Mustached dance-guru Ryan Heffington is the sophisticated mind behind Sia Furler’s epic “Chandelier” video starring Dance Moms’ prodigy Maddie Ziegler. You know the one. Heffington also choreographed the controversial video for Arcade Fire’s “We Exist”, and a slew of others. His work has been on view in national art galleries, including a commission for MOCA entitled “Heffington Moves MOCA.” The spectacle included classes, performances with interactive projections, living sculpture art installations, and a musical interpretation of Heavy Metal Parking Lot. Easily identifiable, Heffington’s work is a vulnerable exploration of consciousness and primitivity. He brilliantly underscores the complex emotions of humanity through the body. Both his comprehensive experience and distinct artistic voice have lead him to the pinnacle of his career: He is a meditation on theatrical splendor, the power within, and punk rock disorder. Here, we talk to him about the controversy surrounds his recent breakout videos, and his vision behind their standout choreography.
Why do you think the public has had such a strong reaction to the video for “Chandelier?”
There is something inherently human in this piece. As abstract as the concept or movement is, the purity of youth, super human abilities (that of a professional athlete) and the mature emotional range of the character creates a complex experience for the viewer. We also have been bombarded with videos that ooze excess and ego. I think we’ve created something simple, artistic, and relatable that anyone of any demographic can connect to. Its strength lies in the lack of definition of what exactly it all means. In a way it empowers the viewers, thus making it an attractive piece of art to many.
I’ve read several interpretations of the story behind it. Some claim it’s based on Sia being abandoned as a child by her parents, some say it’s about alcoholism and addiction. I wanted you to set the record straight.
The song is about addiction, yet the video concept is more abstract than just this. What I find important is that this piece of art has so many interpretations. I don’t think I could (or in fact want to) create such definition of the plot, it lives much more vibrant if I do not. The movement was a true collaboration between Sia and I. To create movement solely based on the idea of addiction and with a minor would be irresponsible and simple. I allowed the swells and mood of the song to come through in physical form, sprinkling in abstract gestures that could help shape emotion while still feeling a bit detached. Pushing Maddie into more complicated emotional realms increased the viewers craving to piece the elements together.
The interaction between Maddie and the interior of the apartment was specifically compelling to me. It seems like she’s actually having a two-sided conversation with the walls and objects; that they are her co-stars. What did you want her relation to the space she inhabited to be?
Early on I requested the architectural detailing of the character’s living space and what furniture would inhabit it. Like any of our dwellings we spend an absorbent amount of time in, all material components becomes part of the physical dialogue between us and these objects—walls, furniture, hallways. Although muddled in color and sparse in content, it was a choice to have the environment be rich in means of activity for the character. How often do children find a pile of dirt and a hose the most enthralling playmates? Yes, she may be isolated from other humans or environments, but seemingly rich in imagination with the ability to utilize fantasy to entertain herself via exploring new physical conversations with what simply existed before her eyes.
According to viewer commentary, there is a large percentage of the public that feels that the eleven year-old star of the video, Maddie Ziegler, was sexualized due to her movements in a nude leotard. Was this a factor considered while you were working with her?
Not in the least bit did this conversation ever cross my mind when creating this piece. I feel I’m a bit naive in that I have a concentrated group of free thinkers, artists and dancers that surround me in my day to day life. It’s usual for dancers to be in body conscious attire—at every age—to best support our ability to learn how we hold our bodies, to perfect lines and technique. I consider adorning young girls in full make up and mature costumes more sexualizing than a nude leotard and playful tattoos.
What was the maniacal smiling/curtseying at the end supposed to represent?
In this ever revolving physical narrative, for me it was a play on breaking the 4th wall where the character relates that she knew this was only a performance.
Do you feel the video for Arcade Fire’s “We Exist” succeeded as a vehicle to empower the homosexual and transgender communities?
There has been a lot of conversation within my personal circles about this, from anger that Mr. Garfield was cast as a trans-gender woman, to massive amount of support in voicing the words ‘We Exist’ from both the queer community and friends that identify as straight. Within these two extreme examples, I know that the video ignited much conversation about this subject and for that I feel the video has been successful. The intention behind David Wilson’s video was to visually articulate the meaning behind the song. As a gay man, I do feel that with the support of Arcade Fire along with the message of the song and video, that yes, we have been successful in empowering our queer and transgender communities.
What was it like teaching the dance routine to a straight man playing a newly explorative trans-gender role? How did you help him tap into where he needed to go in his body?
David enlisted the assistance of our friend Our Lady J, a transgender classical pianist and singer-songwriter to spend time with Andrew before the rehearsal process, to engage in conversation about being transgender and how one could apply physical mannerisms during and after this transformation. I was careful to take this information and allow for both past and current genders, and the physicalization of both to be present due to the fact that indeed “Sandy” the hero character was in a transitional state.
Your career is gaining serious momentum. Do you see yourself taking over the spotlight in upcoming performances, or do you want to mostly continue crafting and teaching others?
I had a conversation with myself years back that ended in my desire to always stay connected to my community as well as pursuing my journey as an artist. I decided then to continue teaching dance as long I am physically able to, as well as foster my artistic career within art, commercial, and concert realms. I have always juggled many passions at once—this is where i find the most happiness and the least amount of boredom. And if I were to become the poster child for dance as a way to make life greater, sure!
Photos by Jesse Askinazi.