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A Creative Whirlwind
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.
Who brought what to the table for Sia's “Chandelier" video, with Maddie Ziegler?
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.
Camille A. Brown is on an impressive streak: In October, the Ford Foundation named her an Art of Change fellow. In November, she won an AUDELCO ("Viv") Award for her choreography in the musical Bella: An American Tall Tale. On December 1, her Camille A. Brown & Dancers made its debut at the Kennedy Center, and two days later she was back in New York City to see her choreography in the opening of Broadway's Once on This Island. Weeks later, it was announced that she was choreographing NBC's live television musical Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert, to air on April 1.
An extraordinarily private person, few knew that during this time Brown was in the midst of a health crisis. It started with an upset stomach while performing with her company on tour last summer.
"I was drinking ginger ale, thinking that I would feel better," she says. Finally, the pain became so acute that she went to the emergency room in Mississippi. Her appendix had burst. "Until then, I didn't know it was serious," she says. "I'm a dancer—aches and pains don't keep you from work."
The latest fitness fad has us literally buzzing. Vibrating tools—and exercise classes—promise added benefits to your typical workout and recovery routine, and they're only growing more popular.
Warning: These good vibrations don't come cheap.
Last week in a piece I wrote about the drama at English National Ballet, I pointed out that many of the accusations against artistic director Tamara Rojo—screaming at dancers, giving them the silent treatment, taking away roles without explanation—were, unfortunately, pretty standard practice in the ballet world:
If it's a conversation we're going to have, we can't only point the finger at ENB.
The line provoked a pretty strong response. Professional dancers, students and administrators reached out to me, making it clear that it's a conversation they want to have. Several shared their personal stories of experiencing abusive behavior.
Christopher Hampson, artistic director of the Scottish Ballet, wrote his thoughts about the issue on his company's website on Monday:
I always knew my ballet career would eventually end. It was implied from the very start that at some point I would be too old and decrepit to take morning ballet class, followed by six hours of intense rehearsals.
What I never imagined was that I would experience a time when I couldn't walk at all.
In rehearsal for Nutcracker in 2013, I slipped while pushing off for a fouetté sauté, instantly rupturing the ACL in my right knee. In that moment my dance life flashed before my eyes.
My life is in complete chaos since my dance company disbanded. I have a day job, so money isn't the issue. It's the loss of my world that stings the most. What can I do?
—Lost Career, Washington, DC
Dance Theatre of Harlem is busy preparing for the company's Vision Gala on April 4. The works on the program, which takes place on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., reflect on the legacy of Dr. King and his impact on company founder Arthur Mitchell. Among them is the much-anticipated revival of legendary choreographer Geoffrey Holder's Dougla, which will include live music and dancers from Collage Dance Collective.
We stepped into the studio with Holder's wife Carmen de Lavallade and son Leo Holder to hear what it feels like to keep Holder's legacy alive and what de Lavallade thinks of the recent rise in kids standing up against the government—as she did not too long ago.
The encounter with man-eating female creatures in Jerome Robbins' The Cage never fails to shock audiences. As this tribe of insects initiates the newly-born Novice into their community and prepares her for the attack of the male Intruders, the ballet draws us into a world of survival and instinct.
This year celebrates the 100th anniversary of Jerome Robbins' birth, and a number of Robbins programs are celebrating his timeless repertoire. But it especially feels like a prime moment to experience The Cage again. Several companies are performing it: San Francisco Ballet begins performances on March 20, followed by the English National Ballet in April and New York City Ballet in May.
Why it matters: In this time of female empowerment—as women are supporting one another in vocalizing injustices, demanding fair treatment and pay, and advocating for future generations—The Cage's nest of dominant women have new significance.
Stephen Petronio brings a bracing season to New York City's Joyce Theater, where he has performed almost every year for 24 years . His work is exciting to the subscription audience as well as to many dance artists. He delves into movement invention at the same time as creating complex postmodern forms. The new work, Hardness 10, is his third collaboration with composer Nico Muhly. The costumes are by Patricia Field ARTFASHION, hand-painted by Iris Bonner/These Pink Lips. Petronio's work still practically defines the word contemporary.
Stephen Petronio Company also continues with its Bloodlines series. That's where he pays homage to landmark works of the past that have influenced his own edgy aesthetics. This season he's chosen Merce Cunningham's playful trio Signals (1970), which will be performed with live music from Composers Inside Electronics.
Completing the program is an excerpt from Petronio's Underland (2003), with music by Nick Cave. Video footage courtesy of Stephen Petronio Company, filmed by Blake Martin.
Never did I think I'd see the day when I'd outgrow dance. Sure, I knew my life would have to evolve. In fact, my dance career had already taken me through seasons of being a performer, a choreographer, a business owner and even a dance professor. Evolution was a given. Evolving past dancing for a living, however, was not.
Transitioning from a dance career involved just as much of a process as building one did. But after I overcame the initial identity crisis, I realized that my dance career had helped me develop strengths that could be put to use in other careers. For instance, my work as a dance professor allowed me to discover my knack for connecting with students and helping them with their careers, skills that ultimately opened the door for a pivot into college career services.
Here's how five dance skills can land you a new job—and help you thrive in it:
When you spend as much time on the road as The Royal Ballet's Steven McRae, getting access to a proper gym can be a hassle. To stay fit, the Australian-born principal turns to calisthenics—the old-school art of developing aerobic ability and strength with little to no equipment.
"It's basically just using your own body weight," McRae explains. "In terms of partnering, I'm not going to dance with a ballerina who is bigger than me, so if I can sustain my own body weight, then in my head I should be fine."