wear these intense knee braces because my knees would fall out of their joints. I wasn’t able to run properly. But I really wanted to be active. There was an incredible amount of pain involved. One of the only ways to fix it was to break the tibia and fibula of my legs, cut out the growth plates and pin them back together.


That was terrible. I was 11. And that’s actually what brought me to dance. The doctor said I needed to stay active. I fell in love with dance on day one. I was hooked. I had always watched Michael Jackson and was a natural dancer, always moving, always very theatrical, wearing a cape, cowboy boots and a Peter Pan hat walking down the grocery store dancing to the beat of my own drum. So the opportunity to start training after the surgery, it’s what saved my life physically, but it really gave me a life in every sense of the word.

What do you love so much about dancing?

I found so much meaning behind the process of creating dance and creating stories for other people to ingest. There’s such a cathartic experience where people are face to face with their own emotions, which they haven’t fully expressed or shared with other people.

I was talking to a collaborator who lives in Ghana. A lot of his history isn’t written down in books, but it’s shared through dance and song. And it’s just so beautiful to be part of a lineage of artists that pass along stories and ideas and concepts that can’t necessarily be written down but can only be shared in dances and songs. It’s so important to pass down the experiences that we have. The process of dancing with other people has brought me so much joy. I’ve seen it heal and transform people’s lives and give people something to believe in and dream in and work hard on. And physically, it’s kept me in good health. My biomechanics in my legs is still really rocky.

Dance is a crossroads between the physical self and the spiritual self. I have worked with some really great directors and choreographers that have instilled in me a beautiful sense of wisdom. They showed me that dance is really life. My dance practice coincides with my life practice. I’m so grateful to have found something that has led me through this life so beautifully.

Los Angeleno