Jazz Tangcay Talks Dancing, process and authenticity on So You Think You Can Dance with Emmy-nominated choreographer Travis Wall.
All his numbers are personal, but none more so than ‘It Takes A Lot To Know A Man.” This is a number that choreographer Travis Wall has wanted to bring to So You Think You Can Dance for years, but the timing was never quite right.
Last year, Wall went through a huge personal change, he moved from the West to the East Coast, but he was also at a low point in his life. When you speak to an artist about expression, there’s no better way to express themselves than through their art, and that’s just what Wall did. But the number, which Wall received an Emmy-nomination for, went further. It was a commentary on society. It was a commentary on gender, and in the exquisitely beautiful piece, dancer Darius Hickman wears a dress. The commentary is about fitting into society and gender expression.
Wall drew on his own personal experiences with bullying when putting the emotional number together. In this era where there’s intolerance coming from the highest levels of office in the country, the number holds even more beauty.
I caught up with Wall to break down two numbers and give us an in-depth look into creating the authenticity, heart and personal story behind the Emmy-nominated choreography.
The Glass Heart
I heard the music first. When I heard the song, it really affected me and I really wanted to do it on the show. I had heard the song before I went through the breakup. I didn’t know what it meant to have a heart of glass, and that heart can break someone else around it. The visual of that was so extreme and so haunting to me. At the same time, when you put the concerto version through headphones, these strings would pull at my own heartstring and I got so inspired by the violin. The violin didn’t sound like this beautiful instrument inside my head, it sounded like a weapon. That’s what inspired me to take this bow. If you showcase it the right way, it’s beautiful. If you move it a different way, it can hurt you.
I had this idea of playing when my heart breaks, someone else is going to go down with me.
My process always remains the same on the show; it’s always on the spot. It’s always in the room with the two dancers. It’s created for them. That’s the only way I get an authentic version of what I’m actually trying to say and what I want to see.
I wanted to show them off because I wanted to show them off and highlight the dancers the very first week they are coupled together. I had beautiful technicians. I had Darius and Magda. She was a ballroom dancer, and I knew I could take that fire and passion from her that she uses in the ballroom and apply it to this. I could blend her in contemporary and structure it towards her, not necessarily make her a contemporary dancer. I could throw her lines as she transitions.
When they were first in the rehearsal room, it was a little too hard. I think the producers thought it was good, but a bit of a mess. The two of them worked really hard on the transitions and used the weight of the song, and the concept. They started tearing each other apart, and that’s when the piece came alive. It was when they threw the steps out of the door, and they let go.
That’s what the process of the show is. I try to get the steps out; you know where the intent is moving from. There needs to be a bit of safety first, so they can trust each other, and then, they can slowly let go and go and go, until it’s show day and they explode over the stage.
The lighting, the costumes, the props and everything all come together at that moment. When they finished it, I thought, “Hell yeah.” You never know what’s going to happen in a live show. They could screw up a lift, miss a connection because it’s live. When the dancers execute it and they come up to the plate. It’s such a great moment. That’s where the true pride comes in when dancers do it the way it’s meant to be done.
It Takes A Lot To Know a Man
I have been wanting to do this piece for four years. I brought the piece to the show over four years ago. They thought, “Maybe.” We’d get to the end of the season, and making a straight guy play this gay character was never quite real. It was never in the cards. I think the next year; I brought it back for a mini group with three girls and one guy. I was finding a way to do this piece of music with this concept and it took four years. The minute Darius got on the show, I called Jeff Thacker and said, “This is it. This is him. This is the guy to do it. This is the piece.”
I wanted to do it for week one. He said, “It’s the first week out. America is just meeting this couple, and it’s so heavy.” They thought, if Darius was dancing the way he did, maybe the viewers wouldn’t vote for him. They don’t like that on television.
I understood where they were coming from. If you’re coming on stage to be your authentic self, that is what people are going to vote for. I did the first piece first, and then I said, ” Please. Please. Please.” You don’t know how people are going to go. You don’t know if he’s going to get voted off. I got a phone call, and they said, “Are you ready? You have Darius and Taylor.” I started crying.
I’ve been waiting for this for so long. To have someone watch this that needs to watch this, and to be themselves, and to feel 100% supported. To be 100% your complete authentic self. Screw what anyone else thinks, and they don’t hold a candle to you. You are the most special person in the world.
While we were creating this, Darius and I sat down. Taylor listened as we shared stories. We talked about how we were bullied. We talked about coming out. We talked about what happened in school. We talked about how we express ourselves through clothing, and it becomes so labeled. I wanted to address that. So, the reason I put him in the dress because maybe that’s what he wanted to wear that day. In dance, we can’t really verbally say what we’re talking about, so, to see him in a dress with makeup on, it was such a striking image. The woman was coming in with bare minimum makeup on in her pantsuit, saying, “You need to put this on.” There’s this hypocrisy happening back and forth.
For me, I’d just experienced a week of World Pride, going to these rallies. I was hearing these people coming forward talking about Stonewall and what they’re going through. My trans brothers and sisters are the strongest people I know. This piece shed light on that as well. I felt the weight and importance of this piece. Why create art for fun? Create art that’s truly important and use the platform to speak volumes instead of creating for a TV show. You have a platform; millions of people are going to see this, let’s say something. I wanted to create a conversation that might not be in their typical household.