Flamboyant, luxuriantly mustachioed choreographer Ryan Heffington is the toast of the commercial dance industry. His work on Sia's “Chandelier" music video, with Maddie Ziegler of “Dance Moms," went viral this summer before taking home Best Choreography at the Video Music Awards. His choreography, whether for bands like Arcade Fire (“We Exist," with actor Andrew Garfield) or Sigur Rós (“Fjögur Píanó," starring Shia LaBeouf), trades the stale formula of unison routines for seemingly spontaneous, emotionally driven abandon.
But Heffington is far more than just a talented commercial choreographer—he brings his idiosyncratic approach to all sorts of projects. He's gained a cult-like following at his unconventional Los Angeles dance studio, the Sweat Spot, where his classes are weekly, come-as-you-are fitness parties. His polychromatic, post-drag performance installation KTCHN, made in collaboration with painter Nolan Hendrickson, is set for its New York premiere next summer. Other projects in the works include Memory Rings, with multimedia marionette troupe Phantom Limb, and videos for dancer-turned-singer FKA twigs and solo musician Perfume Genius. One thing is for sure: Whenever Heffington's involved, it's never boring.
What are you up to?
I'm sitting on my porch, surrounded by my collection of succulents. I just got off a creative call for a fashion film I'm choreographing for designer Rachel Antonoff.
What's a fashion film?
This one will be a choreographically driven short film featuring Rachel's latest collection, Eveready, with sets, a crew of dancers (including Sara Mearns from New York City Ballet), stuff like that. The challenge is how to show off the whole collection in a short amount of time. There's a quirky, magical sense to the looks and it's going to be fun to animate them using dance.
What gigs do you like to say “yes" to?
I say yes when I get sent a treatment that makes my mind race. Target, for instance, asked me to choreograph a 20-minute piece for 66 dancers using the Standard hotel as its stage. I choreographed three ladies roller-skating continuously down a road for a Chet Faker video. It'll probably pique my interest if I haven't done it before. But I flash my middle finger to corporate jobs when they say they don't have any money.
It sounds like you enjoy a little creative give-and-take.
I love, love collaborating and it's always the case with commercial work.
Sia and video director Daniel Askill developed the outline, and we all sat in my dining room to discuss what the boundaries of this character and this story were. Then I spent five hours creating a sketch of the piece with my assistant, and at the end of the day, we got back together. Sia had very specific notes, as she usually does, that helped push me, and then Maddie joined us the next day on location. A lot changed due to the architecture of the room and Maddie's abilities, which are beyond amazing. She mimicked my movements perfectly.
What kind of dancer inspires you?
One who can authentically show emotion and express their individual spirit.
What turns you off?
Someone who just slaps on their smiley face.
What about technique? Is that something you look for?
I'll be bold and say no. I have many nonprofessional students with more spirit in them than the millions of people who can pirouette or do a grand jeté. Don't get me wrong: I do love interesting dance techniques, whether New Orleans bounce or Graham, but usually only when they're wrapped in a creative burrito.
You play a lot of roles, professionally, from fitness instructor to creative consultant. Which comes first?
I label myself “an artist whose medium is dance." I love teaching, and made a pact to myself years back that I will always teach and, also, that I'll always stay connected to the underground scene, perform and create works in clubs and such. So far, so good.
How would you summarize your teaching philosophy?
The Sweat Spot is my baby that's constantly growing. I offer classes anyone can participate in, be inspired by, and I want them to leave with a better sense of self.
What do you remember about going to your first dance studio, Colleen's Dance Factory, in Yuba City, California?
I loved everything about my early days dancing except for the ridicule from other kids. The studio was a safe place for me to express myself and work really hard at something. I loved all of the classes, although I was reluctant at first to take ballet.
The classic misconception: that all ballet dancers are gay.
Can you describe what dancing feels like?
When I'm in deep, nothing else exists and, afterward, it takes me about 30 minutes to acclimate back to reality. It feels as if my physical body disappears and just my soul is moving.
Imagine you got an extra eighth day every week to spend doing whatever you want. How would you spend it? Creating art with friends.
Even though that's what you do every other day of the week?
Yep! I'm pretty content with my life.
All photos courtesy Ryan Heffington.