Travis Wall is arguably the most popular contemporary choreographer on the Fox summer series, So You Think You Can Dance, which just finished its stunning 11th season. The 27-year-old Wall has been a staple on the show since he auditioned in season 2, taking second place that year. He returned in season 5 as choreographer. His talent for turning emotion into movement has earned him four Emmy nominations.
In 2012 Wall founded the dance company Shaping Sound with dancers Teddy Forance, Kyle Robinson, and SYTYCD Season 1 winner Nick Lazzarini. The company kicks off its second national tour in L.A. this weekend, hitting 36 cities across the United States and four in Canada. We spoke with Wall during rehearsals for the new show.
Shaping Sound is described as “a mash-up of dance styles and musical genres.” How did that come about?
We all grew up in dance studios and we’ve all had different careers. Some of us are Broadway dancers, some are commercial dancers, some are concert dancers. Some of us went to college, some didn’t. We’ve taken everything that we’ve learned and applied it to Shaping Sound in a show. It’s not just contemporary dance. We have a lot of different music in the show and it’s really the music that drives the style of dance that we’re doing, but it’s our own take on every style. Some of the sections are really dark, some are beautiful and uplifting. There are rock numbers and a 1920s section, which is more jazz and musical theater, where we get to be like Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. All in all it’s really entertaining.
Is it difficult to find a throughline when you have such different musical styles?
Yeah, it’s been a work in progress. We came up with the idea [for the show] for our first tour about a year and a half ago, and we had three, four weeks to put it together. The tour sold out. So we got a booking agent and they had so many notes and changes, so many questions. We thought: Now we can figure out the storyline a little better or answer the questions and make it more apparent to the naked eye. So that’s what this time around is, really getting down to the story. We thought we were only going to change about 35 percent and we changed 75 percent of the show. There are a couple recurring numbers, but most are new.
What’s the idea? What can we expect from the show?
We’re more than a dance company; you’re coming to see a show. I think it could be a Broadway show or a show in Vegas. There’s a storyline and there’s a full first act and a full second act. You’re following this character through her dreams. You meet her in the beginning and realize that she’s a very broken, hurt, very insecure and abused girl. Then you watch her fall asleep and she has all these experiences in her dreams. You’re rooting for her, you want her to fall in love; you want her to get out of the relationship she’s in. You invest yourself in this character, and along the ride you see these beautiful pictures, you get taken into these different worlds, you have some awesome set pieces moving around.
We picked the concept of a dream because anything can happen in a dream. There are no boundaries in a dream. I dream very vividly; I have nightmares every single night of my life, and I remember every single one of them. I have a really crazy memory with dreaming. I think we’re all very inspired by our dreams.
Is there a throughline or common denominator that comes up in your dreams?
Yes, it’s always something about natural disasters, like huge tidal waves or flooding or tornadoes, and sometimes alien attacks [laughs], but always in my dreams I’m trying to save people. I’m trying to get people to higher ground. I don’t really know what that means.
These are all things that you really have no control over too. It must be frustrating sometimes.
Absolutely. Sometimes I’m afraid to go to bed, like I don’t want to deal with this again, and I know it’s coming. Sometimes they get so bad. I see people I love die all the time in my dreams, like this is the worst! [laughs] Sometimes I wake up and I’m so distraught by it, and I remember those images so much I can’t start my day off correctly. At work people are like, “Travis, it’s a dream.” Yes, but I just experienced that dream probably for 8 hours, so it feels like real life. [laughs]
I saw a therapist for a while when I was 22 because I had the same exact recurring dream every night for 2 months and I ended up not sleeping. I couldn’t deal with it anymore; I just had to see a therapist. It’s crazy because I went in to see him and he said, “there’s something in your life that’s about to explode. There’s a relationship you’re in, or a situation, and everything is just about to hit the fan, and when it does, it’s going to suck, but then you’re going to stop having these dreams.” And literally within a week, the situation happened, and it blew up. I had a huge, huge falling out with a friend; a backstabbing moment, like an awakening. It tore me apart, but about a month after, when everything was settled, I didn’t have those dreams anymore.
[This incident was the inspiration for Wall’s Emmy-nominated 2011 routine, “How It Ends” with Kent and Neil.]
Do you do most of the choreography for Shaping Sound, or do you share it?
It’s very collaborative. We talk about what we’re going to do before we come to the studio. We try to outline pieces of it so we know the way we’re going to go. This time around I’ve taken a huge leadership [role], just getting it done in time, but when it comes to the moves and actual choreography itself, it’s definitely all four [of us]. On top of that, we have the most amazing dancers in our company. There’s a duet in the show with dancers Matthew Peacock and Chelsea Thedinga. They’re a couple and they create all the time together, so we helped them direct it but they’re choreographing their moves too, so it’s really a collaboration of artists.
How does it differ from So You Think You Can Dance?
It’s very different. On So You Think, you’re creating a minute and a half routine for television and it’s two people. With this, it’s staged and you’re choreographing and directing the whole thing. You’re not just responsible for a minute and a half, you’re responsible for the audience’s experience from the minute they walk in the door until the curtain closes. That’s a lot of responsibility. Obviously, you’re going to say, “I can definitely tell Travis did this,” just because people have become so familiar with my choreography because of the television show. But we get to do so much more. I don’t have to worry about standards and practices [laughs], I don’t have to worry that maybe he can’t touch her like this. We obviously keep in mind it’s a family-friendly show, but there’s no boundaries, we get to do whatever we want, and that’s really what the difference is. With So You Think there’s a structure you have to abide by.
Do you have a lot of young fans?
Our young fans are dance fans so they’re not fazed by it. [Laughs] It’s not something they haven’t seen before. I don’t see the problem with bringing a 6-year-old who hasn’t really seen dance before. It’s a little sexual, [but] it’s always tasteful, but I think it depends on the child if they’re ready to see that or not. It’s just in a couple numbers, but I definitely think that some of the stuff that happens in the show would be really mind-blowing to a child. Like, “wow, I want to be a dancer! I want to get up on the stage and do that.” It is inspiring.
In some ways you’re known on the show for choreographing for men, but you mentioned that you prefer choreographing for women. Is that true?
I love choreographing on men and women together. I love partnering. Mostly in my partner work, I’m showcasing the girl. It’s more classical ballet treatment where the guy stands there and he moves the girl completely around. I’m slowly trying to get better at moving the guy a little bit more. [Laughs] But I love the shapes that women create and the technique involved with it. I love lines and I love using the girl’s technical ability to its fullest extent. But more than that, I love choreographing a group of guys. I love the partnering and the group lifts we can do, and I just like dancing with guys. [laugh] Growing up, we never got to do that. I didn’t have guys at my studio, and at the time it wasn’t really [done]. The guys’ piece I did on So You Think this year is one of my favorites I’ve ever done, because it’s so nice to see guys move like that. Usually when it’s guys it has to be hip-hop, or it’s got to be strong and in your face, instead of making them move really slowly and beautifully, and have technique as well, and create gorgeous pictures and still not be feminine. It can be masculine in the same way, but it’s still beautiful.
You perform in the show too. Do you ever have difficulty balancing performing with choreography?
I have fallen back in love with dancing. I fell out of love with it for a minute because I was so in love with choreography and I had a lot of body problems. But I realize getting older that I can’t dance for that long. I’ve learned to work around my body problems and take care of myself better and realized that I can still dance and move people without necessarily getting my leg past 90 [degrees]. [laughs] So I’m dancing a lot in the show. People are familiar with my choreography, but not many people get to see me dance anymore so it’s really nice to be able to give back to the audience. They get to see me do my own choreography, which is cool.
Shaping Sound performs at Montalbán Theatre Hollywood this Saturday, October 11 at 8 p.m., and Sunday, October 12, at 3 p.m. Tickets available at Shaping Sound.