Ryan Heffington

The Choreographer Talks Dance, Escape, and Expression

You might not know Ryan Heffington specifically, but you’ve seen something he choreographed. Those dancing babies in the Evian commercial? Heffington. Shia Laboeuf getting emotional for Sigur Rós? Heffington. And you definitely saw Sia’s heart-stopping “Chandelier” – also Heffington. Vivacious, defiant, and celebratory, the Los Angeles-based choreographer’s style bridges the eclectic and the completely relatable. He brings the same attitude to his choice of projects: everything from cabaret routines in queer punk clubs – “a sanctuary for my expression” – to choreography for Ke$ha and Icona Pop, or a live performance turning dancers in windows of New York’s Standard hotel into a moving light show accompanied by a 30-piece orchestra. It’s all fair game for Heffington. And as a conversation with him reveals, it’s all worth celebrating.

You choreographed two SSENSE productions: Hercules & Love Affair’s “I Try To Talk To You” and Chromeo’s “Old 45’s,” videos with incredibly different moods. How did you approach them differently?

For Hercules, the relationship and its qualities were more honest. It was important that the movement enhanced this connection and supported the story. It was about creating something real, not acted.

With "Old 45's," the dance would be a supporting role in this comedic video. For me a more commercial approach to the movement made more sense. Hitting accents and enhancing the song’s structure. Knowing the band’s tongue-and-cheek style, it was fun to play with characters and narrative.

You’ve been a part of so many different kinds of projects: everything from your Heavy Metal Parking Lot adaptation at the MOCA to the Evian dancing babies commercial to dance coaching on RuPaul’s Drag Race. Do you have a certain signature you try to bring to all your work?

I'm driven by passion – and I think this is the inherent force behind my work. I love to embellish projects with a level of humanity: creating narratives of emotional depth, even if brief.

We’ll be the latest ones to say it: the “Chandelier” video was sensational. How does it feel to have choreographed a work that made such an impact? Were you surprised by the reactions it got?

I was proud of “Chandelier” even before it was released. The event of collaborating with Sia (her as a director) really influenced the artistry here. This project felt so complete, from narrative to creation to execution. The acclaim was uplifting, and concurrently caught me off guard.

No matter what kind of emotional tone a piece you’ve choreographed may have, they always seem to maintain a sense of exuberance: sheer joy in the act of dancing itself. What’s special about dance as an art form?

What other art form can allow both physical and emotional expression – allowing joy, fear, intrigue, and insecurity to be your co-pilot?

One theme your pieces seem to have in common is performance as an escape: into a fantasy world like in Sigur Rós’ “Fjogur Piano,” into a celebration of an alternative identity in Arcade Fire’s “We Exist.” Is this a reflection of your background, or how you came into dance?

Funny, I never made this connection of my dance past and current work. The theme of escapism in the aforementioned projects was developed by the directors – I simply articulated their vision through choreography. I guess the elation I felt as a child when I got to skip school to do what I loved was a great source of happiness for me. Then, I didn’t realize it was escapism – yet survival. So for me, working with characters through movement, I do know what it should feel like emotionally.

I'm driven by passion. 

Describe a time in your life where dance was an escape or an act of defiance.

Well, our first show as Psycho Dance Sho in the mid-90s was – as we began to realize – therapy for us. We acted out intense, violent portraitures of relationships. Our genders were blurry yet our passion was unadulterated. Many pieces were about love and the need to be loved. Dancers played lovers and they played pathetic, misguided counterparts as well. The thrill to abstractly play out our feelings, desires, and un-nurtured selves created poetic art.

You still teach dance classes every week at your studio in L.A., The Sweat Spot. What’s important to you about the community you create through dance?

Simply that a community can exist of adult dancers that are choosing to enjoy this art form is important enough. The fact that we get to express ourselves and be vulnerable, sexy, and campy in front of each other with nothing but support is also extremely valid, and not necessarily easy to obtain as adults. The benefits are golden.

Do you think we dance enough?

Is this possible?

In your ideal world, what would humanity’s relationship to dance be like? What place would it have in our lives?

It would be a daily ritual that would connect our minds and bodies. I’ve said this before, but imagine if the world danced every day – even if for only one hour. Really, sit and imagine this. The release, the joy, the connection, the sweat, the toning, the stamina, the breath. I guarantee our existence as a species would alter into a more loving, compassionate state of living.