Travis Guerin is a singular Kansas City talent. A Company Dancer with the Kansas City Ballet since 2011, Guerin is an accomplished composer and choreographer. Many of his original ballet and musical works have been performed by the KCB, Motion Dance Theatre in Asheville, NC, Shut Up & Dance Festival in Philadelphia, PA, and the Quixotic Dance Fusion in Kansas City. In this feature, Guerin provides insight into his creative process, his life in dance and music, and shares his book, music and movie recommendations.
You are an accomplished choreographer in addition to composer. What does a typical day look like? Where do you get most of your creative work done?
Honestly, I get most of my best ideas for both choreography and composition in the shower! It's comfortable and safe, there's nothing to distract me, and I think about anything and everything there. It really works well for me, which sounds kind of ridiculous, but hey, gotta go with it, right?
I start my composition projects on my keyboard. I generally have an idea of the environment or landscape I'd like to convey, whether that be inspirational or haunting or alien or whatever, I try to have a general direction for each piece. When it really comes down to it, I end up just messing around, jamming for a bit and playing random combinations of keys, random melodies, until I find something I like and know I could turn into a full piece. I usually try to figure out a chord progression or a melody that popped into my head by playing it by ear, since I technically have no formal music training. This is the hardest part for me, laying down the basic foundation for every piece of music. I was never taught how to play the piano or what chords are "correct" or how to read music or anything, so I just listen very carefully, and if something sounds wrong to me, it doesn't get to go into the piece. It's strange, due to my complete lack of knowing what to do, but I think I have somewhat of a knack for knowing if something is aurally pleasing or not, and I feel like I just know what's supposed to come next. Then I'll add in different instruments on top of that base track, fading in and fading out, different melodies, a heavy percussion track, lots of cello, etc. It's really just an experimentation process, and it is so much fun. It inspires me to live my life.
When I put most of my choreographic work together, it is in the studio. I'll go early before my rehearsals and play my music; I'll dance around by myself, repeating sections of each piece of music over and over again, trying new movement and improvising until I find something that I like and feels right to me. I try to choreograph with musicality; that is, I try to use my body along with each instrument, or the melody that I hear. My favorite dancing to watch is choreography that uses the human body to convey the structure of the music. I want to watch things like that, and therefore I want to choreograph in that way. There are a lot of fantastic choreographers who are very good at this, such as Jiří Kylián, William Forsythe, Crystal Pite, and Hofesh Shechter. They're very inspirational for me, and hopefully one day I'll be as prolific as they are.
Who or what has influenced your creative work the most?
I have a lot of influences, such as the choreographers above, and my favorite bands and musical albums add a lot for me to think about. In a weird way, I'm very inspired by things that have happened to me, and decisions I've made, and the way I feel about them. Most of my pieces are very descriptive of an emotion or reaction that I have personally experienced. Composition and choreography are very cathartic for me; they're an expression of who I am and the things I've been through and the experiences I've had, good or bad. It might be weird to say, but most of what I create is a product of who I am at that point in time, and how I need to express myself in order to work through what is happening and the things I've done.
Describe your composition process. For example, how long does it take for a project to get from the initial stages to performance?
My process generally starts out with an internal examination of what and where my life is at the moment. I use composition and music as a way to communicate the intense feelings and emotions I have, because while I do love words, I feel they lack the necessary weight to show others how I feel. Music does that for me.
So once I've decided on the idea I want to convey, I figure out my basic chord progression, mostly through trial and error. This is a long process, with lots of tweaking and changing, until I've got a foundation that I'm intrigued to build upon. After that, I use the chord progression to create new melodies and new instruments as layers on top of what I already have. It really is just messing around, trying a lot of different things that may or may not work, and deciding what I like and what I don't like and then how to change it. That's the best part, making something new that literally completes what I had going before. Percussion is almost always the last thing I add, for emphasis on certain parts.
But in the end, I'm pretty quick with my pieces, because I knew where I wanted them to go from the beginning. It usually only takes me anywhere from 10-20 hours to complete any given work, in terms of music. Choreography tends to take much longer, just because there's so many more things to think about. Granted, it depends on the length of the piece, but choreography itself is really a full-time job.
What do you struggle with the most creatively and how do you break through that struggle?
I get musician's "writer's block" quite frequently. I'll have a super good idea for something, and I'll push it and push it and exhaust that direction until there's nothing left, and then I'm creatively drained. I have a weird cycle of churning out creative works for months in a row, song after song, choreography after choreography, and then I have to quit for a few months. I have to physically stop trying to make something new, because I have no inspiration. I've used up all my concepts and everything I wanted to show, and I'll have absolutely no new designs. I have to take a break. I'll just run out of ideas. Nobody can be 'on' all the time, and I can't maintain a constant flow of intelligent useful images that actually contribute towards my aesthetic. It's hard, but half my time is spent recharging.
And then, I'll get the buzz again, and I'll freak out about something new, some new idea I just need to put into music, to create new movement for, to become, in a way. It takes over my thoughts, my process, my feelings, everything I want to be in that moment is this new idea. It feels kind of crazy at times, but it's a feeling I wouldn't trade for anything.
Where and how do you record your music? What advice do you have for others who want to do the same?
I create all of my music on my keyboard, no matter what instrument I'm "playing" at the time. Then I transfer it all into my computer. One of the programs I use is Kontakt, which allows me to choose any sort of virtual instrument I'd like, while feeding it digital information about what note I want it to play. So, as I am wont to do, if I'm layering a cello track, I'm really still playing and recording it on my keyboard. My drum and percussion tracks are all just me hitting certain keys on my keyboard at certain times. It's kind of fascinating really, that I've literally created all of my music - piano, guitars, bass, strings, horns, drums - by playing the pseudo-piano. Especially when you think about the fact that I have absolutely no idea what I'm doing, and I just keep messing around with this music. I really, really love what I do.
My advice to others who are pursuing this, is to just keep practicing! Find what you love about your own work. I know it seems trite and obvious, but it's so true. I've been working on this for over ten years, teaching myself and looking up tutorials and listening to experimental music and watching crazy weird choreography and trying things out for myself, you have to keep trying. You need to be respectful, but you need to fight for what you want. You need to love what you do, more than anything you've ever loved before. You need to create music for yourself, music that you'd want to listen to on a road trip. You need to create choreography you'd want to see your favorite companies performing. You have to seek out opportunities to present yourself, you have to seek out places where you can be creative, you have to seek out chances to fail and chances to succeed. You just have to fight for it. You will get there, I promise, as long as you have a vision and a heart and the will to succeed.
Invisible Monsters, Chuck Palahniuk
Galápagos, Kurt Vonnegut
Darkness, stories chosen by Ellen Datlow
Machine Man, Max Barry
The Devil's Walk, Apparat
Friend and Foe, Menomena
Burst Apart, The Antlers
The Haunted Man, Bat For Lashes
In Rainbows, Radiohead
Little Earthquakes, Tori Amos