Sometime life put you on your path some of the most fascinating people you have ever met and their spirit and story give you wings to follow your dreams. Walter Wittich is certainly one of them. His path is quiet unorthodox and at the same time very inspiring.
Originally from Germany, Walter completed his diploma in Musical Theater Performance at the Studio Theater an der Wien in Vienna, Austria. He arrived in Canada in 1992, studying Modern Dance at the School of the Toronto Dance Theater. Since then, he has performed as a professional modern, ballet and jazz dancer across the country, including the Banff Center Festival Ballet, Alberta Ballet, Toronto Dance Theater and Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal. He has choreographed extensively for professional and amateur companies, music videos and television, but his favorite experience as a choreographer has always been his involvement with choir-music and movement. He has choreographed and staged performances for the Vancouver Men’s Chorus, the Calgary Men’s Chorus, and the Extravaganza Vocal Ensemble.
With the extensive support from the Dancer Transition Resource Centre, Walter decided after 15 years of life on stage, to return to school and follow a path as an academic. He completed a Bachelor’s of Science and a Master’s Degree in Psychology at Concordia University in Montreal, followed by a Doctoral Degree in Visual Neuroscience at McGill and a post-doctoral fellowship in Audiology at the University of Montreal. He recently became a Fellow of the American Academy of Optometry and is Quebec’s first Certified Low Vision Therapist. He has published 54 peer-reviewed scientific papers since 2005. The main focus of his research is the rehabilitation of older adults that are affected with combined vision and hearing impairments.
That’s quiet impressive. During this interview, you will discover this amazing man that I always enjoy hearing his stories, his sense of humor and basically watching his artistic and scientific side colliding in a beautiful way.
Here we go!
SD: When and how did you fall in love with dancing?
WW:I really discovered dance a bit by accident. I grew up in Germany, and there it is very common in high school a age 14 that you take ballroom lessons. I danced a lot with a friend of mine, and she took ballet back then, and suggested to me one day that ballet might really help me with my posture when we dance ballroom. We danced a lot together and had a really good time.
Once a week, I joined her in ballet class. I was always very flexible and I used to do gymnastics when I was little, so some of the ballet moves came quite easily. I did have to work a long time, though, to be able to do the splits. When I turned 15, I participated in my first recital of that school, and being the only boy, this was exciting and terrifying at the same time. Some of the kids in school were making fun of me, saying that this is “gay” and all that. At 15, I had not really figured out my own sexuality, so this was all upside down. Being a teenager was weird, to say the least.
Eventually, I started taking jazz dance classes, I really liked to sing, and loved theatre, so it made sense that I decided to go and audition for a musical theater school once I had completed the equivalent of CEGEP. I moved to Vienna (to mixed feelings of my parents, but they eventually came around), and I was living my dream.
SD: You came to Canada in the 90’s and you had the chance to discover the country while touring here. If you were to do it all over again, would you still choose to come to Canada in 2017 to have this wonderful career or would you choose, maybe like an example, Australia that basically has a lot of similarities with Canada?
WW:When I was still dancing, it really did not matter to me where I was dancing, I was simply following opportunity, which is what brought me to Montreal in the end. I knew right away that Montreal was the place and flair I had been looking for all my life. I felt at home here the moment I got out of the airport when I came to audition for Les Ballet Jazz de Montreal at the time. So, when the time came that I decided to retire from dancing and redefine my life, Montreal was the ideal place to do it. I have always loved this feeling of living somewhere that feels like both Paris and New York – and here it is!
SD: I did not know how hard it is to be in the dancing business until I watched the movie Black Swan. It is a very competitive area and in the movie, it was manly focusing on the two female characters that were played by Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis. How close is this movie to reality and do the male dancers encounter the same struggles as the women?
WW:I think that every dancer has their very own and unique experience going through this career. I have seen situations that resemble The Black Swan, maybe not that extreme, but there is indeed a lot of pressure on everyone. I was probably lucky for many reasons, because I started dancing a bit later in life (at 14) and was not as completely absorbed by the classical ballet culture as many of my colleagues. I always was more drawn to modern and contemporary dance, where the approach to the physicality and artistry is at times a bit more organic, or at least that was my experience. Often, the guys also have a different way of dealing with their stressors and the competition. Sometimes, we would just get it out in the open, and then all go for beers afterwards. The ladies were less likely to take such a direct approach, but maybe that has changed by now as well.
SD: You did a 180-degrees turn when you were 30 years old. You decide to take an independent course at Concordia University. Can you tell us why?
WW:The end of my dance career was a bit bumpy because I realized that the politics of dance took up more of my time and energy than actually dancing and following my artistry. At that point, I had a substantial disagreement with the artistic director and it was time to go. However, the dancers of the company gave me a beautiful good-bye gift by letting me take my own last bow after my last show, and that gives me, to this day, a wonderful sense of closure for that performance on March 12th 2000. I took a few weeks off, visited my parents in Germany, and then returned to Montreal for a summer of discovery. I took two evening courses at Concordia, Introduction to French (always useful in Montreal) and Introduction to Psychology, because it fit my schedule and sounded interesting. It did not take long and I fell in love with learning, and learning something new each day is what I still get to do now.
In my second semester, I met the teacher that eventually became my supervisor. Olga Overbury was teaching one of the driest courses you could possible take in a Psychology undergraduate degree – research methods. However, somehow, she managed to make this really entertaining, and her subtle and intelligent sense of humor drew me to asking her if I could complete my research requirements in her lab. As it turns out, she worked with older adults that deal with age-related vision impairment, and how they perceive reality with impaired vision – and that is how I got started in the field of sensory impairment. I adore our clients and patients, and find this type of research still fascinating.
SD: Did you realize pretty soon as a university undergraduate students that you want to become a researcher?
WW:At the beginning, I was like most of my fellow students, I want to “help people” but I was not really sure what I actually meant by that, or what that could look like. Research did not really come to mind at that time. My academic adviser said to me: “So Walter, you used to dance. Interesting, so you are actually familiar with dealing with the human condition, only up to now you have done that through art, and now you can try that through psychology.” Until then, I had not really thought about it that way, but it made some sense, and I decided to try and see how far I can take this idea.
SD: It’s two different worlds you’ve been part of. Do you see some similarities between those two worlds?
WW:Sometime during my Master’s I realized that research is actually an extremely creative process. There is something very artistic about designing a good (and relevant) research question, figure out how to answer this question, and then engage in a very artistic process of writing this story for publication, so you can communicate your findings.
That is still my favourite part about being a researcher – writing. Good thing, too, because we need to do a lot of that, apply for grants and funding, write submissions for conference, publish articles, I actually get tennis elbow sometimes because I spend so much time typing, and I never learned to touch-type, so my posture is probably not the best. I love writing, telling a story, bringing an idea to life through words.
My science stories may not necessarily be as popular as Harry Potter, but I still am having a great time pushing the boundaries of science through writing about what I do. Check it out, I even tweet about my research @WalterWittich
SD: Your story is inspiring; some Hollywood film studio should do a movie about you. I wonder who should play you? Do you have an idea who can play you, haha?
WW: This is a tough question. The younger dance-me would need to be played by someone who can dance, and I am not that familiar with that generation of actors. The fun-loving science-me would need to be played by someone who is my age now but who can bring across a sense of crazy and unconventional: I nominate Sean Hayes (“Jack” from Will & Grace). Come to think of it, he can dance, so maybe he could play both the young and the adult me.
SD: I think Megan Mullally could be me. Omg, I could be your Karen to your Jack. Hmm…
That could be interesting.
On a serious note, here my next question.
As a researcher, what is the legacy you would like to leave for the next generation of scientists that probably don’t know yet they want to be a scientist and may have had a similar path as you did?
WW:An organization that has been extremely important for me in my transition from dance to science is the Dancer Transition Resources Centre (http://www.dtrc.ca/). The DTRC helps professional dancers (financially and otherwise) to successfully find their path after their performance career into the next professional phase of their lives. It comes as no surprise to any dancer that this career is limited in time, and that we all will do something else thereafter, whether that is related to dance (teach, choreograph, or go into artistic direction) or something completely different (I have a friend who became a pilot and another one who now raises goats to make cheese).
I was on the Board of Directors of the DTRC for a while, and I am planning to serve them again once I have established my research lab here at the University of Montreal a bit more solidly (http://www.opto.umontreal.ca/wittichlab/en/index.html). I would like to show any young dancer or artist that anything is possible and that we can reach into all directions in order to make a difference. We have a strong work ethic and that is an exceptional tool to accomplish what you want to achieve. Don’t let yourself be limited to only one thing.
SD Bonus question: Who are the people that inspire you the most in the arts and in sciences?
WW:I have great respect for and draw my strength from the stories of people that have overcome adversity and shine in their own uniqueness, with charm, humor and intelligence. I admire people like RuPaul, Stephen Fry, and George Takei, but many of the people that inspire me are quite unknown, because they are just people that live around and with us.
To quote Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings: “I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay.” To me, that is an important way of looking at life. Yes, we need “heroes” that we can look up to and elevate and better ourselves, but the daily reality of things is really what binds us all together, and that is also where we can have the most fun going through life together. None of us are alone, this is all about team work.
This is a perfect way to end a beautiful interview with Dr. Wittich and I couldn’t thank him enough for sharing his story and his pictures.
Danke Dr. Wittich!