When Mike Tyus was 11 years old, doctors at the City of Los Angeles Children's Hospital broke his tibia and fibula, shaved down growth plates and realigned the bones in his young legs.

They told his parents he'd need to wear a cast, spend time – three months, as it turned out – in a wheelchair before moving on to crutches and learning to walk again.

Then they said to take him to dance classes.

Nearly two decades on, Tyus could be walking with a limp - a permanent reminder of the childhood illness which caused him immense pain and nearly crippled him. Instead, he's now an in-demand contemporary dancer who's travelled the globe with world-leading circus company Cirque du Soleil.


He'll visit New Zealand early next year to star as The Trickster in Cirque's Kooza, a show he helped create 10 years ago and starred in for four.

After helping craft another Cirque du Soleil show and working with Pilobolus Dance Theater, Tyus is back with Kooza and keen to don the tailormade and boldly colourful suits worn by The Trickster.

"It's also great to be back working with circus performers who, trust me, work harder than any performers - maybe because they work against the vulnerability of the human body. We're not superhuman but we are trying to work against human vulnerability."

Standing outside a theatre in Beverly Hills as he talks, you can almost hear Tyus shaking his head in disbelief as he reflects on his journey working against the vulnerabilities – the limitations – of his own body.

A keen soccer player, he'd just hit double figures when he was diagnosed with Blount's disease, a growth disorder of the shin bone (tibia) that causes legs to become bowed. He was In intense pain and it was decided that surgery was best.

"Dance came into the picture when I needed to find something to keep me strong," says 29-year-old Tyus. "I was always interested in dance; I improvised dance with my babysitters, making up routines to Michael Jackson. Dance classes helped me gain strength but it also gave me purpose and passion."

It became a vocation for Tyus, the eldest of five children raised in a working-class household in Temple City, LA. He says strained financial circumstances meant his family faced real challenges and moved a lot. That changed when his great-grandmother gave them the family home and Tyus' father, an ironworker, eventually started his own business.

So, maybe that's where his own determination comes from and Tyus still needs every bit of it.

Mike Tyus shows off his moves.
Mike Tyus shows off his moves.

There's continued pain; he has to be more careful of injury than other dancers of his age and experience. Last year, Tyus did a backflip – "something I've done 100 times before" – felt a twinge, went for a walk along the beach and collapsed when his cracked knee broke all the way through.

"It's a constant battle against my nature; a challenge to do what I want to do but, in life, there's always something to be challenged by or something to overcome and when I'm in the midst of that, I remind myself of what I've survived so far and that ushers in a new sense of strength.

"It might make me rethink what I am doing but I love it so much and it has changed my life for the better that it re-invigorates me."

One of the co-founders of the dance group the Urban Poets, Tyus had already toured the world when his grandmother told him she could see him performing with Cirque du Soleil He thought the idea far-fetched – after all there was a strong theatrical element as well as dance to what the company did – but then his agent put him forward for an audition.

"I went, more or less, to keep my agent happy. I never expected to get in … "
The Trickster, whom he plays in Kooza, is a character he describes as like a genie or a joker who keeps the audience guessing as to whether he's good or bad.

"He certainly has a malevolent side to him and it's fun to play with that duality."

What does he want to audience to feel at the end of the show?

"I want them to have a sense of awe and a renewed appreciation for what's possible in their own lives."

What: Cirque du Soleil - Kooza
Where & when: Alexandra Park, February 15 - March 3