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Ryan Heffington: Hollywood's Delightfully Absurd Dancemaker
On paper, the finale of last year's Netflix series "The OA" looks absurd: Choreography as a pivotal plot device for a cerebral sci-fi show? Please.
"It could be truly amazing, or the worst part of the series," admits Ryan Heffington, the man behind the moves, which were introduced over eight surreal episodes.
But the climax proved powerful and poignant, an utterly unique use of the body to not just tell a story but drive it. "They're healing," he says of the show's gestures, which echo ancient rituals and his own personal philosophy. "It's a very spiritual set of movements. And I always say, 'Dance is a portal to spirituality.' "
"The OA" is just one of several unlikely projects from Heffington, who has emerged as one of the most in-demand choreographers in Hollywood. His eclectic resumé includes hit feature films, like this summer's stylized action flick Baby Driver, elegantly wacky perfume ads and collaborations with numerous musicians, most notably the pop star Sia. His work on her 2014 music video "Chandelier"—one of YouTube's most-watched videos—propelled him into a realm of visibility few dancemakers reach.
But it's no lucky break: Heffington's moment is the result of years of relentless work and an insistence on preserving his singular artistic voice.
Heffington's journey began in Yuba City, California, where the self-described "pageant boy" studied jazz, tap and ballet at a dance studio in the middle of an orchard, next to horse stables. It wasn't an easy place to be different, but dance—the kind he found on TV shows like "Solid Gold," "Dance Fever" and "Star Search"—was an escape and an inspiration (he appeared several times on "Star Search").
"I never felt like I was expressing myself as a youngster unless I was in dance class," he says. He was teased for performing in tights and sequins but flaunted his dance competition ribbons at school anyway. "I just didn't care," he said. "I was so proud of myself."
At the earliest opportunity, he fled to Los Angeles, where he didn't quite fit in among the more clean-cut dancers. "I recall a mentor saying, 'If you want to work, you have to cut your hair,' " he says, referring to his then-waist-length locks. "I don't like being told those things."
He hated auditioning, but needed the money and found a balance by getting cast as a hippie or, in one case, as the witch in a Disney production of Snow White, a role he loved.
But while the commercial-dance world kept him at arm's length, the art world embraced him. "Hanging out with artists and musicians and poets, I found a new community," he says.
Ryan Heffington, shot by Jacob Sutton, styled by Mindy Le Brock in top by kenzo, pants by Henrik Vibskov and shoes by Dries Van Noten.
Around age 25, Heffington discovered that he loved to teach after subbing a friend's class. He hasn't stopped since. Teaching "gave me a platform to develop choreography," he says. In class, he would experiment to music by artists he admired, like PJ Harvey and Björk. "I believe that teaching has kept me evolving," he says.
On the side, he started choreographing for art-world friends at exhibitions and fashion shows, any gig he could get. Meanwhile, he produced his own wild work, like Psycho Dance Sho, a radical punk cabaret created with Bubba Carr, which ran in L.A. from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s. "For me it was about always creating," he says. "That was my need. Through that, my exposure grew."
It was at a 2013 performance of his show KTCHN, a psychedelic, Warhol-esque dance installation, that Heffington met Sia, who saw in him a kindred artistic spirit. "He gets me," she says. "He gets my spaghetti woman, my floppy arms, my toddler lens, my anti-sexy, and he has embraced and elevated it to art status."
Since "Chandelier," the two have collaborated on several more music videos, including a recent HIV-awareness video starring Zoë Saldana, concerts and even an upcoming film that Sia is directing. "He's very intuitive and avant-garde without being pretentious or alienating," she says.
Heffington avoids traps of pretension by focusing on storytelling through raw emotion—a response, he suggests, to his childhood. "I wasn't allowed to express myself emotionally growing up," he says. Dance helped him see "what expressing oneself meant, how fulfilling that could be."
His bespoke brand of quirky gestures and intentionally imperfect technique can make a highly trained dancer like Maddie Ziegler, the young star of "Chandelier," look vulnerable while making non-dancers like the cast of "The OA" look like confident, natural movers. "I'm interested in portraying human emotion and humanity over pure aesthetics of movement," he says.
Dancer or non-dancer, his approach is the same. "I paint visual pictures through description and direction," he says. He rejects dance jargon in favor of evocative imagery and visceral scenarios. For example: "You're a possum, a car is approaching and you're going to hiss to protect your babies," he offers. "It's about an instinct, survival and need."
Heffington photographed by Jacob Sutton, styled by Mindy Le Brock in Kenzo
His focus on the face and frequent use of grotesque facial distortions has defined his aesthetic as well. "Ninety-nine percent of telling an emotional story comes from the face. Why not use this as a tool?"
Though he seems to have landed suddenly on the pop culture radar, no one who has worked with him is surprised at Heffington's success. "Ryan has always been true to himself, and I believe that's why he's gotten to where he is today," says Denna Thomsen, a choreographer and dancer who has worked with Heffington for 10 years and serves as his assistant. She describes him as "always so calm." He's eager to challenge his dancers, she says, and himself. "He's not afraid to take leaps, to take a risk."
That's probably because he sees value in stumbling occasionally. "I've got a library of music videos that I don't share online," he says with a laugh. Whether a collaboration wasn't smooth or he's dissatisfied with his own work, he asks himself what he can take from the experience, then moves on. "The need to fail is so important as an artist," he says. "An artist doesn't mean always creating beautiful work. That instills fear. My need to create overrides the fear of failure."
That appetite for risk has led him into unexplored territory, such as co-directing Seeing You, a recent immersive dance-theater work in New York City by a producer of Sleep No More, and upcoming projects with musicians like Lorde and fashion brands like Under Armour.
Ryan Heffington, photographed by Jacob Sutton, styled by Mindy Le Brock
But don't assume that Heffington has quieted the quirks to go mainstream—his M.O. hasn't changed since the days of Psycho Dance Sho. He credits his high-profile rise to timing, like-minded collaborators and a more generous cultural embrace of idiosyncrasy in dance. "It's a different color," he says of his style. "And I think people get hungry for that."
Heffington still recharges with teaching. In 2008, he opened The Sweat Spot, an L.A. dance studio, to indulge his passion. There he teaches his popular Sweaty Sundays class, spreading the gospel of self-love and creative freedom that has guided him over the years. Whether with big stars or a newbie off the street, in the studio or on screen, Heffington sticks to his strategy: "If you make people feel good, you have access to a lot more," he says. "They feel free, loved, confident." In other words, Heffington uses dance in real life the way he did on "The OA." "I believe that dance heals," he says. "People experience it, and it changes who they are."
There must be something in the water: Last week, we announced that Madonna is directing Michaela DePrince's upcoming biopic. And yesterday, we got wind of another major dance film: According to The Hollywood Reporter, Fox Searchlight has sealed the deal to make Ailey Ailey's life and work into a movie. Yes, please.
While some movies falter along their way to the big screen, we think this one's got legs (and hopefully a whole lot of lateral T's and hinges and coccyx balances, too). Why?
Back in 2012, after 14 years dancing with Mark Morris Dance Group, choreographer John Heginbotham ventured out on his own. Don't think of it as going solo, though.
Almost from the outset, Heginbotham has embarked on a series of fruitful collaborations with other artists, via his namesake company, Dance Heginbotham, and through a stream of independent projects. His creative partners have covered a range of talents and genres: illustrator Maira Kalman (in 2017's The Principles of Uncertainty), opera director Peter Sellars (for Girls of the Golden West, which debuted at San Francisco Opera in November), and contemporary-music luminaries such as Tyondai Braxton and Alarm Will Sound.
Here's What He Has To Say: About starting his company, his rehearsal process and why he's drawn to creative mash-ups.
Raise your hand if you've ever walked out of the studio with just one thought on your mind: a big, juicy cheeseburger. But raise your other hand if instead of getting that burger, you opted for a hearty salad or stir-fry.
While dancers need to fuel their bodies with nutrient-dense meals and snacks, plenty of foods get an unfair bad rap. "The diet culture in this country vilifies various food groups as being bad while championing others as good," says Kelly Hogan, MS, RD, CDN, clinical nutrition and wellness manager at the Dubin Breast Center at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. "But black-and-white thinking like that has no place when it comes to food."
Some foods have less nutrition than others, admits Hogan, but if you're eating what you crave and honoring your hunger and fullness cues, she says you'll probably get the variety of nutrients your body needs. Here are seven foods that can have a place on your plate—guilt-free.
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."
Ten years is a long time for a dance production to run, but Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui's Sutra, an athletic, meditative spectacle featuring 19 Shaolin monks and a malleable set of 21 wooden boxes (designed by Antony Gormley) is still striking a chord with audiences worldwide. To celebrate the milestone, Sutra is returning to Sadler's Wells, where it all began. March 26–28. sadlerswells.com.
Whether playing a saucy soubrette or an imperious swan, Irina Dvorovenko was always a formidable presence on the American Ballet Theatre stage. Since her 2013 retirement at 39, after 16 seasons, she's been bringing that intensity to an acting career in roles ranging from, well, Russian ballerinas to the Soviet-era newcomer she plays in the FX spy series "The Americans."
We caught up with her after tech rehearsal for the Encores! presentation of the musical Grand Hotel, directed and choreographed by Josh Rhodes and running March 21–25 at New York City Center. It's another tempestuous ballerina role for Dvorovenko—Elizaveta Grushinskaya, on her seventh farewell tour, resentfully checks into the Berlin hostelry of the title with her entourage, only to fall for a handsome young baron and sing "Bonjour, Amour."
When Andrew Montgomery first saw the Las Vegas hit Le Rêve - The Dream 10 years ago, he knew he had to be a part of the show one day. Eight years later, he auditioned, and made it to the last round of cuts. On his way home, still waiting to hear whether he'd been cast, he was in a motorcycle accident that ended up costing him half his leg.
But Montgomery's story doesn't end the way you might think. Today, he's a cast member of Le Rêve, where he does acrobatics and aerial work, swims (yes, the show takes places in and around a large pool) and dances, all with his prosthetic leg.
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."
A flock of polyamorous princes, a chorus of queer dying swans, a dominatrix witch: These are a few of the characters that populate the works of Katy Pyle, who, with her Brooklyn-based company Ballez, has been uprooting ballet's gender conventions since 2011.
Historically, ballet has not allowed for the expression of lesbian, transgender or gender-nonconforming identities. With Ballez, Pyle is reinventing the classical canon on more inclusive terms. Her work stems from a deep love of ballet and, at the same time, a frustration with its limits on acceptable body types and on the stories it traditionally tells.
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.