Why the Choreography of Ryan Heffington Has Become My New Obsession

Ryan Heffington

Photo by Mathieu Plainfossé of The New York Times.

Edgar Wright’s “Baby Driver” is the most euphoric cinematic mix tape I’ve seen since Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill.” Its hero, Baby (Ansel Elgort), copes with his chronic tinnitus by blaring music through his earbuds, and the songs that he selects set the tone and rhythm for each scene. Though the film is a crowd-pleasing joyride from beginning to end, the best stretch of the picture by far is the opening credits sequence, which I’ve already seen four times (thanks to some technological mishaps at Regal Cinemas). Baby struts casually down the sidewalk while listening to Bob & Earl’s infectious 1966 tune, “Harlem Shuffle.” All the things that bugged me about Elgort’s smirky screen persona in “The Fault in Our Stars” work perfectly here, as Baby allows his body to echo the dance moves suggested by Bob & Earl’s lyrics. Various words such as “Slide” and “Yeah” and “Woah, Woah, Woah” materialize in the form of signs and graffiti at the exact moment they’re uttered in the song, requiring Elgort and cinematographer Bill Pope to hit precise marks throughout the sequence. The fact that not a single instant of this one-take wonder feels rigidly staged makes it a masterpiece of choreography, production design and sheer filmmaking exuberance.

It wasn’t until my fourth viewing that I realized a choreographer was named in the opening credits, and his name caused my jaw to drop. He’s Ryan Heffington, the virtuoso talent behind Sia’s acclaimed music videos featuring the astonishingly expressive young dancer, Maddie Ziegler. I gave him and Ziegler a shout-out in my recent RogerEbert.com review of the documentary “Bronx Gothic,” citing their collaborations as an example of how dance can bring us closer to the deepest truths of our existence. After I spotted his name in the “Baby Driver” credits, I looked up his biography and realized that I had actually been obsessed with his work without realizing it. He’s responsible for choreographing so many of my favorite instances of dance in recent years, including the uproarious Corky St. Clair-approved routines in Christopher Guest’s latest comedy, “Mascots.” It’s entirely appropriate that Heffington cites postmodern icon Yvonne Rainer as a major influence on his aesthetic, since she favored the “pedestrian movement” that the aforementioned “Baby Driver” sequence embodies so beautifully. In an interview conducted last year by Gia Kourlas of The New York Times, Heffington dubbed his choreography “human-based,” and stressed that “extreme conditioning” doesn’t necessarily result in the best dancing. “When you do gestures, everyone knows what that feels like,” he said. “It doesn’t become a superhuman exercise onstage, but rather a story that we all know. Even if you haven’t been through it, you understand the emotion.”

To further explain why Heffington’s choreography has become my new obsession, here are three more solo performances that are as thrilling and inventive as anything in “Baby Driver”…

We begin in 2014, when Heffington and Ziegler’s popularity exploded with their first of five collaborations on Sia music videos. Sia had discovered Ziegler on “Dance Moms,” a reality show that proved to be a harrowing experience for the dancer, increasing her stress levels exponentially from the mere age of 8. After making the bold choice of concealing her face during performances—as a statement against women being defined by their features (and a reaction against the invasiveness of fame)—Sia sought out Ziegler not just for her dance skills but her ability to convey arrestingly mature and complex emotions through her facial expressions. Though the choice to have Ziegler in a nude leotard garnered controversy, no attempt is made to eroticize or objectify the 11-year-old dancer. The white wig that she wears suggests that her “character” is a pint-sized stand-in for Sia herself, perhaps externalizing the youthful soul within the adult artist. As soon as she appears in the music video for Sia’s “Chandelier,” Ziegler is nothing less than a force of nature: spinning, kicking and contorting with wild abandon through the empty rooms of an apartment. In what appears to be the morning after a night of heavy partying, Ziegler conveys the melancholic daze of a hangover, striving to escape her impending shame by indulging in a sense of childlike carelessness.

Heffington’s exhilarating choreography, which he created with input from Sia, has been described by the singer as the illustration of a nervous breakdown. As Sia belts out the lyrics, “I’m holding on for dear life / Won’t look down, won’t open my eyes,” Ziegler wraps herself in window curtains, stretches her left eye open with her hand (as if ensuring that she’s conscious) and then traces the path of a tear rolling down her cheek. The lyrics continue with, “Keep my glass full until morning light / ‘cause I’m just holding on for tonight,” as Ziegler closes the curtains just beneath her face, causing her to move upward as if gasping for air in the deep end of a swimming pool. Then she raises her hand and bids her audience adieu before concluding the video with a series of moves that are hauntingly schizophrenic. The camera moves back as Ziegler stands in a doorway, alternating between a curtsy and a normal stance. As she curtsies, an eerie smile forms on her face, but when she returns to standing still, her face is expressionless and her body is clearly exhausted. Perhaps Ziegler found some catharsis in channeling the frustration reverberating within the cheery disposition so often snapped on for reality TV cameras. What’s undeniable is the cathartic power of her performance, which received well over 1.6 billion views on YouTube and earned Heffington an MTV Video Music Award as well as a Grammy nomination. According to Kourlas, he and Sia have “done more to raise the standards of dance in pop music than nearly any current artist integrating the forms,” and it all can be traced back to this unforgettable video.

My favorite Sia/Heffington collaboration thus far occurred a year later as the last in a trilogy of Ziegler videos for the singer’s breakthrough album, 1000 Forms of Fear. The song, “Big Girls Cry,” centers on a lonely woman who puts up a tough front to cloak her inner heartache. The pre-chorus paints a bleak portrait of her daily routine: “I’m at home / On my own / Check my phone / Nothing though / Act busy / Order in / Pay TV / It’s agony.” Then as the chorus kicks in, the woman unashamedly reveals her raw wounds without caring about whether or not she “looks pretty.” It’s a powerful rebuke against the commoditization of female beauty and how it can force women to conceal their true identity. The masterstroke in Heffington’s choreography is the way it focuses our attention almost entirely on Ziegler’s face. It’s here that the young artist’s skills as an actress shine brighter than ever. Shot in what appears to be a single take, the video is a mesmerizing symphony of expressions performed with such rapid speed and intensity by Ziegler that it left me awestruck. The early moments find Ziegler awakening from a daze, freshening up in a frenzy to apply what could be considered her “public face.” She brushes her teeth, wipes her cheeks and applies lipstick all over her face (a la Diane Ladd in “Wild at Heart”) before smiling for the camera, the strain in her forced elation exuding through every pore.

Long before I knew that writing was my calling, I drew out stories in the form of amateur storyboards, and my favorite thing to create has always been facial expressions. The way a diagonally placed eyebrow could convey a sense of skepticism got me excited from a very early age, so naturally, this video fits directly with my own sensibilities. Watching it with the sound off is equally captivating, since it fixes one’s attention on the endlessly provocative gesticulations crafted by Heffington. There’s a striking moment where Ziegler points in various directions as if being ordered by a tyrannical overlord, before inserting her thumb in her mouth, suddenly reverting back to childhood. Later, she answers her foot like a phone and silently exclaims, “No,” foreshadowing the moment after her brief disappearance where she screams, causing the camera to rotate 360 degrees as she regains her composure. Another pair of hands abruptly emerges from the darkness (a la “The Conjuring”), stifling Ziegler’s voice and gripping her throat until they eventually lift her off the ground. There’s also an amusing bit where the hands tug on Ziegler’s ears, prompting a smile to stretch onto her face that’s as unsettling as the one we saw in “Chandelier.” Once she’s dropped back to earth, Ziegler begins combating her own hands that have been primping and pummeling her incessantly. She bites them on a few occasions before promptly apologizing, and even performs the old “stolen nose” magic trick on herself, leading the heavens to open up and radiate an ethereal light upon her gaping face. The fact that I get some new meaning from this choreography every time I view it is a testament to its genius.

Cut to Summer 2016, when I unknowingly first discovered that I was a Heffington fan. I hadn’t yet seen the Sia music videos, and have honestly often been out of the loop when it comes to modern music. What I am familiar with is the work of Spike Jonze, one of my very favorite American filmmakers, whose music videos I have watched countless times on an indispensable 2003 DVD compilation. When I heard last August that Jonze had helmed an ad for the new perfume, KENZO World, I knew that it would be something special, and boy was I right. It stars Margaret Qualley (daughter of Andie MacDowell), an actress best known for her role as Jill Garvey on HBO’s “The Leftovers.” She recently landed her first lead role in Margaret Betts’ well-received Sundance selection, “Novitiate” (slated for release this October), though this video marked the first time many audiences had seen her, and it is one hell of a debut. Taking its cue from Jonze’s beloved video for Fatboy Slim’s “Weapon of Choice” featuring a never-better Christopher Walken, the KENZO ad begins by closing in on Qualley as she sits at a crowded dinner, wearing the “public face” that Ziegler was struggling to piece together in “Big Girls Cry.” She excuses herself to leave, and as her smile glumly dismantles, she starts to appear as repressed as Kate Winslet in “Titanic.” Yet rather than burst into tears, Qualley’s face breaks into a series of cheerfully absurd and goofy expressions as “Mutant Brain”—a riotous original track by Sam Spiegel & Ape Drums—pulverizes the monotony of her opulent surroundings with anarchic glee.

Revisiting the video now, it’s so obvious that Heffington had choreographed it, since his signature playfulness fills every corner of the frame. If “Chandelier” and “Big Girls Cry” explored the agony of hiding our emotions, this video is a full-on embracement of them, obliterating the notion so often perpetuated by perfume ads that women should exist purely as eye candy. Qualley couldn’t care less if viewers find her expressions unattractive as she frees her inner id, flailing her arms while letting out a liberating war cry. As Walken did, Qualley dances in an empty mirrored hallway, though in this case, she faces her reflection and starts interacting with it before arriving at a stodgy bust that she proceeds to taunt, antagonize and finally lick. The spastic energy of each movement is hilarious but also rather touching, since it demonstrates how Qualley’s character has discovered her own strength, beating her chest and flexing her muscles like a less stoic Wonder Woman. In my favorite bit, Qualley shoots laser beams out of her fingers with such manic off-handedness, you’d think that it was improvised. This brings us to the ultimate reason for why Heffington’s artistry is such a joy to behold. It’s his gift for capturing mankind’s innate spontaneity that keeps me watching and re-watching everything he’s ever choreographed and makes me excited for what he has in store for us next. If “Baby Driver” gets you dreaming about the potential of a musical choreographed by Heffington, rest assured that your wish will be granted upon the release of Dan Baron’s upcoming film, “Basmati Blues,” starring Brie Larson. I know I’ll be first in line.

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