Choreographers and Muses
Travis Wall draws inspiration from dancers Tate McCrae, Timmy Blankenship and more.
One often-overlooked relationship that exists in dance is the relationship between choreographer and muse. Recently two-time Emmy Award Winner Travis Wall opened up about his experience working with dancers he considers to be his muses.
"My muses in choreography have evolved over the years," says Wall. "When I'm creating on Shaping Sound, our company members, my friends, are my muses. But at this current stage of my career, I'm definitely inspired by new, fresh talent."
Wall adds, "I'm so inspired by this new generation of dancers. Their teachers have done such incredible jobs, and I've seen these kids grown up. For many of them, I've had a hand in their exposure to choreography."
But it's the movement of these young dancers that truly inspires Travis. "When I'm by myself making up a phrase, these are the people I envision executing the choreography," says Wall. "My body doesn't do what theirs can do."
When asked which specific young dancers he puts in the category of his muses, Travis praised Timmy Blankenship, Lex Ishimoto (SYTYCD Season 14 Winner), Lucy Vallely, Jake Tribus, Findlay McConnell, Megan Goldstein, Morgan Higgins and Tate McRae.
"These dancers, these artists are individuals," Wall says about his list of muses, "They take my structure and they completely exceed my expectations, which inspires me to go even further. Each piece would look different on each person in this group, and that's so inspiring to me because it elevates my work. It inspires me to be a better choreographer and creator in every possible way."
When Tate McRae and Timmy Blankenship were asked how it felt to be considered a muse by an award-winning choreographer like Wall, they were overcome with appreciation. "It's absolutely surreal," says McRae, "because Travis is one of my biggest role models and mentors. It's so exciting because he inspires me so much." Blankenship says, "As a young male dancer, I grew up watching Shaping Sound and Travis on 'So You Think You Can Dance'. He's the biggest reason I was inspired at such a young age, and ten years later, here I am with him as my inspiration. It's amazing to think that I'm also one of his."
When asked if either of them felt pressure knowing Travis considers them muses, both Tate and Timmy say that when they're in the moment of working with Travis, they don't feel any pressure at all. "I think with choreographers like Travis," says McRae, "the energy in the room is so inspiring, and motivation is bouncing back and forth between the dancer and choreographer. It becomes not about dance moves anymore, but you get lost in the story you're telling the audience." Blankenship adds, "Travis's work comes from a place of encouragement. He pushes me to be the best possible version of myself."
Further cultivating these relationships and sharing them with other dancers and choreographers is a driving goal of The Travis Wall Experience which is a new Intensive being offered at DancerPalooza in San Diego this year from July 24-29th.
"I think opening up the door to not only my creation process with dancers," says Wall, "but making it our creative process for everyone at the Intensive will be exciting for everyone. The Travis Wall Experience is about encouraging people to take the base and structure of choreography and then remove the feeling of what they think is possible and allow themselves to be pushed in different directions."
Of course, that's how Travis works with his muses and the unique aspect of this new Intensive. "I think there's going to be a lot of student choreography," says Wall, "a lot of opportunities for the students to create for themselves and put that together into one large performance."
Tate and Timmy will also be attending the Intensive and each of them has their own set of reasons for choosing The Travis Wall Experience. Timmy is intrigued by the title of the intensive. "I want an Experience," he says, "I am beginning to explore choreographing and I know this experience with Travis can open up a lot of doors for young dancers like me."
Tate is looking forward to not only working with Travis, but also several of the other choreographers on the faculty for The Travis Wall Experience. "So many of the choreographers that will be there are huge inspirations of mine," says McRae, "People like Jason Parsons, Lauren Adams, Al Blackstone and Mandy Moore. They're amazing people in the industry and it's super exciting that we're getting offered this Intensive."
For Travis, he hopes that during this week of performance and choreography work he can allow young dancers a more in-depth and detailed look into the process he uses as a creator. "For me it's about coming up with that idea, pushing the boundaries of it and following inspiration whenever it comes to create a story with only movement," says Wall, "And sometimes you might find, you are your own muse."
On May 18, 1919, Margot "Peggy" Hookham was born. She would grow up to become Dame Margot Fonteyn, England's first homegrown prima ballerina. She joined the Sadler's Wells School in 1934 and was performing principal roles with the precursor to The Royal Ballet the next year. Fonteyn was a company-defining figure, dancing Aurora for the re-opening of the Royal Opera House after World War II, creating numerous roles with Sir Frederick Ashton and forging a legendary partnership with Rudolf Nureyev.
The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.
Memorial Day is notoriously one of Chicago's bloodiest weekends. Last year, 36 people were shot and seven died that weekend. In 2017 and 2016, the number of shootings was even higher.
When Garley "GiGi Tonyé" Briggs, a dance teacher and Chicago native, started noticing this pattern, she was preparing her second annual Memorial Day workshop for local youth.
The event's original aim was simple: "I wanted the youth of Chicago to have somewhere they could come and learn from different dancers and be off the streets on the South Side on this hot holiday," she says.
A recent trip I took to Nashville coincided with the NFL draft. As we drove into town, my Uber driver was a fount of information on the subject.
I learned that there are 32 NFL teams and that the draft takes place over seven rounds. That the team that did the poorest during the previous season gets first pick. That during an earlier event called the scouting combine, the teams assess college football players and figure out who they want.
There is also the veteran combine for "free agents"—players who have been released from their contracts or whose contracts have expired. They might be very good players, but their team needs younger members or ones with a certain skill set. All year round, experienced NFL scouts scan games across the country, checking out players and feeding that information back to the teams. Players' agents keep their eyes on opportunities for their clients which might be more rewarding.
While I sat in the traffic of 600,000 NFL fans I got thinking, is there something ballet could learn from football? Could a draft system improve young dancers' prospects and overall company caliber and contentment?
It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.
Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.
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Despite what you might think, there's no reason for dancers to be afraid of bread.
"It's looked at as this evil food," says New York State–certified dietitian and former dancer Tiffany Mendell. But the truth is, unless you have celiac disease or a gluten intolerance, bread can be a healthy source of carbohydrates—our body's preferred fuel—plus fiber and vitamins.
The key is choosing your loaf wisely.
It can be hard to imagine life without—or just after—dance. Perhaps that's why we find it so fascinating to hear what our favorite dancers think they'd be doing if they weren't performing for a living.
We've been asking stars about the alternate career they'd like to try in our "Spotlight" Q&A series, and their answers—from the unexpected to the predictable—do not disappoint:
"New York City Ballet star appears in a Keanu Reeves action movie" is not a sentence we ever thought we'd write. But moviegoers seeing John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum will be treated to two scenes featuring soloist Unity Phelan dancing choreography by colleague Tiler Peck. The guns-blazing popcorn flick cast Phelan as a ballerina who also happens to be training to become an elite assassin. Opens in theaters May 17.
The Brooklyn-based choreographer Gillian Walsh is both obsessed with and deeply conflicted about dance. With her latest work, Fame Notions, May 17–19 at Performance Space New York, she seeks to understand what she calls the "fundamentally pessimistic or alienating pursuit" of being a dancer. Noting that the piece is "quiet and introverted," like much of her other work, she sees Fame Notions as one step in a larger project examining why dancers dance.
What does Mikhail Baryshnikov have to say to dancers starting their careers today? On Friday, he gave the keynote speech during the graduation ceremony for the inaugural class of the USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance.
The heart of his message: Be generous.
Launching a dancewear line seems like a great way for professional dancers to flex new artistic muscles and make side money. Several direct-to-consumer brands founded by current or former professional dancers, like Elevé and Luckleo, currently compete with bigger retailers, like Capezio.
But turning your brand into the next Yumiko is more challenging than some budding designers may realize.
When I first came to dance criticism in the 1970s, the professional critics were predominantly much older than me. I didn't know them personally and, as the wide-eyed new kid on the block, I assumed most had little or no physical training in the art.
As slightly intimidated as I felt at the time—you try sitting around a conference room table with Dance Magazine heavy hitters like Tobi Tobias and David Vaughan—I smugly gave myself props for at least having had recent brushes with ballet, Graham, Duncan and Ailey and more substantial engagement with jazz and belly dance. Watching dancers onstage, I enjoyed memories of steps and moves I knew in my own bones. If the music was right, my shoulders would wriggle. I wasn't just coolly judging things from my neck up.