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.”
Heffington avoids traps of pretension by focusing on storytelling
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.
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 pro-
tect your babies,” he offers. “It’s about an instinct, survival and need.”
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 chal-
lenge 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
Brian Schaefer, a frequent contributor to Dance Magazine, also writes
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 experi-
ence, 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. 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 gener-
ous 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.” n
on dance for The New York Times and other publications.
“My need to create
overrides the fear of
Left: Heffington’s synchronized-movement
work on Baby Driver. Above: A scene in the
immersive play Seeing You.