SYTYCD: Travis Wall on what inspired his Emmy-nominated routines
There’s a lot involved in taking a routine from an idea to an Emmy-nominated reality — but as choreographer Travis Wall will tell you, it happens quickly. Three of Wall’s pieces, which were performed on So You Think You Can Dance, make up his 2016 Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Choreography; each number was choreographed in a matter of hours, and each hour brought its own challenges, from a complex lighting concept to the unveiling of a story that hit close to home. Below, Wall walks EW through the routines and shares a few behind-the-scenes secrets. (Hint: One got Channing Tatum’s seal of approval.)
Inspiration: I was in a Broadway show, The Music Man, when I was 12-years-old. At the very end of the show, when they turn off the lights in the theater, they leave this ghost light onstage. And my child wrangler at the time, instead of just saying it’s for safety issues, told me this urban legend about the ghosts of the theater: If you put a ghost light out, it’s someplace the ghosts have an opportunity to perform at night, and they won’t mess with the theater or the production. At 12 years old, of course my childhood imagination went off with that. So I’ve always been fascinated with the ghost light and ghosts in a theater, and having this idea that they exist… I had to go to the lighting designer, Bob Barnhart, and ask, “How do I get a light that is not on a cord? It’s cordless, but is it a bulb?” He was like, “Oh, I actually invented this ghost lamp.” And he brought it in, and I thought, “This is perfect.”
Biggest challenge: Everything. [Laughs] We had four hours to put the group number together. We couldn’t choreograph it in studio. I never choreograph anything ahead of time, because I choreograph on the spot, so we had to go onstage, and we had to turn the lights out and grab the lamps. And I said, “Okay, how do I make ghosts appear out of darkness in this space?” I didn’t want you to feel like you were watching So You Think You Can Dance. I didn’t want you to recognize this stage, so I was really trying to come up with a way to completely take us out of that space and transform it… That took the longest. The moves and the dancing, it takes like two seconds to make that up. It’s truly directing where the camera’s going to go and how it’s going to reveal each dancer. And then at the very end, how the dancers disappear.
The dancers’ response: I don’t think they were ever excited. [Laughs] I think they were always pretty stressed out. I pretty much gave it to them that if they ever dropped a light, you know: You break, you buy. They’re very expensive, and we were being lent them from the lighting designer, so I was very adamant about that. And again, we had no time to execute it perfectly. There were mistakes every time we did it, and I’m on it. I was like, “No, it has to be like this.” But they knew I trusted them, and they trusted me. I think they loved dancing the group sections, obviously, because that’s when they got to all dance together. But if you enter too early, or the camera turns a certain way, or if you don’t turn off your light in time — because the buttons on the lights are hard to find — I would have to say it was a pretty stressful routine to be a part of. They wanted to do so well for me, and they really believed in the vision. When I was choreographing that routine, I got nominated for the year before. And so when they were doing this routine, one of our last run-throughs, they were like, “Let’s get Travis another Emmy nomination with this routine!” It was just so funny that that ended up happening.
I’m proudest of: The whole first Steadicam section, just making that reveal out of darkness: when you see Gaby’s face and she turns the light toward the camera for one second, and then turns the light at her face, and she has two more people behind her. And then the ending, how they just fade off into the darkness as the light is being pulled back on the stage. And I’m most proud of all of the departments coming together: costume, hair, makeup, directing, Steadicam, lighting. When everyone works together like that, that’s when it means the most, because everyone truly believes in the final product.
One thing people don’t know: Derek Piquette was supposed to be in that routine, but he was hurt that week. I was supposed to have eight ghosts. Seven actually works better, though, for lineups.
Inspiration: That piece hit home, a little bit, with my father coming back into my life much later in life, wanting to contact me and have these conversations. It was kind of how I felt about dealing with it: He was truly never, ever around, and now you are, and now you think I need to act like everything’s normal, or we need to rekindle this relationship. I don’t feel there is a relationship, and I don’t feel there should be one. That’s what this entire piece is about: how to deal with that confrontation. I’m really bad at confrontation. I’ve actually gotten a lot better because of these situations. They teach you how to deal with it, because you have to make these adult decisions in split seconds when they’re right in front of your face. I’m really happy that this was represented in the body of work, because it’s extraordinary dancing. The choreography’s great, but it’s not about the choreography. You’re watching two amazing male dancers dance together. Their technique and execution is beautiful.
Biggest challenge: It was during finale showcase week, and they were being pulled in millions of directions, so we only had three hours to do that entire thing. That’s just the story of my life on this show. There’s not a lot of time. And I think I was struggling a lot putting that story out on TV, trying to figure out how to explain it, because when you put something so personal out there, you want to do it in the right manner. You’re very vulnerable in those moments. That was one of the hardest things, too — trying to figure out what tone and what voice to speak it in.
The dancers’ response: They were excited about the extremely hard ballet steps: the turns into the tours and into the switch leap. They had been compared to each other for so long on the show, and it was beautiful to see them do the same moves side by side. What’s strange is that they’re so different, too, when it comes to their technique and their execution, but when they danced side by side, they complemented each other so well.
I’m proudest that: I got this story out there. I kind of got something off my chest. It’s a way of dealing with things for me; it’s therapy. I don’t go talk to somebody — I create a piece about it. That’s what I’m most proud of — not only did I create art, I got something off my chest. I took a weight off my shoulders that was bearing down on me.
One thing people don’t know: I was planning this piece pretty much all season. We were supposed to do it around the third week, and then they said, “Jim is going to make the finale, so we’ll just do this piece in the finale.” And I was like, “Yeah, but what if he doesn’t make the finale?” Because he wasn’t getting the greatest routines. Toward the end, he was getting kind of, I felt, shafted. And then he didn’t make the finale, and I was like, “Told you so! We waited too long.” I truly believe that if they had done this routine earlier, Jim would have been way up there. You can’t deny that routine.
“Gimme All Your Love”
Inspiration: Adam Shankman called Jenna Dewan-Tatum and asked if she would dance for the Dizzy Feet Gala, for charity, and maybe dance with me. And she said, “I love Travis. I haven’t danced in five years, but let’s try this.” I had no idea what we were going to do, but when we got into the studio, I was like, “There’s no way you haven’t danced in five years. There’s no way.” I realize I can toss her around. This is fun! The routine starts to really come together. So we do it at Dizzy Feet, and the producers and Nigel [Lythgoe] and Jeff [Thacker] come up to us and say they would love if we do it at the finale… I left it up to Jenna, and Jenna said, “Let’s do it.” It was fun for me because, obviously, I’m gay, and I dance with men sometimes, and I dance with my company, but to dance with her, I was so attracted to her. She was going for it, too. She was ripping at my skin, and she brought me to a new level. I was feeling it 100 percent. Channing Tatum was in the audience, and he was like, “Yo bro, that was so hot! That was amazing.” And I was like, “And my day’s made.” He was so excited to see her dance again, too.
Biggest challenge: I didn’t tear anything, but my shoulder just was not working right, so I had a lot of work being done almost every day on my shoulder, because of all of the lifts. We couldn’t do the lifts over and over again, because I couldn’t take it. Some lifts we’d have to mark, and we had to hope that when it counted — when the cameras were on and Cat Deeley introduced us — it would all go down right. And it did.
Jenna Dewan-Tatum’s response: She was really excited to whip her hair around. I think she just liked being tossed and being pulled everywhere.
I was proudest of: I like how butch I looked. [Laughs] I was like, “Okay, I’m believable.”
One thing people don’t know: The original song that we danced to wasn’t cleared, so we changed the song, which I’m so happy about, because when I heard Alabama Shakes’ “Gimme All Your Love,” I thought, “Oh my God, that would have been perfect for Jenna and I.” The song that we had before was “Make It Rain” by Ed Sheeran, but for some reason the Sons of Anarchy soundtrack did not clear, so then we went to Alabama Shakes, which I was so happy about, because that song is everything.
Nigel Lythgoe, Mary Murphy, and the viewers at home crown America’s Favorite Dancer.