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Choreographer Travis Wall Describes His 2016 Emmy Nominated Routines

“So You Think You Can Dance” lighting department crew created special lights for Travis Wall’s Emmy nominated “Beautiful Friends.” Photo: Fox Networks

By:  Marjorie Galas

The core of any Travis Wall-choreographed piece is certainly dancing.  Equal to the movement the dancers master, however, is the story they tell, the music they dance to, the lighting that illuminates them, the look of the space and props, the angle the camera captures, the hair and makeup styling, and the appearance of the costumes they wear.  For a television series such as Fox’s dance competition “So You Think You Can Dance”, which Wall has contributed to over the last six seasons, the choreographer states the crew and department heads make his efforts possible.

“It really is a collaborative process to (bring the performance to life)”, said Wall.  “The team members on this show are fantastic, they are the ones that make everything happen.”

While the entirety of any stage performance is a collection of many parts, the heart of Wall’s performances are the stories he creates through complex dance moves.  His peers agree with this statement: he’s currently celebrating his sixth consecutive Emmy nomination for his work, a nomination that follows his first Emmy win in 2015 for “So You Think You Can Dance.”   Humbled and overwhelmed with the praise, Wall states he found himself kicking his summers off in disbelief over the recognition.  Noting the choreographers can submit routines of their choice, his entries this year spoke of unique experiences and stories he captured in the routines.  The three exhibited a wide range of techniques and design, from duets to a sprawling group number.

The group number, “Beautiful Friends,” captures a surreal moment of performance.  Set on a dark stage with one straight, thin light in the center, seven dancers – ghostly in appearance with white hair, faces and clothing – emerge one by one, each holding a similar light.  They appear to float across the stage, ultimately receding in the background, leaving one solitary light in the center of the stage, exactly where it was when the piece began.

Wall’s inspiration for this piece came from reflecting on his youth.  At twelve years old, he had his first Broadway experience.   Curious about the lights that remained on in the theater after everyone left, he was told it was a “ghost light”, a light that satisfied the need of the theater’s ghosts to express their creativity and leave the living performers in peace.   Impressionable and imaginative, he fantasized about the fun the ghosts would have, and decided to bring that vision to life in this routine.

With just four hours to come up with the routine, Wall began by walking in the space with the lights off.  He then worked out the dance moves, walking through each piece of the choreography step by step with the dancers. Noting the piece held many technical challenges including working in the dark and dancing with a light that, at the start of the process, wasn’t yet created, he found himself having to trust his judgement in designing the movements and placement.

“You really have to trust yourself,” said Wall.  “I was literally biting my fingers down to the bone, but I had to be trusting.”

“Beautiful Friends” also displays the comradery of the production team Wall notes is so strong on “So You Think You Can Dance.”   Working with the lighting team, golf lights were designed and built to accommodate the specific look and range of movement needed for the routine.  Working with the Steadicam crew, Wall finalized marks to ensure the performance was perfectly executed and captured for television.  He particularly marvels at the fact that hair and makeup had five minutes between routines to transform the dancers, covering their skin and hair with white products that looked perfect for their ghostly appearances.

Wall’s two duet submissions tell vastly different stories.   “November” – a graceful merging of modern and ballet dance moves – was performed by two male dancers.  Wall’s inspiration for the piece arose from the feelings he was currently experiencing surrounding his estranged father’s re-entry to his life.   For nearly two minutes, the dancers perform a complex push and pull, embracing and supporting each other, then rapidly pushing away and avoiding one another.   During the preparation for this piece, Travis spoke openly with the two dancers about the story’s inspiration.  One dancer had a similar family experience, which helped drive the cinematic and emotional energy of the piece.  Wall also found creating the routine therapeutic.  Forced to make split second decisions in the way the dancers approached each other on stage, he became aware of how he was engaging, and avoiding, confrontations off stage.

For “Gimme All Your Love,” Wall not only choreographed the piece, but also performed in it as well.  His partner was dancer Jenna Dewan-Tatum, who’d not performed for five years prior to the piece.  Originally asked to dance together for the “Dizzy Feet” fundraising gala, Wall and Dewan-Tatum enjoyed the experience so much they agreed to perform together for the 2015 season finale.  An openly gay man, Wall enjoyed exploring the chemistry a man and a women in love can have, creating an electric, highly charged routine that, while elegant, explored extreme sexual energy.

“I don’t get to dance like that a lot,” said Wall. “I loved playing that part of an aggressive partner.”

As Wall continues to challenge himself with routines created both for television and films, something new he’s begun exploring is connecting with composers to create music designed specifically for the dance routines.  He gives a lot of credit to the production team of “So You Think You Can Dance” for clearing rights quickly, but there are times when pieces are unusable.  He was excited that, for a recent routine on “So You Think You Can Dance” Tony nominated Sara Bareilles cleared a piece that was slightly modified from her musical, “Waitress” for the show, and looks forward to experimenting with that concept.  In the meantime, he’s happy to continue exploring interesting stories through dance.

“I’m so lucky that I get to do what I do,” said Wall.