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A Rational Conversation: 2014 Through The Eyes Of A Choreographer

Ryan Heffington.
Jean-Baptiste Huong
Courtesy of the artist
Ryan Heffington.

"A Rational Conversation" is a column by writer Eric Ducker in which he gets on instant messenger or the phone with a special guest to examine a music-related subject that's entered the pop culture consciousness.

To help him wrap his head around music in 2014, Ducker chatted with Ryan Heffington. The Los Angeles-based choreographer and dancer was involved with two videos this year that turned out to be mega high profile phenomenons. He choreographed the video for Sia's "Chandelier," featuring an astounding performance by the then 11-year-old Maddie Ziegler, one of the stars of Lifetime's Dance Moms TV show, as well as the much debated video for Arcade's Fire "We Exist," featuring Andrew Garfield portraying a transgender woman. Other pieces that shouldn't be overlooked include the exquisite roller-skating work Heffington put together for "Gold" by Chet Faker and the showy interludes in Chromeo's "Old 45's." Heffington's work is often notable for the expressive performances that incorporate abstract modern dance movements into more mainstream forms. Here he and Ducker discuss what this year brought us and the types of performances they responded to.

What was your favorite music-related memory or experience of 2014?

There have been so many! One of them for sure was sitting at the Brite Spot after the MTV VMAs and getting a text from Sia telling me congrats. They announced Best Choreography via Twitter (glamorous) and she's how I found out.

What were some of the favorite shows or performances you went to?

Seeing FKA twigs at the Regent recently solidified my appreciation for her. Blood Orange at Coachella was incredible, and performing there [during the first week] with Arcade Fire was epic.

You were on stage with them?

We performed on this 10x10 raised platform in the middle of the audience in daisy dukes, flannels and heels for "We Exist." You can see it on the back screen in the video.

I've seen the video, but wasn't there, so I thought that was pre-filmed footage from the video shoot.

No. It was live! And so thrilling. It felt so important.

Going back to FKA twigs, what was it about the show at the Regent that solidified your appreciation?

Her authenticity. In a circus where sex and overproduction rule, it was so refreshing to see her be vulnerable, commanding and sexy while killing it with her craft.

Do you think that translated even better in a live setting than in her recordings?

It being live gave it weight. It's always a gamble. There are so many factors to juggle, and she eloquently transformed the album versions into new work. That's always impressive.

Was there any music you connected to this year that surprised you or that you didn't anticipate that you would?

Banks just got under my skin. I couldn't shake her. Once I used her music in my piece for Art Basel the obsession subsided a bit.

Why did your obsession subside? Was it just fatigue from listening to her so much while putting together your piece?

I think I was able to re-appropriate it and have it live with the piece, not just my mind. I still love it.

Why was it surprising that she got to you? Just the newness of her?

No, it was the emotional vibration in her voice. To this day I'm not sure what the lyrics are, but I know what the feeling of her vocals feels like to my body. This doesn't happen often, but when it does, it melts me.

I read that you get a lot of the inspiration in your choreography from things you find on Vine. Can you tell me more about that?

Ha, not true, but I do search blogs for inspirational pictures. It can be of body forms or simply moods expressed through color or still life.

So no movement, all stills?

Yup. I'm not a huge follower of dance (shhhhhh). I find my inspiration elsewhere.

There go all my questions about the Shmoney Dance!


Well, even if you aren't a big follower of dance and don't incorporate this stuff into your own work, do you have any thoughts about how quickly something like the Shmoney Dance can go from a very underground, youth-related thing to a move that Beyoncé is incorporating into her routines?

It's interesting. For the most part it's hard to have ownership over dance or a style of dance; it's all fair game. Most entertainers are choreographed and hardly ever settle into their authentic selves. Even Mr. Jackson took the moonwalk from Fosse.

Yeah, my interest isn't so much about issues of ownership, it's the speed of the incorporation. It's incredible how fast inspiration can transcend layers of fame now.

True, and so us art creators keep creating in hope we don't become overexposed without getting credit.

I was talking to my editor about this interview and she mentioned how it's always interesting to her when dance moves or movements show up in unexpected places. She mentioned the video of a college basketball player from Mercer player doing the Nae Nae after his underdog team beat Duke in the NCAA tournament. Have you seen stuff you've put together — I'm particularly thinking about from "Chandelier" — show up in strange places?

Like on Saturday Night Live!!!! Besides there, not yet. It would be AMAZING if an NFL player did the eye pull after scoring a touchdown.

Do you watch the parody videos or ones where people recreate it that show up on YouTube?

I have. Some are incredible.

What did you think of Beyonce's "7/11" video? That one seemed to be actively trying to break down the barrier between a big star who usually has a very polished aesthetic and the rawer feel of what people upload online.

It changed my attraction to her. It's these real moments that allow a connection for me. Humiliation is so powerful.

What do you mean by humiliation?

The lack of perfection being portrayed.

But do you think that's a conscious move, where she knows she has this reputation and this way she can control her imperfection, or can moderate how imperfect she wants to present herself as?

Sure, it's conscious. She's still under a microscope and do we really expect her to be extremely vulnerable? I find just exposing a bit intriguing.

What is an underrated or under-seen dance performance tied to contemporary music you enjoyed this year that you wish more people saw?

As simple as it was, the collective WIFE performed in a video for "Basic Instinct" by the Acid. It was quite beautiful.

Do you think that the general music listening public might not embrace something like the "Basic Instinct" video on a mass scale because most people don't feel like they have the tools or knowledge to understand — and this isn't quite the right word — "pure" dance performances? I have no background or history in dance, but it's one of my favorite forms of expression to watch. Still, I probably don't go to as many dance performances as I should because I don't think I'll understand them or fully appreciate them. Is that why people mainly react to dance in various mediums when they're "funny" or "crazy" or "spectacular"?

Sure, the general public is not versed in dance. But look at "Chandelier." It's contemporary and haunting and strange and people couldn't get enough. It's a hard question to answer with this as an example, but something that is humorous is much easier to understand than a conceptual dance piece.

Do you consider "Chandelier" to be a conceptual dance piece?

Yes, abstract and conceptual.

It's interesting, I think people might respond initially to the video because there's a child performing these incredible physical moves, but the more you watch it, the more you realize you're reacting to the emotional power of the dance itself.

Agreed. There is an invitation that is so easy to accept. You get invested instantly. This is what I like to create with art, to take care of the viewer — to gain trust — then take them on a journey that might be unfamiliar to them.

How essential is it to that video's success that a child performs the dance?

Most of it. Having an adult do verbatim what Maddie performed wouldn't have had such a huge impact, I'm sure. It would have been too familiar.

Did you see the video for Flying Lotus's "Never Catch Me"?

Not yet.

You should really check it out. It's another very powerful video that incorporates children and choreography and a very emotional subject matter, but in a very different way than "Chandelier."

Will do.

Have you noticed the lack of distinctive dance styles associated with modern mainstream dance music, or EDM, as it's now commonly called? I think that would give the music more of an identity.

You mean besides the mean glow stick routine?

Yeah, I gues there's that ...

I wouldn't mind spearheading this project. : )

How do we get it done? Do we just need to convince Calvin Harris's people to let you handle his next video?

I mean, yes, exactly.

Well, it's out in the world now, so hopefully they will read this. Am I wrong that '90s style or '90s-inspired dancing is making a comeback? The most obvious example is the Kiesza video, but I'm also thinking about things like Le1f's performance on the Late Show with David Letterman.

I'm not sure it ever left.

Is that period considered a high point?

Sure, for that genre, but it's still so prevalent — the ol' back up dancer routine. How long can a "high point" exist and still be interesting?

So you're not feeling it?

I'm ready for a (r)evolution.

One thing I was encouraged by this year was the music video and SNL performance for Kendrick Lamar's "i." There were elements of choreography to them, but it was more the performative aspects that I was drawn to, especially coming from a guy who isn't necessarily known for that and who comes from a part of the music world where that isn't exactly encouraged.

Yes. It's like when Prince would tear it up on stage — so authentic and impressive.

Have you noticed any other performers taking that step, where they have the confidence to it?

I did see YACHT not too long ago. [Claire L. Evans] killed it. It's maybe not dance per say, but confidence yes.

We've been talking about music pretty exclusively in terms of dance and performance. Is that the lens through which you experience all music?

I'd say yes. I do get drawn in if instant movement visualization takes place.

So you don't listen to anything to help you go to sleep?

I don't, maybe because my choreographic mind will take over.

What are you excited about for 2015?

It's an important time to continue to discuss the politics of equal rights through music and art, to see more artists that identify as gay or queer reach mainstream exposure.

Do you think we're making progress there?


Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Ducker
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