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!
En parlant au téléphone hier avec ma chère maman, je lui ai demandé cette question:
Manmy, je sais que j’ai une très grande admiration pour Mitsou mais est-ce que tu pourrais me confirmer quand j’étais petite, il me semble que je ne vivais que pour Mitsou en chantant toute la journée Bye-Bye mon Cowboy?
Elle répond avec beaucoup d’enthousiasme au bout de la ligne:
Oh oui, tu chantais tout le temps ses chansons et tu me disais que tu voudrais devenir comme elle quand tu seras plus grande, tu admirais sa personnalité et sa force de caractère.
30 ans plus tard, mon admiration de jeune enfant s’est transformée en une admiration que j’ai pour une femme qui est un modèle de femme accomplie à mes yeux. Elle est belle ”inside out” et elle dégage une authenticité (vous remarquez que c’est une de mes qualités préférées qui m’attirent vers quelqu’un) contagieuse hors-pair.
Son site web est géniale et m’interpelle. Ce sentiment quand tu navigues une page web et tu as l’impression de parler avec une de tes copines de filles (malgré que là, tu lis), j’adore!!!
Mitsou est une excellente animatrice que ça soit à la radio qu’à la télévision. Elle est versatile et très attachante. Oh, un petit commentaire. Son site web est bilingue!!!!!!
Ambassadrice de Lise Watier Cosmétiques, elle a été directrice artistique du magazine Clin d’Oeil, elle a laissé sa marque en étant une des plus grandes chanteuses Pop de sa génération dans la francophonie et elle a son propre site web qui me fait beaucoup penser à un de mes sites préférés qui est celui de Garance Doré Atelier Doré.
P.S. Garance Doré est à Montréal. Je capote mais vraiment je capote à un point que mon chien me regarde d’une drôle de façon. Voici une photo de Mitsou avec la grande Geneviève Borne (une autre de mes femmes inspirantes) et de la reine des blogs sa majesté, Garance Doré. Bon, je devrais me calmer un peu le pompom.
Revenons à notre chère Mitsou.
Ce que j’adore avec son site web est que je ne m’emmerde jamais. Je répète. Je ne m’emmerde pas du tout à le lire. Parfois, il y a des sites qui sont dessinés sur mesure pour un type de public en particulier. Ce n’est pas le cas avec Mitsou.com! Enfin, un site de bien-être québécois qui ne parle pas juste des mamans qui doivent jongler travail et famille car ce n’est pas du tout mon cas. De lire sur Osheaga, Adieu moustiques (pour ceux et celles qui me connaissent, vous savez que j’ai horreur des moustiques), le TDP et autres sujets très captivants m’ont interpellé. Pour moi, c’est ça un bon site web et c’est que j’essaie de faire avec The Chronicle.
La deuxième saison de Mitsou et Léa sera de retour. Can I get a woohoo!!! Elles rencontrent des femmes inspirantes de différents milieux qui sont des femmes déterminées et fortes malgré tout.
Je suis très contente que dans ma vie autant que je trouve beaucoup d’inspirations envers des femmes et des hommes qui proviennent des quatre coins de la planète, je suis doublement reconnaissante de ces femmes de chez-nous qui font en sorte que j’ai le goût de foncer comme elles l’ont fait malgré tout! Mitsou en fait certainement partie de la bande et je suis très fière de la femme qu’elle est aujourd’hui.
Je l’ai toujours été depuis 1987 même quand je m’imaginais de chanter en duo avec elle dans notre cuisine en tenant un crayon de couleur Prismacolor (old school). En 2017, on lâche les crayons Primacolor et on continue à admirer cette femme qui a un coeur grand et qui continuera à nous inspirer.
This epic song of the 80’s will tomorrow hymn. And you know why?
We will witness (but not really in Montreal) the eclipse of the sun. It’s a beautiful event but we tent to forget to protect our eyes.
I remember in 1994 when I saw the first eclipse in my lifetime. We couldn’t play outside so i was sad but at the same time, I was amazed to see that the sky was a little bit darker and that the sun and the moon would dance together for a few moments.
Dr. Etty Bitton from the School of Optometry of the University of Montreal and I add a cool lunch date last week. And she did warned me to be really careful about protecting my eyes everyday from the sun and especially tomorrow. She strongly recommend that parents should encourage their children wearing sunglasses and glasses. She was so right and he did make so much sense that we should since a young age taken care of the health of one of the most important organs of our body. It’s the first door for learning is by seeing.
Tomorrow will be a interesting day. It will be Monday and I hate Mondays but it will be a sun shining day.
I have two songs that I will be playing all day long. Corey Hart Sunglasses at Night (I love you Corey) and Bonnie Tyler Total Eclipse from the Heart. I’m a 80’s kid so of course I will always make some music reference from the best decade of all time.
Il y a des spectacles qui vous marqueront pour toute votre vie.
Hier soir, nous étions des milliers Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.
Pas un moment que la foule n’était pas en délire. Montréal est reconnu pour être un public des plus intenses. On est très fier n’est ce pas les Montréalais.
Ce soir sera le “round two”. Je ne veux pas dévoiler la playlist mais on a eu le droit à tout un voyage multicolore à travers la discographie de ce groupe digne de la royauté musicale.
Le travail exceptionnelle de la conception visuelle éblouira votre iris.
Ayant eu la chance de les voir pour la cinquième fois, j’ai été émue de voir sur le visage par exemple d’un père et d’un fils vivre ce beau moment si magique pour la première fois.
Chris nous a jasé en français malgré qu’il a dit en riant que son français était de la merde et ce n’était pas du tout le cas. Son énergie contagieux et son charisme de Front Man m’ont fait penser à un jeune David Bowie.
Coldplay a ce même don que Les Beatles et U2. Ce sont des frères et un de peut pas fonctionner sans l’autre.
Ils nous ont invité dans leur belle complicité.
Ma copine Rebecca fut ma complice dans une autre section du Centre Bell. Elle a pris des beaux clichés et avec les miennes. J’ai hâte de lui parler du spectacle pendant des heures et des heures.
Ce groupe dégage tellement d’optimiste qu’on en ressort tellement joyeux.
Je n’ai jamais eu aussi chaud dans un concert dans tout le sens du mot que celui de hier (malgré qu’au spectacle de Paul McCartney je pensais qu’il me restait plus de cheveux sur la tête quand Live and Let Die jouait).
Dire que la première fois que j’ai entendu à la station 99.9 Shiver en 1999 fait déjà 18 ans et j’étais complètement éblouie, ma grande histoire d’amour et d’amitié continue avec Coldplay.
Pour ceux et celles qui vivront toute une belle expérience ce soir, vous allez vous sentir “drunken high”.
Préparez-vous à toute une tempête au Centre Bell ce soir.
Je m’en remets à peine de celle de hier soir.
This man is a pop culture connaisseur and he was the big maestro being the creative aspect of one of the most groundbreaking magazine of the 20th century.
Matt Berman has this artistic eyes and you can witness it on his Instagram account and by rediscovering George’s magazine.
When George came out (still talking about the magazine), I was a curious teenager wishing that she will be a writer while being older and wiser. I’m still in the process of it at 34.
I always had an interest of what is going on around the world but I would find to much of a work reading The Economist at thirteen. And I must admit, I was reading those teen magazine such as Tiger Beat and grab the weekly my mother-in-law Paris Match when I was spending the weekend with my father.
Then came George and I was really intrigued because at the time, I never saw a cover of one of the most gorgeous supermodel being dress as George Washington with such coolness, sassiness and getting a interest on a another way of thinking about politics. Mixing politics and pop culture was a perfect marriage. George was ahead of his time.
Look at today…
When Matt’s book came out in 2014 JFK Jr., George and Me, I was happy to finally read about the man that gave us those amazing covers and brought that little je ne sais quoi in an artistic way to this phenomenon (with the help of his boss of course).
I read his book 2 times (in this spring, I read again like it was the first time) and for a young girl that felt like an outsider when I was younger, I felt like I was having a conversation with a friend that I dealt with a really traumatic incident and that didn’t stop him to conquer the publishing world by a storm. His wicked sense of humour and his dedication for the magazine which I could have work at George and witness it everyday or at least have a summer job there as a young teenager.
I laughed so much while reading and I cried as much. Truly, one of the best books I read because it was so honest, so real and you can feel he did love his job and like RoseMarie, he is truly a fiercely friend that will defend you no matter what.
The chapter about the shooting of Barbra Streisand cover was like you would expect of the diva. Grandiose and so funny. But every anecdotes are well written and you have this feeling that you were actually there.
John was Matt brother. They were brothers in crime ”BIC”. RoseMarie and Carolyn were the sisters in crime too. It would have been a riot to share a happy hour with them.
This is a true hymn to friendship. They will always be family for life.
I’m rooting for another book from Matt. On his Instagram, he post some amazing never been seing pictures of some famous people like Catherine, Sofia, Marilyn, Marlon, Grace and the list goes on. A beautiful photography book with his picks will be amazing! We can witness is maestro skills while browsing the Lucky Brand website, some really cool advertising campaigns and on his website.
Matt Berman is in my eyes one of the most talented Advertising Creative force Maestro of our time.
Dans notre vie, nous avons parfois tendance à mettre le focus sur des personnes qui nous traînent de l’énergie et qui sont négatifs et pessimistes. Mais nous oublions ces petits anges terrestres qui sont nos rayons de soleil, notre Prozac car ils ont cette abilité de nous mettre de bonne humeur et de nous faire rire et de nous faire oublier pour un moment nos préoccupations.
Ce Chronicle est un hommage à un de mes rayons de soleil qui continuera à nous éblouir par les merveilleux souvenirs passés ensemble.
C’est un homme exceptionnel avec les plus beaux yeux perles que je n’ai jamais vu. Ses gros câlins et sa voix remplie de bonne humeur percent mes souvenirs.
Amateur de curling, il a mis en moi une admiration pour ce sport. Son amour pour sa douce moitié était digne d’un film de Grace Kelly et de Gary Crant qui nous a redonné de l’espoir de croire que l’amour authentique existe encore.
86 belles années dans ce beau voyage qui est la vie.
Je t’aime de tout mon cœur Raymond et tu as une famille des plus extraordinaire! Dans chacun de tes enfants, tes petits-enfants et tes belles-filles, une partie de toi rayonnera.
On se reverra dans un monde meilleur où nous pourrons jouer au curling et je te promets de te laisserais gagner toutes les parties. J’ai déjà très hâte d’entendre ton rire légendaire et que tu me ressers dans tes bras.