“I’m inspired by spirals and circles,” says Travis Wall.
If you consider the dancer-choreographer’s body of work—from his Emmy-winning So You Think You Can Dance numbers to his dance company Shaping Sound to the new Off-Broadway musical The Wrong Man—you’ll suddenly notice that bent. But really, what Wall encapsulates in these circles is the natural propulsion of spirit and the fluidity of emotion that gives his work—whether he dances it himself or sets it on others—a relatable, yearning quality.
“I love that feeling of my body when I’m moving in a spiral, I like to turn,” Wall says from his seat at SubCulture in New York City. “When I’m creating, it’s like I’m in the move, and I make up the next move that feels connected to that one—you use that momentum to go somewhere else.”
That natural flow tells a story in every piece he creates. “Dance is narrative,” he says. “It always feels like I’m speaking or I’m creating a conversation when you watch a piece of mine.” And that’s served him well in choreographing the non-stop motion of The Wrong Man.
It’s not just Wall’s movement vocabulary that moves in circles. Though his name rose to fame through his work on screen, The Wrong Man actually marks a homecoming for Wall; he made his Broadway debut as the understudy for Winthrop Paroo in Susan Stroman’s 2000 revival of The Music Man.
“As a 12-year-old, watching her direct and choreograph a musical, especially after her husband had just passed, I felt that,” he says. “I was so inspired by her, and I think truly that passion and drive to choreograph and create professionally was through that experience.”
He had been looking for an outlet to be more expansive in his work when he got a call asking if he’d consider playing a younger Fosse in Kail’s Fosse/Verdon. The two clicked instantaneously, but then the part was cut. “And I was like, ‘Nothing’s going to come out of that meeting? That’s crazy,’” Wall says. But two months later his phone rang; Kail had a project for them to work on.
Now, in the MCC musical by Ross Golan and directed by Thomas Kail, his movement is inextricable from the whole of the story. The dance is not an added layer; it is both subtext and physical plot. Strip it away and you’ll have a tough time following—or feeling.
But that’s not how the show first started. In the workshop phase, Wall choreographed two routines for the show about Duran being wrongly accused of a violent crime: the physical fight and the arrest. But when Wall went into rehearsal for this Off-Broadway run, Kail wanted the full piece to move—and the floodgates opened.
A knife fight pas de deux became the anchor piece to the show—and is an achievement in dance storytelling. Using six words from the script as his guide, Wall choreographed an intense, suspenseful, savage, beautiful three-minute ballet depicting the horror, malice, and desperation of the crime that triggers the rest of Duran’s story.
Wall cedes a lot of credit to his dancers Tilly Evans-Krueger and Kyle Robinson, who perform as the dance-echoes of Ciara Renee’s Mariana and Ryan Vasquez’s Man in Black. “The reason why you’re literally on the edge of your seat and you have no idea what’s going to happen at the end is because of [Tilly and Kyle] and the energy that they give,” says Wall. “What I love is hearing them breathe. It’s the one time where you’re hearing the scene be played out and not just through song. You’re hearing the actual physicality of these two going after each other.”
Knowing the climax of the show relies on these dancers embodying the emotional shadows of these onstage characters, Wall realized he had to “set the rules somewhere in the beginning that this is going to happen.”
Which is how the sexy, soulful “Take Off Your Clothes” came to be. “We felt like ‘Take Off Your Clothes’ was the first time we could have these emerging dancing cartoons come out of them,” he says. “While they’re singing about hooking up, this is actually all the different positions and journeys they’d made through this room in this one night where they fell in love.”
Wall is a master of partnering. “I just love human contact,” he confesses. For him, the physicality portrays an intimacy words alone can never access.
But Wall also knows how to infuse dance with wit. In “When Evil Men Go on the Run,” the dancers groove with a sinister joy; “Why Me” taps into frustration and fear.
But just as important as what Wall communicates with motion is what he conveys in stillness. That's why The Wrong Man begins in a circle. As the actors settle into chairs, a spotlight overhead illuminates each of them individually until it lands on Duran. It’s roulette. “It evolved from this story about chance and this system that is broken that [the wrongful accusation] could have happened to any single person in the room,” says Wall.
Golan’s musical drama offers the chance to showcase Wall’s full palette—which hit the choreographer the first time he listened to the original concept album. “It felt new and current and it spoke to me,” he says.
And that’s exactly the type of work Wall hoped to find when he relocated from Los Angeles. “I definitely moved back to New York for a reason, to get back in touch. I wanted to do more theatre. I wanted to do more live,” he says. “The experience you get in a live setting is second to none.”
Which is why he’s working on bringing his piece “The Hollow Suit” to New York. “It's an autobiography of my life, what happened when my dad walked out and the ripple effect it had through my life, with this hollow suit that he left behind haunting me my entire life,” he says. “I have someone play me at 10, someone play me at 20, and then I play myself at 30.”
You see, it all comes full circle.
Travis Wall was shot exclusively at SubCulture in downtown Manhattan.