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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.
It can be hard to focus when Alice Sheppard dances.
Her recent sold-out run of DESCENT at New York Live Arts, for instance, offered a constellation of stimulation. Onstage was a large architectural ramp with an assortment of peaks and planes. There was an intricate lighting and projection design. There was a musical score that unfolded like an epic poem. There was a live score too: the sounds of Sheppard and fellow dancer Laurel Lawson's bodies interacting with the surfaces beneath them.
And there were wheelchairs. But if you think the wheelchairs are the center of this work, you're missing something vital about what Sheppard creates.
"I'm sorry, but I just can't possibly give you the amount of money you're asking for."
My heart sinks at my director's final response to my salary proposal. She insists it's not me or my work, there is just no money in the budget. My disappointment grows when handed the calendar for Grand Rapids Ballet's next season with five fewer weeks of work.
"It just...always looks better in my head."
While that might not be something any of us would want to hear from a choreographer, it's a brilliant introduction to "Off Kilter" and the odd, insecure character at its center, Milton Frank. The ballet mockumentary (think "The Office" or "Parks and Recreation," but with pointe shoes) follows Frank (dancer-turned-filmmaker Alejandro Alvarez Cadilla) as he comes back to the studio to try his hand at choreographing for the first time since a plagiarism scandal derailed his fledgling career back in the '90s.
We've been pretty excited about the series for a while, and now the wait is finally over. The first episode of the show, "The Denial," went live earlier today, and it's every bit as awkward, hilarious and relatable as we hoped.
A Jellicle Ball is coming to the big screen, with the unlikeliest of dancemakers on tap to choreograph.
We'll give you some hints: His choreography can aptly be described as "animalistic," though Jellicle cats have never come to mind specifically when watching his hyper-physical work. He's worked on movies before—even one about Beasts. And though contemporary ballet is his genre of choice, his choreography is certainly theatrical enough to lend itself to a musical.
What is the right flooring system for us?
So many choices, companies, claims, endorsements, and recommendations to consider. The more you look, the more confusing it gets. Here is what you need to do. Here is what you need to know to get the flooring system suited to your needs.
These days, everyone tells you how important it is to be versatile. But what if you're convinced there's just one style that's right for you? It can be tough to balance a deep interest in a single specialty and still meet many choreographers' expectations. Luckily, you don't have to choose between all in or all over the place, as long as you follow your interests thoughtfully.
So far, the fervor to create diversity in ballet has primarily focused on dancers. Less attention has been paid to the work that they'll encounter once they arrive.
Yet the cultivation of ballet choreographers of color (specifically black choreographers) through traditional pathways of choreographic training grounds remains virtually impossible. No matter how you slice it, we end up at the basic issues that plague the pipeline to the stage: access and privilege.
Christopher Wheeldon is going to be giving Michael Jackson some new moves: The Royal Ballet artistic associate is bringing the King of Pop to Broadway.
The unlikely pairing was announced today by Jackson's estate. Wheeldon will serve as both director and choreographer for the new musical inspired by Michael Jackson's life, which is aiming for a 2020 Broadway opening. This will be Wheeldon's second time directing and choreographing, following 2015's Tony Award-winning An American in Paris.
Wheeldon is a surprising choice, to say the least. There are many top choreographers who worked with Jackson directly, like Wade Robson and Brian Friedman, who could have been tapped for the project. Or the production could have even hired someone who actually choreographed on Jackson when he was alive, like Buddha Stretch.
Broadway musicals have been on my mind for more than half a century. I discovered them in grade school, not in a theater but electronically. On the radio, every weeknight an otherwise boring local station would play a cast album in its entirety; on television, periodically Ed Sullivan's Sunday night variety show would feature an excerpt from the latest hit—numbers from Bye Bye Birdie, West Side Story, Camelot, Flower Drum Song.
But theater lives in the here and now, and I was in middle school when I attended my first Broadway musical, Gypsy—based, of all things, on the early life of the famed burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee. I didn't know who Jerome Robbins was, but I recognized genius when I saw it—kids morphing into adults as a dance number progresses, hilarious stripping routines, a pas de deux giving concrete shape to the romantic yearnings of an ugly duckling. It proved the birth of a lifelong habit, indulged for the last 18 years in the pages of this magazine. But all long runs eventually end, and it's time to say good-bye to the "On Broadway" column. It's not the last of our Broadway coverage—there's too much great work being created and performed, and you can count on hearing from me in print and online.
Let's start with the obvious: Over the weekend, Beyoncé and Jay-Z released a joint album, Everything Is Love. Bey and Jay also dropped a video for the album's lead track, which they filmed inside the actual Louvre museum in Paris (as one does, when one is a member of the Carter family). And the vid features not only thought-provoking commentary on the Western art tradition, but also some really incredible dancing.
So, who choreographed this epic? And who are the dancers bringing it to life in those already-iconic bodystockings?
Travis Wall draws inspiration from dancers Tate McCrae, Timmy Blankenship and more.
One often-overlooked relationship that exists in dance is the relationship between choreographer and muse. Recently two-time Emmy Award Winner Travis Wall opened up about his experience working with dancers he considers to be his muses.
"My muses in choreography have evolved over the years," says Wall. "When I'm creating on Shaping Sound, our company members, my friends, are my muses. But at this current stage of my career, I'm definitely inspired by new, fresh talent."
Wall adds, "I'm so inspired by this new generation of dancers. Their teachers have done such incredible jobs, and I've seen these kids grown up. For many of them, I've had a hand in their exposure to choreography."
This week, New York City's Joyce Theater presents two companies addressing LGBTQ+ issues.