Interview: Travis Wall of 'So You Think You Can Dance'
This week is the finale of the 11th season of talent competition show So You Think You Can Dance, and I had the pleasure of interviewing one of the true dance stars to emerge from the show, dancer and choreographer Travis Wall. A Season 2 finalist who made his mark as a dancer, he soon returned as a choreographer—and at only 26 years old, Travis has been nominated for a choreography Emmy each of the past four years for his work on the show.
We spoke about the process of creating for the show, about who he enjoys working with most, and about his short stint in reality TV, among other things.
Elisa Camahort Page: You started as a dancer; did you have to train specially to become a choreographer?
Travis Wall: My mom was a dance teacher, so I started at a very young age. I was in the studio, and I was choreographing there before So You Think You Can Dance.
What is your process for creating a dance? Do you start with idea, movement, music?
It varies, in that sometimes it starts with music. Music is very inspiring. And sometimes I have a story I want to tell, and I go find music to tell that story. The movement, though, always comes last.
That being the case, do you really come in to your SYTYCD studio each week and start a routine from scratch once you find out who you're working with? Or do you have works already well along, which you then customize?
At this point, I create my work on the dancers themselves. I used to create using assistants, and come in with more done, but I was finding that I would throw away all that movement. I decided I was really wasting my time. Now, a lot of the other choreographers do come in with routines mapped out. It just doesn't work for me.
So, is it most fun or easiest to work with contemporary dancers, who may already know your dance vocabulary, so to speak?
I like to work with a dancer who will try anything. With contemporary dancers, you can certainly choreograph "dream routines," but I love working with hip-hop and break dancers. They are very aware of space and moving their bodies in unusual ways. In that way, they're similar to contemporary dancers, and it gives you so much more to create on. Emilio (a break dancer who was in the Top 10 this season), for example, was so eager to move his body like it hadn't before. Ballroom dancers can be the hardest because of how specific their dance style's movements are.
So, since you mentioned Emilio: Who are the most interesting/favorite/surprising dancers you've ever worked with on the show?
Melanie [Season 8 winner] was one of my favorites ever. It's interesting, because the first four seasons were very guy-dominated, but then past Season 5, it became very girl-dominated. But this season, the guys are finally stronger than the girls again. Ricky is just extraordinary. And he's still so young and can still grow, so imagine how much more extraordinary he can become.
What is the career path for a dancer post-SYTYCD? Is your success unusual?
It's in your hands. You have to audition and work hard. It's great that SYTYCD started bringing back previous contestants as the "all-stars." You know, it's not just about your dancing; it's also about how likable you are, and whether you work well with other people. Now, they ask the choreographers, "Who do you want as your all-star?" So it's not just fan favorites. And that's why you'll see some folks are back again and again.
Let's talk about your other projects. People call SYTYCD a reality TV show, but it's really a talent competition. You did a more traditional "reality TV" show on Oxygen a year or two ago, called All the Right Moves. What's the difference between doing that kind of television verité and a show like SYTYCD, and would you ever do it again?
I would NOT do that again. It just turned out to be something it wasn’t supposed to be. And it got out of our control. It's just a lot of stress, and it really stunted the creative process of our actual dance troupe. It's hard to have real authentic creation happen in front of cameras. We did the show as created during that show, but then we re-did the same show again afterwards, and it made a huge difference.
I'm happy we did it. It got us out there. It helped us get our first tour. Now we have a second national tour scheduled for October, so my dance company [Shaping Sound] is going to be out on tour most of the fall and winter. And we loved our production company, World of Wonder. We're working with them again. Just not the network [Oxygen].
You do a lot of charitable work, both for The Trevor Project, and work that focuses on youth and dance. Have you seen that work make a difference?
Yes, I work on projects that bring dance to kids, especially inner city kids. It lets kids enjoy what dance allows them to show and express. I teach across the country, every weekend, as part of the dance convention Nuvo. I wish I could come back later and see each student's growth!
Final question! Do you really want to choreograph for the New York City Ballet? And was Nigel mentioning it because something is in the works? [Producer/Head Judge Nigel Lythgoe mentioned this on an episode several weeks ago, after Wall choreographed a "contemporary ballet" routine.]
That is one of my dreams—but no, he was mentioning it because he knows that, not because that's in the works!
NYCB...are you listening????