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."
When Thomas Forster isn't in the gym doing his own workout, he's often coaching his colleagues.
Two years ago, the American Ballet Theatre soloist got a personal training certification from the National Academy of Sports Medicine. Now he trains fellow ABT members and teaches the ABT Studio Company a strength and conditioning class alongside fellow ABT soloist Roman Zhurbin.
He shared six of his top tips for getting into top shape.
No matter how much anti–Valentine's Day sentiment I'm feeling in a given year, there's something about dancer couples that still makes me swoon. Here's a collection of wonderful posts from this year, but be warned: Continued scrolling is likely to give you a severe case of the warm fuzzies.
When Rennie Harris first heard that Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater had tapped him to create a new hour-long work, and to become the company's first artist in residence, he laughed.
"I'm a street dance choreographer. I do street dance on street dancers," he says. "I've never set an hour-long piece on any other company outside my own, and definitely not on a modern dance company."
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When Chase Brock signed on to choreograph a new musical at a theater in New Jersey in 2015, he couldn't have predicted that four years later, he would be receiving fan art featuring his Chihuahua because of it. Nor could he have he imagined that the show—Be More Chill, based on the young adult novel by Ned Vizzini—would be heading to Broadway with one of the most enthusiastic teenage fan bases the Great White Way has ever seen.
It's no longer just Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo and the few pointe-clad male character parts, like in Cinderella or Alexei Ratmansky's The Bright Stream. Some male dancers are starting to experiment with pointe shoes to strengthen their feet or expand their artistic possibilities. Michelle Dorrance even challenged the men in her cast at American Ballet Theatre to perform on pointe last season (although only Tyler Maloney ended up actually doing it onstage).
The one problem? Pointe shoes have traditionally only been designed for women. Until now.
Camille Sturdivant, a former member of the Blue Valley Northwest High School dance team is suing the school district, alleging that she was barred from performing in a dance because her skin was "too dark."
The suit states that during Sturdivant's senior year, the Dazzlers' choreographer, Kevin Murakami, would not allow her to perform in a contemporary dance because he said her skin would clash with the costumes, and that she would steal focus from the other dancers because of her skin color.
You wander through the grocery aisles, sizing up the newest trends on the shelves. Although you're eager to try a new energy bar, you question a strange ingredient and decide to leave it behind. Your afternoons are consumed with research as you sort through endless stories about "detox" miracles.
What started as an innocent attempt to eat healthier has turned into a time-consuming ritual with little room for error, and an underlying fear surrounding your food choices.
Aside from a solid warm-up, most dancers have something else they just have to do before performing. Whether it's putting on the right eyelashes before the left or giving a certain handshake before a second-act entrance, our backstage habits give us the comfort of familiar, consistent choices in an art form with so many variables.
Some call them superstitions, others call them rituals. Either way, these tiny moments become part of our work—and sometimes even end up being the most treasured part of performing.
Raise your hand if you've ever gotten sucked down an informational rabbit hole on the internet. (Come on, we know it's not just us.) Now, allow us to direct you to this new project from Google Arts & Culture. To celebrate Black History Month, they've put together a newly curated collection of images, videos and stories that spotlights black history and culture in America specifically through the lens of dance—and it's pretty much our new favorite way to pass the time online.
If you're anything like us, your Instagram feed is chock-full of gorgeous dance photos and videos. But you know what makes us fall in love with an artist even more? When they take a break from curating perfect posts and get real about their missteps. These performers' ability to move past mistakes, and even laugh them off, is one reason why they're so successful.
Every time you fall out of a pirouette, just remember: The stars—and literally every. single. dancer.—have been there, too. (Even Misty Copeland.)
Dancers today have an overwhelming array of options at their fingertips: New fitness tools, recovery trends, workouts and more that claim to improve performance, speed up recovery or enhance training.
But which of these actually meet the unique demands of dancers? In our new series, "We Tried It," we're going to find out, sampling new health and fitness trends to see if they're dancer-approved.
First up: Brrrn, the cold temperature fitness studio (the first and only of its kind, they claim) located in Manhattan.
Lately I've been having recurring dreams: I'm in an audition and I can't remember the combination. Or, I'm rehearsing for an upcoming show, onstage, and I don't know what comes next. Each time I wake up relieved that it was only a dream.
However, this is the reality of how I often felt throughout my dance career. Once I knew the steps, there was no undoing it. It was the process of getting there that haunts me to this day.
Though Polunin has long had a reputation for behaving inappropriately, in the last month his posts have been somewhat unhinged. In one, Polunin, who is Ukrainian, shows off his new tattoo of Vladimir Putin:
Throughout your dancing life, you've heard the same corrections over and over. The reason for the repetition? Dancers tend to make the same errors, sometimes with catastrophic results. Dance Magazine spoke to eight teachers about what they perceive to be the worst habits—the ones that will destroy a dancer's technique—and what can be done to reverse the damage.
To get a 180-degree first position, dancers will sometimes let their arches roll forward. But turnout is not about forcing your feet open; it's about opening up in the hips. “Turning out is an activity, not a position," says Irene Dowd, who teaches anatomy at the Juilliard School. “If we stop sustaining that movement, our feet will passively roll in." Rolling in places stress on the tendons of the feet and leads to injury because the rest of the body compensates for the imbalance when your knees can't line up over your toes.
Dowd warns against using only the arch to combat rolling in. “Dancers will try to lift up their arches and pull up on the inside of the ankle," she says. This can result in the inflammation of the tendons in the ankle and lead to tendinitis, a painful overuse injury that's common in dancers. What she feels are “Victorian furniture feet—feet that aren't fully in contact with the ground" should be solid in three areas: the heel, the ball of the big toe, and the ball of the little toe. Imagine how your weight is being transferred from above, through the body and down the legs, rather than gripping the foot and lifting from the arch.
Misaligning the Spine
Distorting the back, either by crunching the lumbar vertebrae and splaying the rib cage open or by hunching the shoulders forward and tucking the pelvis under, affects every other part of the body. Since the proper placement of the torso is the foundation of any movement, a dancer with a misaligned spine will develop other deadly technique sins. Problems can ripple all the way down to the extremities and upward to the neck and head. The core will be loose, unable to provide essential support. A pelvis that either tips back or tucks under will limit the range of motion in the hips.
Christine Spizzo's students at the North Carolina School of the Arts constantly work on their placement. “The one directive I give in class more than any other," she says, “is tailbone down, navel muscles lifted." She emphasizes that the tailbone lengthens downward without tucking under, and the navel muscles lift upward, not inward. This opposition allows the external rotator muscles to be actively engaged at the top of the thigh. Spizzo uses the expression the Four Ts—“no tucking, tipping, tilting, or twisting of the pelvis"—as a reminder for students.
Clenching the Toes
Clenching, curling, knuckling—no matter what it's called, this condition hampers a dancer's ability to articulate the feet. Clenched toes also make the feet an unstable platform to stand on, creating problems for the rest of the body. The muscles and tendons of the foot, knee, and ankle must work together to perform a relevé or jump, says Edward Ellison, director of Ellison Ballet Professional Training Program in New York. Clenched toes will place unwanted stress on the joints of the legs, leading to imbalance and overuse injuries. On pointe, knuckling over can damage the bones and tendons of the feet.
Master ballet teacher Sara Neece of Ballet Arts in New York says that when the first joint of the toe presses down into the floor too hard, the second joint of the toe jams into the metatarsal. For Neece, the key to remedying clenched toes lies in “bringing sensation to those unused tendons" beneath the second joint, and teaching the toes how to work in a careful and deliberate manner. While seated, a dancer should prick the back of each clenched toe with a fingernail about 20 times. Sitting on a chair with the foot on the ground, she should drag it back toward the body, slowly raising it to demi-pointe with a forced arch. Teachers must pay attention to the response of the feet to this localized work, since overstressing the tendons can damage them. Another way to teach the toes to stretch out is to weave a strip of cloth over the second toe and alternate below and above successive toes, leaving it there during barrework and nondance activities.
Giving In to Extreme Hyperextension
Hyperextended legs, in which the straightened knee naturally curves behind the thigh and calf muscles, are prized in the world of extreme ballet bodies. Christine Spizzo sings the praise of a moderately hyperextended leg line, as the leg fits snugly in fifth position, and the arabesque looks gorgeous, with that slight curve offsetting the arch of the foot. However, dancers with extreme hyperextension must take special care. “The hyperextended dancer tends to have weak external rotator muscles," she says, so the legs are more prone to collapse in on themselves when landing from a jump, letting the body weight fall on the knees. This can result in damage to the joints that maintain the alignment of the leg, including twisted knees and sprained ankles. Even if the dancer understands how to avoid giving in to her hyperextension, she has to learn how to express herself fully while restraining her legs.
But Spizzo points to dancers such as international star Sylvie Guillem, who has used her extreme hyperextension to her advantage. The dancer must think of lengthening rather than straightening or locking the knee, even if it feels slightly bent. She must develop a heightened awareness of the turnout muscles from the top of the thigh down to the calf. “The muscles must be activated to not allow the dancer to give in to the hyperextension," says Spizzo. She uses the image of the barbershop pole to encourage dancers to apply that feeling of an infinite spiral to their legs. Somatic practices such as Pilates can help to strengthen those stabilizing turnout muscles. Spizzo insists that dancers stand with the heels together in first position and never be allowed to press back into that knee joint. To do this, “the quadriceps must remain soft. As soon as you grip, it pulls that kneecap back dangerously."
Using Unnecessary Tension
“Tension," says Daniel Lewis, dean of dance at the New World School of the Arts, “pulls you off balance. It tightens the muscles and causes injury." Stiff muscles are injury-prone muscles, which make free and confident movement impossible.
Unwanted stiffness can also limit your versatility as a dancer. “Modern dance is concerned with trying to go into space off-center and off-balance," says Mary Cochran, chair of the dance department at Barnard College. “If you spend too much time holding your body stiffly, it's hard to make the transition from working in-balance to working off-balance."
Rhythmic breathing helps dissipate tension. Think of the lungs as another limb and pace the breath with the dynamics of the music. Sustain a sense of motion in the body, even when you are still, advises Cochran. Doing so will help reverse the muscle memory of using tension as a form of stability.
Pinching Your Shoulder Blades
Although used as a strategy to open the chest in front, pinching your shoulder blades together immobilizes the back. The serratus anterior on the sides of your rib cage is so overstretched that it can't work. Edward Ellison says that pinched shoulder blades impede the freedom of the arms and the support of the upper spine. He feels that they “cause your weight to fall behind your axis, and strain the trapezius and rhomboid muscles of the back."
Irene Dowd suggests thinking about widening the tips of the shoulders to the side, to allow plenty of room for the chest. “It helps to think about the chest—full of your lungs, your heart, all those organs—as a sphere," says Dowd. “We need to have enough room for all those precious organs to breathe." To relax shoulder blades, sometimes she will tell students to focus on the movement of the hands. “Is the hand really a lively part of my being?" Dowd has her students ask. “The shoulder blade should support that hand."
Getting Stuck in a Rut
While physical habits impede progress, the deadliest sin is losing the drive to improve technique at all. Franco De Vita, principal of American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, says good technique begins with a dancer's approach to class. Being present and focused enables the dancer to learn combinations quickly—and correctly. “Not listening and changing the exercise is unacceptable," says De Vita.
Michael Vernon, chair of the ballet department at Indiana University, feels the worst thing a dancer can do “is to get fixed into doing something a certain way, being safe. I love young dancers who understand that you have to dance for tomorrow, and not yesterday." Keeping an open mind means more than just trying a different preparation for a pirouette. “Being open to new styles of dance and new ways of moving the body is vital to keeping the art relevant."
I write this letter knowing full well and first-hand the financial challenges of running an arts organization. I also write this letter on behalf of dancers auditioning for your companies. Lastly, I write this letter as a member of society at large and as someone who cares deeply about the culture we are leading and the climate we create in the performing arts.
In the February 1969 issue of Dance Magazine, we talked to Bob Fosse about taking Sweet Charity from stage to screen. Though he already had a string of Tony Awards for Best Choreography and had spent plenty of time on film sets as a choreographer, this adaptation marked his first time sitting in the director's chair for a motion picture.
"When I started out, I wanted to be a Fred Astaire," he told us, "and after that a Jerome Robbins. But then I realized there was always somebody a dancer or choreographer had to take orders from. So I decided I wanted to become a director, namely a George Abbott. But as I got older I dropped the hero-worship thing. I didn't want to emulate anyone. Just wanted to do the things I was capable of doing—and have some fun doing them. By this time I'm glad I didn't turn out to be an Astaire, a Robbins or an Abbott." He would go on to become an Academy Award–winning director, indelibly changing musical theater in the process.
If you've ever wondered where models get their moves, look just off-camera for Pat Boguslawski. As a movement director and creative consultant based in London, he works with top brands, fashion designers, magazines and film directors to elicit bold, photogenic movement for ad campaigns, runway shows and film. Boguslawski has collaborated with plenty of big-name talent—FKA Twigs, Hailey Baldwin, Victoria Beckham, Kim Kardashian—and draws on his diverse experience in hip hop, contemporary dance, acting and modeling.
Dance Magazine recently asked him about how he got this career, and what it takes to thrive in it.
Let's say that today you're having a terrible time following your class's choreography and are feeling ashamed—you're always stumbling a few beats behind. Do you:
1. Admit it's your fault because you didn't study the steps last night? Tonight you'll nail them down.
2. Feel worthless and alone? You slump your shoulders, avoid eye contact with your teacher and fellow dancers, and wish to disappear.
Shame is a natural emotion that everyone occasionally feels. If you answered #1, it may be appropriate—you earned it by not studying—and positive if it motivates you to do better in the future.
My hypermobility used to cause me a lot of trouble, but I've gained confidence and strength after reading about it in one of your columns. I now have a Pilates instructor who's retraining my body and helping me dance in a consistent way. Thank you!
—No Longer Anxious, Philadelphia, PA
George Balanchine famously wrote, that ballet "is a woman." Four of his most celebrated women—Allegra Kent, Gloria Govrin, Kay Mazzo and Merrill Ashley—appeared onstage at Jacques d'Amboise's National Dance Institute Monday evening to celebrate his legacy. The sold-out program, called "Balanchine's Ballerinas," included performances of excerpts from ballets closely associated with these women and a discussion, moderated by former New York City Ballet principal Wendy Whelan. Here are some highlights of the conversation, filled with affection, warmth and fond memories.