Tyson, Andre 1960–
Andre Tyson 1960–
Dancer, choreographer, teacher
Over a career that has spanned more than two decades, Andre Tyson has made a name for himself as a dancer, choreographer, and teacher. As a dancer, the long-limbed Tyson, with his finely chiseled features, is known for his technical prowess, individuality, and ability to communicate easily with audiences. As a choreographer he is known for blending diverse styles and making the dancers active participants in the creation of works. As a teacher, he is known for his thorough and considered approach to mentoring the individual dancer.
Joined Alvin Ailey Company
A love of dance came later for Tyson than the typical would-be dancer. Born in 1960 in Greenville, North Carolina, he played sports as a child and then discovered dance because friends at a summer recreation program were doing it. “When I saw what they did, the bug bit me,” Tyson told Genie Carr of the Winston-Salem Journal. “I’ve always like physical activities, and dance was a great way to express myself and be athletic at the same time.” Tyson would go on to participate in a youth-dance program called The Inner City Ensemble in Paterson, New Jersey.
While attending Rutgers University, where he majored in journalism, Tyson also studied dance on scholarship at the School of the Garden State Ballet. After Tyson saw a performance of the Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre, he auditioned for a scholarship to the Ailey school, and when he found himself studying dance in New York and New Jersey while still enrolled at Rutgers, he had to make a decision. Dance won out over journalism, and modern dance won out over ballet, as Tyson explained to Dance Magazine’s Susan Reiter, “I had a need to move in a modern sense and more organically. I don’t think you get a chance to move that way much in a classical company.” Tyson continued, “Also, the roles for men in a classical ballet company can be limiting, whereas here [at Alvin Ailey] we do the whole range—neoclassical, ethnic, postmodern, very dramatic—and that was exciting to me. I just got here and got hooked.”
Under Kelvin Rotardier, Tyson trained at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center Workshop, and in the Repertory Ensemble he studied under Sylvia Waters. Like many dancers who follow this progression, Tyson auditioned for a position with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, the main company. However, after three auditions for Ailey and being turned down three times, Tyson went on to teaching and choreographing. Then one day, to Tyson’s surprise, Ailey telephoned him, inviting him to join the company, which he did in 1985.
With the Ailey company, Tyson performed many partnering roles but also a wide range of solo work in many dance styles, in such works as The Stack-Up, Hermit Songs, and Bad Blood, among others. He appreciated the variety because it kept him from being
At a Glance…
Career: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, principal dancer, 1988-94; Complexions Dance Company, member, 1995–; teacher at Smith College, Wake Forest University, the University of South Carolina, Hooges Voorde Kunsten, and North Carolina School of the Arts; University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Peck School of Fine Arts, dance instructor, 1998–.
Awards: Alvin Ailey American Dance Center, scholarship; New Jersey, fellowship grant for choreography, 1982.
Address: Office —Peck School of the Arts, Theatre and Dance Dept., P.O, Box 413, Milwaukee, Wl 53211.
typecast in the tall, strong partner role. In 1986 he appeared in the physically demanding Bad Blood, choreographed by Ulysses Dove to excerpts from recordings by Laurie Anderson. As the title suggests, the ostensible subject of the dance is the malaise of the twentieth century as evidenced in personal relationships, and the three women and four men who make up the ensemble vie for each other using highly athletic movements laced with jazz moves. According to New York Times dance critic Anna Kisselgoff, “The quiet ruthlessness of the drama, the physical side of the excellent dancing—these make one want to see Bad Blood again.” Tyson also had a special duet with Sherrell Mesh in Ailey’s last ballet, Opus McShann.
In 1988 and 1989 Tyson danced a principal role in performances of Shards by Donald Byrd to music by Mio Morales. This piece, which New York dance reviewer Tobi Tobias called “postmodern for its eclectic nature,” is a fusion of jazz, modern dance, and classical ballet. Though the piece opened with the company en masse facing the audience, after a time in which harmony was suggested, the dancers dispersed into smaller groups that expressed various different styles, including couples who quarrel with and even “strike” each other; these are the shards referred to in the piece’s title. “What’s striking and refreshing about the piece is the easy invention with which the blend is achieved” Tobias added. “And the dancers, led by Danar Hasl, Andre Tyson, and Ruthlyn Salomons, have the skill to make the transitions—from a phrase in one dance language to a phrase in another—fluidly and without affectation.” New York Times dance reviewer Jack Anderson also noted “the elegant sequences [that] looked balletic,” and he suggested that dance could be viewed “as a kinetic allegory in which the balletic passages symbolized a state of order threatened by the forces of disorder,” though “other interpretations are also possible.”
This was a difficult period for Tyson, as well as for many of the Ailey dancers, because Ailey died during the opening of the 1989 season. “We really didn’t even have a chance to feel what was happening—you just became numb,” Tyson recalled to Reiter. Yet like other dancers who have come under the spell of Ailey, Tyson carried a lasting legacy in his desire to strive for more. “Alvin was always saying things like, ’Don’t be safe; try to take things out to the edge, try to challenge yourself—be vulnerable, be strong.’” And, as Tyson would himself do as the mentor, Ailey saw the individual. He recalled, “He was very interested in your personality, because as a boss/director, he established one kind of rapport with you, and then he wanted to get through all of that and see the dancer, the reason why you decided to dance in the beginning.”
Tyson continued with the Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre under the new direction of Judith Jamison. During the 1991 season, he made a splash with his performance of Alvin Ailey’s 1961 solo Hermit Songs. Dancing in a dark monk’s robe and cowl to four songs by Samuel Barber, he exhibited “confidence” and “a sense of barely contained strength, carefully rationed,” noted Dance Magazines Julinda Lewis. That year Tyson also appeared in Ailey’s Masekela Language, a tribute to the music of South African trumpeter and composer Hugh Masekela, and Donald McKayle’s District Storyville, which harks back to the early days of jazz in New Orleans. Altogether Tyson danced with the main Ailey company for nine years. After Desmond Richardson and Dwight Rhoden left the Ailey company to work elsewhere and found their pick-up Complexions Dance Company, Tyson appeared in roles, some of them his own creations, with the new company.
Many dancers become teachers as they get older. Tyson is no exception. He has taught at dance schools in the United States and abroad, including in Italy, Hungary, Austria, India, Switzerland, Germany, Japan, and South America. Although he did take Japanese language classes before teaching in Japan, Tyson has had little trouble communicating. Dance is a universal language, after all. Tyson remarked that teaching dance at colleges is different from dance studios, where students may leave after a short time. He has taught at academic institutions such as Smith College, Wake Forest University, the University of South Carolina, the Hooges Voorde Kunsten, and the North Carolina School of the Arts before joining the Peck School of Fine Arts at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. In the college setting he can develop a rapport with students and see them develop over time. He also creates original pieces for his students.
At the Peck School of Fine Arts website, Tyson expressed his teaching philosophy: “My teaching style and philosophy is firmly based on traditional methods of teaching with a disciplined approach to assist dancers in becoming proficient and well rounded. I believe that combining organic qualitative elements of both contemporary and classical idioms builds strength, flexibility, and a highly tuned sense of musicality, aesthetic, and special awareness.” Over his years of teaching dance, Tyson has honed his teaching skills, bringing together aspects of various methods that he thinks work particularly well. He explained, “My class can best be described as a Horton based contemporary/modern class. The foundation of the class is soundly and primarily Horton technique with some derivatives of Graham technique and basic balletic principles. In addition, aspects of yoga, floor barre, and Pilates technique supplement instruction. This fusion of traditional, and alternative techniques create an organic contemporary form of movement. The class also encompasses relaxing, therapeutic and cardiovascular properties that aid in developing a strong, versatile, cross-trained dancer.”
Yet even a dancer in superb command of the body has to know about other parts of the performance world, including acting, costumes, lighting, and perhaps, even singing. In trying to create a complete performer, Tyson works on broadening each dancer’s experiences and horizons. “I want them [the students] to understand that once they are presented with the steps, it’s up to them to color the steps,” Tyson told Tom Strini of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “I want them to think on their feet. I give them a step and see where they go with it, to see what feedback they’ll give me. I try to make them feel freer to express themselves.” In addition to their technical abilities, the students take this well-nurtured creativity with them when they graduate.
In addition to working with student groups at the Peck School of Fine Arts, Tyson works with other local performing organizations, both profit and not-for-profit. He has created pieces for the Milwaukee City Ballet, Milwaukee Dance Connection, and Skylight Opera Company. “We’re encouraged to work outside [the University], which is really a unique thing. It keeps us from feeling trapped,” Tyson noted of this creative freedom. With his abundant energy and overflowing enthusiasm, it is difficult to imagine Tyson ever being trapped.
Back Stage, October 14, 1983.
Dance Magazine, March 1989; May 1991; December 1991; April 1992.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (Milwaukee, WI), July 10, 2001.
Musical America, May 1987.
New York, January 2, 1989.
New York Times, December 5, 1986; December 17, 1988; December 24, 1989; December 22, 1991; December 30, 1991.
Tech, April 3, 1992.
Winston-Salem Journal (Winston-Salem, NC), November 16, 1997.
“Andre Tyson: Biography,” Peck School of the Arts, www.uwm.edu/PSOA/Dance/faculty/tyson (April 4, 2003).
“You are Cordially Invited,” Footlights, www.footlights.com/Feature-Details.cfm?ID=21 (June 20, 2003).
—Jeanne M. Lesinski
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