Mandy Moore and Travis Wall Take Us Inside So You Think You Can Dance and what it takes to choreograph the numbers on the Emmy winning show.
Jazz, contemporary, ballroom, hip-hop. Each week Mandy Moore and Travis Wall have a few hours to work with the talent and choreography those dance numbers. I caught up with both to have a quick tete-a-tete to talk about some numbers and working with the pace of the show.
First, we talk to Mandy Moore:
On what keeps it fresh
For me, I’ve been able to navigate a number of different roles. When you’re an assistant, you’re a vessel for whoever the choreographer is. Transitioning to a choreographer and the pressure to create is an interesting moment. It’s never an easy one. You think it’s a very challenging process because it’s Live TV, a fast turnaround and the talent who you’re working with that week may not have an understanding of the style you’re given that week, so that keeps me on my toes.
Last season, Jeff Thacker reached out and said, “I need a producer and I’ve been thinking about it.” It seemed like such a natural progression. I still choreograph on the show which is a nice balance for me because I get to wear the producer’s logistic hat and I still get to work my creative side. I like having both. I find it’s better when I get to do both.
I think last season was a lot of fun. With the other choreographers, I felt my role became a bridge between producer and choreographers. I understand what it’s like to have to be in the room with those time constraints but also being in the office with Jeff and big picturing the whole season was so wonderful
On Working with the structure of Live TV
It’s so fascinating. You’re in a week structure. As a choreographer, you have to be smart with your time. You have to trust that whatever you set out to do, you see through and there’s no time to question it. You have to make good decisions immediately and whatever lane you decide to be in you have to commit to it.
With film, you have longer marinating periods, you have to trust your instincts. With SYTYCD, you’re shot out of a canon.
There’s a five-hour window that we spend in total with them.
On choreographing “HandClap”—Fitz and The Tantrums
With Koine Iwasaki and Marko Germar, I did the Handclap. I love that song. At the beginning of this season, we usually put a lot of songs through because you don’t know who you get until the night before, so you have one song in your back pocket.
When I found out I was having Marko and Koine, I knew the song could be athletic, stylized and sexy. Jazz can, unfortunately, be the kiss of death because you can’t fake jazz, you have to know how to dance. The technique is technique. You have to have the peas and carrots of it. I wanted to create movement in the shapes. I like dancers feeling strong and confident. That song spoke that.
There was also the ‘First Time I Ever Saw Your Face’. Kiki didn’t have experience in contemporary but is a trained ballroom dancer. My big thing was to get Kiki to soften, I trie dot get lines and transitions that were in his line. I wanted to try to soften him. He had a beautiful and big six hours. That progression with Jenna was really inspiring.
Travis Wall Talks about his journey from contestant to Emmy-award Winning Choreographer:
On his journey from contestant to choreographer
It really has been a journey. I’ve always known that this is what I was going to do. I was choreographing before I was a contestant. I felt most comfortable creating and not necessarily being the one created on. When I went on the show, I had in the back of my mind, I knew I wanted to be on there and it was my dream to be a choreographer. I worked really hard at it. I was told No for season three and four. I finally got my opportunity in season five. I had to grab it by its horn because if I didn’t, I knew I wouldn’t get that opportunity again so I put a lot of pressure on myself to make sure my voice was loud and clear.
Since season five, it’s been a whirlwind of crazy opportunities that have come from the show. There have been seven Emmy nominations and two wins. It’s extraordinary what this show has done.
On his Emmy nominations and wins
The first one came after being nominated five times in a row. I was so young when I was being nominated and you think, “Is this the year?” The first win, it was the first time, that if I was being honest with myself and looking at my category. I really thought I could win it. I got to finally do a piece where there were so many different layers and levels. To me, it felt like the show had finally done a full circle on discovering talent and that talent was finally winning an award for that exact show.
On the pressure of the show’s pace.
I put the pressure on myself. I don’t feel pressure from the show because I work at a fast pace. With my dance company, we have to put shows together because of budget and other factors. I just put it on myself. Each year, whenever I submit for the Emmys, I want that work to excel and exceed the year before. I want to challenge myself and outdo what I’ve done previously.
On choosing numbers for the performers:
The show has a hard time letting you know who you have. They keep it from you as long as they possibly can. I joke with them to tell me. I have an idea, then I get my couple and the song can’t work with them because you want something playing to their strengths. It’s a win-win situation when you’re crafting these routines around the contestant you have, as opposed to having this pre-conceived idea and making it work to the dancers. I feel I’ve had a strong success because these dancers want to make it to the next week. It’s your job as a choreographer to get these safe and move them forward and challenge them. Instead, of thinking, “I have to win another award.” The only way that piece is going to be groundbreaking is if it’s suited to the right couple.
On Taylor Sieve and Robert Roldan performing “Change Is Everything”
It was the first time on the show when they go to re-perform it, they didn’t allow the choreographer to come back and put their hands back on it. We had to sit in the audience and watch what happens when they do it the second time. There was another choreographer who couldn’t come back in, so for standards and practices, no one could touch the routine. It was the first time sitting in the audience where I was blown away. My mouth was on the floor. For me, it was the most beautiful performance I’d ever seen of anyone doing my work because I didn’t have any notes. I got to see something for the first time, instead of being, “I created this.”