“I’m very confident in storytelling,” Travis Wall, choreographer and Artistic Director of Shaping Sound Dance Company, said. “Something I can do is create a story with no words and get that across to an audience.”
That is exactly what Travis Wall brings to Cincinnati Ballet’s The Kaplan New Works Series September, 14-24 at the Aronoff Center’s Jarson-Kaplan Theater.
Growing up the son of a dance instructor in Virginia, the Emmy Award-winning choreographer has been dancing since he could walk.
“We grew up poor and didn’t have babysitters,” Wall said. “I grew up at the studio. I grew up dancing.”
Wall expressed that at the beginning of his dancing career it was more of a “show” thing. He would mimic the moves of the dancers in the studios, and would receive praise and applause.
As Wall continued on his dance journey, he began to receive even more praise. He began competing, and it was at a competition where he was recognized for his talents. From there he went to New York City at 12 years old to perform in a Broadway show.
Wall stayed in New York for the next two years, away from his family, and in various living situations. Then after the attacks on September 11, Wall finally went home.
“I went around to nine homes in two years. I basically raised myself in New York,” Wall said. “After 9/11 all of the Broadway shows closed and I was in a bad place…I went home to Virginia.”
It was around this time that Wall truly began to understand the impact and importance of dance in his life, when his ability to dance was swiftly taken from him.
“I lost everything…I had to start from scratch,” Wall said of injuring his piriformis muscle.
After his injury, Wall went through nearly nine months of physical therapy and had to start from scratch with his dance training, but he did so knowing dance was his passion and calling.
“I got serious about dance because it was taken from me. I couldn’t dance, and it tore me apart,” Wall said. “I was in ballet four times a week. I knew it would make me so much better. I knew it would make me an amazing contemporary jazz dancer.”
While the absence of dance may have spurred his intense work ethic, his own internal conflicts were what led him to fully utilize dance as a form of self-expression and a medium for telling stories. It led him to the world of choreography.
“I started realizing I was attracted to boys and that was very hard for me. I did not want to be gay,” Wall said of his silent struggle. “I shut myself off from everyone and could only express myself through movement and choreography. I was creating from a place of inner turmoil and I had all of this built up emotion and places to pull from.”
Wall wholly embraced choreography as an outlet of expression and therapy, and in turn wholly embraced himself.
“I was able to realize who I was and come out through the process of choreographing,” Wall said.
While Wall is very adept at relaying his own stories through dance, he also prides himself on his ability to relate and empathize with people of all experiences, shared and unshared, and to translate those emotions into art. It is evidenced in his wide-ranging body of work from the popular TV show So You Think You Can Dance to Shaping Sound Dance Company, and much more.
It is that combination of outward empathy and internal connection that has been brought to Cincinnati Ballet, with Wall’s piece Then…Now, an exploration of relationships and love’s journey, told from the perspective of three different women.
“To create a piece about a woman you don’t have to be a woman, you just have to be empathetic and passionate about women and their life,” Wall said. “You don’t have to be in a person’s skin to truly feel how they feel. The empathy inside my body – I can embody someone else’s feelings and take that on very thick onto my skin and with a heavy heart.”
The intensely intimate piece draws inspiration from Wall’s childhood and the relationships his mother had – from Wall’s father, who was mostly absent from his life, to her subsequent relationships.
“Then…Now is inspired by my mom’s loss throughout relationships, and I created these three relationships and their journeys. They all end up the same – alone,” Wall said. “I’m pulling from my mom’s story because it physically involved me. Growing up, that’s the only comparison that I had to what love was and marriage.”
Wall laments that he has carried these images of what love is into his own relationships, including his relationship with fiancé, UCLA gymnastics coach, Dom Palange.
“I was always waiting, ‘When is this going to screw up, when is this going to go wrong,’” Wall said, adding that he believed he has been in a more successful relationship at 29 years old than his 60 year old mother has. “You can’t compare these things, but the only thing I had growing up was knowing my mom was alone.”
Wall has also drawn a great deal of inspiration from the idea of journeying and moving through time on stage, as well as his musical choices, from an array of instrumental pieces to the ending song Both Sides Now, by Joni Mitchell.
“In Both Sides Now [Joni Mitchell] is basically looking back at her life and what she used to think of love and what she thinks now, being on the other side of it,” Wall said. “It’s a very sad and honest story and in my piece, you’re seeing these three women and how they arrived to where they are now.”
This isn’t the first time Wall has created a piece with his mother in mind, including his 2010 piece Fix You which detailed his relationship with his mother as she battled breast cancer, and for which he later won an Emmy.
This also isn’t the first time Wall has taken inspiration from his own life and familial relationships. Recently he created a piece called Hollow Suit for DancerPalooza in Long Beach, CA, detailing his life in three different stages – 10, 20 and 30 years old – and how his father’s absence and “hollow suit” affected him and made him the man he is today.
“People were saying, ‘You just found who you were on stage.’ It was the most exhilarating feeling,” Wall said. “I finally dealt with all of those things, and said let’s physically and emotional deal with it. I love that art can do that.”
For Wall the beauty and presence of dance is that incredibly precise combination of technique and emotion, as well as the relationship between audience and dancer.
“If you’re not affected by it, it’s not important,” Wall said. “And that’s the great thing about dance – you’re physically moving people while you’re physically moving.”
Wall is using the marriage of raw, unbridled emotion and impeccable technique to create on the Cincinnati Ballet dancers, and present that experience to the audience through his collaborative work process.
“I’m excited! The process has been incredible so far,” Wall said about the Cincinnati Ballet dancers in his piece. “You come into a brand new room of dancers you don’t know and start throwing out some ideas and ways to move around your body.”
Wall has expressed his interest in exploring the differences between how his body – and the bodies of many contemporary dancers – move in contrast to the way Cincinnati Ballet’s classically trained ballet dancers move.
“I move from a different place and a lot of these dancers are extreme ballet dancers and I don’t know if they really get down on the floor and use that plié,” Wall said. “So to put my work on these dancers, it changes the look of the work and you go ‘This is so nice too!’ It’s so beautiful.”
According to Wall, the process of coming into the room fresh, without any background knowledge of the dancers, has been an incredible experience.
“You don’t know this person and their background, which is so cool because that just show you who catches your eye,” Wall said. “Everyone has different opinions about what they like, and it’s incredible to be able to use what exactly those dancers can give me.”