The Big Picture Man
February 1, 2009

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.

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