An Interview with Charles Tyson, Jr.

by Steven Weisz for The Dance Journal

Steve: Charles, you seem to have your hands in to so many areas of dance and the performing arts, I am not sure even where to begin. I know you are a Philadelphia native and went to West Catholic High School and then on to Temple University, but perhaps you can tell us a bit more about your background…

Charles: I was a music major in high school. I played the clarinet. I had aspirations of becoming a classical performer with the Philadelphia Orchestra who dabbled in jazz on the side. (hee hee.) My first dance steps took the form of copying the choreography in Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation” video when I was fourteen. (Excuse while I date myself.) Once I got that down, I tackled any video with any choreography in it. Especially Janet and Michael Jackson! To this day, if you want to learn MJ or Janet ‘ography, you can ask me! J

I continued music at Temple University until I realized how badly I suck at music theory (very badly.) So I started exploring other options, looking for something that I could see myself doing that I knew would make me happy. That’s how I ended up with dance. I had zero training when I auditioned for Temple’s dance department and didn’t get accepted. My ego kicked in and I took NOTHING but dance classes the next year and re-auditioned.

I absorbed everything all at once (modern, jazz, ballet, African dance,) which I think contributes to my crazy, mixed up choreographic style!

Steve: You are both the Artistic Director as well as the curator for the ETC Series. Can you tell us a bit more how this came about, what your goals for the program are, what kind of response you have had and where you see the program going in the future?

Charles: The Bald Mermaids curated the GLUE Performance Series from the 90’s to about ’03. Then, their lives started getting grander (husbands, kids, new homes, careers, etc.) and GLUE got kind of laid to rest. I didn’t realize what a strong impact GLUE had on performing artists as an incubator for their work until it was gone!

I was working at the University City Arts League doing promotional work and graphic design. We were sitting around discussing ways to get new faces into the Arts League and I got the idea of starting a performance series. I used GLUE as my model because it was so successful. I decided to call it the ETC. Performance Series (dance, theater, music, etc.) I sent out a call for artists and we held it in the second floor front dance studio, the biggest one they had. That first season, we played host to SHARP dance company, Annex Dance, VADA, the PREMIERE of Eng & Friends (then called Twins & Friends) and so many others, plus actors and musicians and all kinds of cool stuff! The audiences were getting so big I was beginning to worry about keeping it at the Arts League.

Luckily, the Arts League got a new director, who fired me just as I was having these concerns. I called Terri Shockley at the Community Education Center who was aware of and impressed by the reputation of the first season. She was more than happy to start up a partnership. And this June we will be closing out third successful season!

I’m very proud and pleased to be able to provide audiences for so many talented artists. I’m also very glad to be doing it at the CEC, which as an artist has been a warm comfortable home for my own creativity (my company held its debut concert at the CEC.)

ETC. is continuing to grow. I did the math and we play host to more than forty artists a season! I have been getting inquiries from artists outside the Philadelphia area. Danielle Selby, an artist from upstate New York presented in April and I was recently contacted by a dancer who will be coming from ISRAEL!

I would like the series to be viewed as a forum where, as long as you view yourself a performing artist with something to say, we give you a place to say it. It doesn’t matter if you are just starting out or have an established following, you’re welcome to share with us. The only rules I enforce, and I state these at the start of every show: 1) you can’t start any fires 2) you can’t break any laws…other than that, for up to fifteen minutes, the stage is yours!

Steve: You are also a founding member of Indigenous Pitch Dance Collective. Can you tell us a bit more about your involvement. Also, I know that IPDC is very involved in the community and working with children, please elaborate on some of your more current projects.

Charles: IndiPitch was founded in 2005 by Artistic Director Lisa Welsh. We’re a collective of  four dance companies: Underground DanceWorks, Illadelphlave, Stephen Welsh/SWERVE and  Shift Dance Compnay. We do performances every year and each company presents new work. We also have an outreach component. For the past four years, we have been going to New Orleans to give free dance camps for the kids there in the summer to promote a healing release from the trauma permeating the area. The first year, we were each asked what we would want to teach. I had just finished watching the documentary “When The Levees Broke” about Hurricane Katrina. The stories about the families being displaced in the aftermath of the storm struck a strong chord with me. The first thing I thought of was slavery and the auction block, when Africans were sold off, families broken up and identities stripped.  I decided to teach African dance and storytelling because if we don’t know where we came from, we don’t know where we are and damn sure can’t know where we’re going. The class has been a highlight each year!

Currently, IndiPitch is preparing for another summer in New Orleans and a trip to Haiti where we have been invited by the Christian University of Northern Haiti to bring the camp to their kids. We just finished our second year providing a camp for kids in North Philly.  Performance-wise, we were chosen to participate in the International Arts Festival in 2011, so we’re gearing up for a fabulous performance at the Kimmel Center!

Steve: You also have your own company, Underground DanceWorks, which you are both Artistic Director and choreographer. Can you tell us a bit more about what you are currently working on.

Charles: UDW is celebrating our ten year anniversary this year. We’ve been busy! Currently we are finishing up our newest work “Transitional Period.” For the CEC’s New Edge Mix performance May 14-16.  The work stems from, as Terri Shockley calls it my “mid-career crisis.” I’m trying so many things and setting so many goals I constantly feel in a state of flux. For years I identified solely as a dancer. But as I add new components, that identity has been left in favor of director, producer, choreographer, etc.

I pondered that change for a while. I then realized that great change is like a death. So an underlying element of “Transitional Period” is the five stages of dying: anger, denial, bargaining depression and acceptance.

Steve: I know there is quite a bit I have probably left out in your roles for so many groups as stage manager, lighting designer, public relations manager, choreographer. Is there anything else you would like to add?

Charles: Actor, writer, filmmaker, comedian.

Steve: Lastly, what is your vision of dance in Philadelphia?

Charles: Philadelphia is a strong center for dance. I didn’t realize how innovative Philadelphians are until I’d seen dancers from elsewhere do certain things and realize that I’d seen it done better in Philly! I like the fact that we are more substantial with our art and aren’t willing to settle for simple flash and dazzle. And when we do flash and dazzle, there’s an intelligence behind it. I’m actually curious myself to see what the future holds for Philadelphia dance. I’m also excited to have a role in its forward momentum!

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