Dancer Ty Cheng Defies Gravity

Ty Cheng in studio dancing
Photo: Jennifer Richard. Spectrum Dance Theater principal dancer Ty Cheng is known for his ability to defy gravity, as seen in this rehearsal with company member Vincent Michael Lopez. 

Ty Alexander Cheng got his start dancing after “following a girl,” his best friend, to a dance tryout during high school in Lake Oswego, Ore., near Portland. Today, Cheng is principal artist in his sixth season at Seattle’s Spectrum Dance Theater, with an international resume and reputation. At age 26, he has already performed around the world, in places as diverse as Spain, Portugal, France, Russia, China, Thailand, Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand and Brazil.

In just the past year, he has flown with a flock of dance troupes and producers in the Northwest, working on performances like Euclidean Space, a production merging pop culture and ballet for the renowned Bumbershoot festival. He also performed with the Whim W’Him company in Monster at Bumbershoot and in The Mother of Us All at Spectrum, where he worked to explore the intricacies of Africa’s landscape and to evoke the place of humanity’s origin.

His most recent work includes dancing in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic Oklahoma! at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre in February 2012 and in a gritty piece on domestic violence, The Beast, at Spectrum this past October.

Cheng, who began his professional dance training at the Alvin Ailey School of Dance is known for his gymnastic ability to defy gravity and challenge the imagination of audiences. With his lineup of recent productions, many would say Cheng has made it.

From Cheng’s perspective he is just getting started.

“My life is successful in a lot of ways because of the things I have overcome and accomplished, but I feel like I have not really reached my success yet,” he says. “It used to be that a lot of my motivation came from ‘not failing.’ Now a lot of my motivation comes from the fear of ‘not trying,’ rather than failing. That defines my success. It’s when I try.”

In addition to his flourishing dance career, he is a student at Evergreen, and credits the college with broadening his perspective of the artistic role.

“Evergreen forces me to think critically, ask questions, and dive deeper into the characters I play on stage,” says Cheng. “Every year, I say this is the last year of dancing. It pounds your body, and then makes you aware of every movement. You can’t do this forever. This is one of the reasons I wanted to invest in an education.”

Cheng, whose father is African-Chinese and mother is Filipina-German, was awarded Evergreen’s cultural diversity tuition scholarship, and attends the college’s Tacoma program.

“Evergreen was one of the best decisions I ever made, and I found a lot of things at the college that I did not think I would find,” says Cheng. He especially appreciates Tacoma faculty member, filmmaker and sociologist Dr. Gilda Sheppard. “She brings us understanding of sociology with an artistic approach,” he says. “I understand how art brings people together.”

Recently, Cheng was able to apply some of this perspective in his performance of The Beast, a production focused on the parental transmission of misogyny from father to son. Cheng says this provided a chance to explore the use of art to challenge how society views masculinity and to discuss the mistreatment of women.

“It was a challenging role and a physical role,” says Cheng. “It helped me learn how to interact and communicate a narrative, how to use art to build awareness in a community–much more than being a nice body that can move well.” 

“I think dance can reach people on a larger scale than just the entertainment view of it,” he adds. “It was a challenge to go into that dark place every night. I learned what my body could do as a dancer, but it also challenged my views.”

The dance with ideas he exhibits in performance also continues seamlessly in his studies, cross fertilizing the worlds of art and multidisciplinary scholarship. What really drew him to dance was the commitment and dedication to an idea rather than dancing itself. “Why people dance, I don’t know,” he says. “It is one of the ‘un-commonist’ things you can do with your body. If I broke my leg I would still be an artist. For now, I am an artist that communicates what I intend through the medium of dance.”

Wherever he goes in the future, Cheng’s unique perspective and social consciousness (nurtured through performance and studies at Evergreen) will go with him. He plans to finish his bachelor’s degree, earn a master’s degree in audio engineering, and “to only fear, the fear of not trying.”