To honor the Outstanding Choreography Emmy’s move to the primetime telecast, Los Angeles magazine is publishing a series of profiles of the Emmy-nominated choreographers.
At only 25, Travis Wall is already one of the most respected and exciting contemporary choreographers on So You Think You Can Dance. That’s no small honor, considering who he’s up against on the show. He worked hard to get there and fans of the show had the good fortune of watching him evolve.
Wall’s relationship with the show began when he was 18. His best friend Nick Lazzarini competed and won in the show’s inaugural season; Wall auditioned and became a contestant the following year. He came in second behind Benji Schwimmer—which would seem to be exactly what he wanted.
“I really wanted to choreograph,” he says. “I thought if I got exposure I might be able to get some jobs. So I went on the show and danced.”
During the SYTYCD tour that followed, he told the producers he would choreograph for them, if they’d have him.
“I had to prove myself to them a bunch of times before they even let me do that,” he says. “Then [choreographer] Mia Michaels called out one week and they called me, and literally six hours later I was choreographing a duet for the show. The rest is history.”
That was in Season 5, when Wall was 21, and he’s been a force on the show since. He earned his first Emmy nomination in 2011, and is up for the award again this year for his pieces Where the Light Gets In, Without You, and Unchained Melody.
While the stress as a contestant is more visible, Wall still feels pressure to do well as a choreographer. “You book the job, but you’re constantly auditioning as a choreographer for the judges,” he explains. There is one crucial difference: “The show has your back.”
“It’s not like it was in the beginning of my process on the show,” he says. “I’ve definitely earned a spot in some way. If I ever do a bad piece on the show, I don’t think I’d not get asked back because I’m much further into the relationship with the show than that.”
The likeliness of Wall’s doing a “bad piece” on the show seems remote. He already has a reputation for strong, vulnerable works that pack an emotional punch. People often say his choreography makes them cry.
“The movement involves emotion, and I think that’s what’s beautiful about it,” he says. “A lot of times you feel like you’re looking at a painting or a movie, and you’re watching moveable art. I think people relate it back to themselves somehow. It’s not necessarily about the emotion; when people see beauty, they cry.”
The emotion is certainly there. Wall has a gift for converting feelings into physical expression, turning expressive metaphors, like hungering for someone’s touch or stabbing someone in the back, into abstract movements, sometimes to the point where they appear violent.
“I feel like when we talk we can say very hurtful words, and we can describe situations with our words that sometimes make you jolt,” he says. “In dance we use our bodies. When there’s a huge hand movement or something that pushes to the stomach, it’s that one word, that one thing that someone just said to you. The violence becomes the spoken language of dance.”
He also creates movements that fit the dancers’ bodies and flow smoothly. “I love transitions and I love the continuity within the movement, so a lot of my movements flow together,” he says. “Then I involve the dancers and say ‘Where do you feel like you want to go?’ I always think of the infinity sign, how the energy always flows. I never take a sharp turn, so I always try to take one movement and continue it into another.”
Like all good dancer-choreographers, Wall makes this look easy, especially considering his approach to choreography.
“Every choreographer has a different approach to the show and mine is definitely more on the spot,” he says. “I used to come in with a prepared duet in some way and it never turned out that well. I think the best ones always turn out with me just going in and choreographing on the spot with the two artists I have in front of me. That’s when you create the special moments—when it’s created in the heat of the moment and not prepared.”
It certainly seems to be working for Wall, as evidenced by these latest nominations. He’s thrilled by the opportunity to choreograph for the Primetime Emmy telecast.
“They told us we’re on the primetimes, and we were like ‘What?’ Then they told us we’re choreographing a routine and we were like, ‘What?’ Dancers and choreographers, we don’t get recognized like this. We’re behind the scenes all the time, and to be part of the first group of choreographers to be able to do this—and hopefully not to screw it up so it never happens again—that’s always in the back of my head. It really is such an honor. It’s like, slap me, am I dreaming?”