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.
Choreographer Tero Saarinen has a proclivity for the peculiar—and for epic orchestral music. That he should be commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic to create a new dance work to accompany the U.S. premiere of Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Cello Concerto en forme de pas de trois only makes sense. Zimmermann's eerie, difficult-to-classify composition falls squarely in Saarinen's wheelhouse. Walt Disney Concert Hall, Jan. 19–21. laphil.com.
Two competition routines are equal in technical proficiency, artistry and choreography. One consists of all girls, the other includes a boy. Guess which takes home first prize?
If you guessed the one with the boy, you may be privy to an unspoken and much-debated phenomenon in the competition dance world: The Boy Factor. According to The Boy Factor, a competitive piece is more likely to win if there's a boy in it.
"If it's all technically equal and one group is all girls and the other group has a boy, the one with the boy will win," says Rysa Childress, owner of All Star Studios in Forest Hills, New York. "Boy soloists are sometimes scored higher than more technically proficient girls because if a boy has good stage presence, we let him slide," says an anonymous competition judge. "And most of the feedback will be for the boy."
Growing up in inner city Rochester, NY, Aesha Ash was just one of the neighborhood kids. She'd imagine people driving by, judging her by her black skin.
"They'd never know that I was dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer. No one would think, Some day she's going to make it into New York City Ballet," says Ash.
After an inspiring career at NYCB, Béjart's Ballet Lausanne and LINES, the January 2006 Dance Magazine cover star—one of our 25 to Watch that year—is no longer performing. But she's determined to use her dance background to change the stereotypes and misconceptions that people—including black people—have about women of color. "I want to show it's okay to embrace our softer side, and let the world know we're multidimensional," says Ash.
Aesha Ash in Richmond, CA. PC Renee Scott via swandreamsproject.org
In 2011, she launched the Swan Dreams Project to inspire kids in the community she grew up in. The original idea was to post images of herself in a tutu all over Rochester. "I remember growing up and in the bodega you'd see images of girls in bikinis on motorbikes," says Ash. "I wanted to replace those with photos that show women of color in a different light."
She knew the power imagery can have: She still remembers what it felt like as a student at the School of American Ballet to see a photo of black ballet dancer Andrea Long. "That image was everything on days when I was feeling disenchanted. I'd see that picture of her, and know that the struggles I was going through, she went through them, too."
Ash soon realized she didn't have the budget to fund her original plan ("I never realized how expensive a bus stop advertisement is!"). But she's made the images available through an online store, and often simply gives away prints at her own expense to schools and students in need of some inspiration.
Any proceeds she makes from the sales go directly to other organizations that are working to expand ballet in diverse communities. One large donation even led to a pointe shoe fund at dancer Robyn Gardenhire's City Ballet of Los Angeles school—and it helped one dancer who had quit ballet because of the expense come back to class.
Now a mother of two in San Jose, CA, Ash will also start teaching a free after-school ballet class at her daughter's public school next month. "I recently taught at Girls Inc. in Oakland, and one of the little black girls said, 'Are you the ballet teacher?' She just stood there, staring at me with her mouth open, like a unicorn had just walked into the room," Ash says. "You never know the impact you can have just by being a presence."
Ever find yourself lusting after that six o'clock penché, or a développé that will reach your nose? You're not alone. The eye is naturally drawn to the end points of a movement, and, in dance, that often translates to the highest extension.
But what if you're born without extreme, Instagram-worthy lines? It's a matter of developing a laser focus on alignment as well as strengthening and stretching with better body mechanics in mind.
I'll never forget something Roberto Bolle once told me when I was interviewing him about his workout regimen: Talking about how much he loved to swim, he said, "I would love to go in the Italian sea, but I am too well-known there to show up in my suit."
It always amused and kinda shocked me that a ballet dancer could reach that level of fame. But it's true: In his native Italy, Bolle is a bonafide celerity.
Everyone knows that community college is an affordable option if a four-year school isn't in the cards. But it can also be a solid foundation for a career in the dance field. Whether students want an associate in arts degree as a precursor to obtaining a bachelor's, or to go straight into the performing world, the right two-year dance program can be a uniquely supportive place to train. Don't let negative stereotypes prevent you from attending a program that could be right for you:
Conscientious theatergoers may be familiar with The School for Scandal, The School for Wives and School of Rock. But how many are also aware of the school of Fosse?
The 1999 musical, a posthumous exploration of the choreographic career of Bob Fosse, ran for 1,093 performances, winning four Tonys and 10 nominations; employing 32 dancers; and, completely unintentionally, nurturing a generation of Broadway choreographers. You may have heard of them: Andy Blankenbuehler and Sergio Trujillo danced in the original cast, Josh Rhodes was a swing, and Christopher Gattelli replaced Trujillo when he landed choreography jobs in Massachusetts and Canada. Blankenbuehler remembers that when Trujillo left, "It was as if he was graduating."
January 16 might as well be a Broadway holiday. Three gigantic names were born on this day, in 1908, 1950 and 1980, and they represent three distinct eras of powerhouse musicals. Without them, there'd be no belting Reno Sweeney, no "Fame"-ous Lydia Grant and no rapping Alexander Hamilton. Happy birthday to these indelible superstars.
In the midst of its 20th-anniversary season, BodyVox is taking a moment to look back. The Portland, Oregon–based company presents Urban Meadow, an amalgamation of some of its most popular works, at Philadelphia's Prince Theater, Jan. 18–21. Expect whimsy, and the unexpected. bodyvox.com.
I never believe that I deserve to be happy. This reaction kicked in big time since I got a steady job. My emotions are a roller coaster: joy at the chance to perform, terror that the people in charge don't like me and resentment at not getting solo roles. I'm driving myself crazy.
—Terry, Philadelphia, PA