Choreographer, Artist, and Director Ryan Heffington seamlessly weaves between commercial, art, music and concert worlds with his unique style of choreography. From heartfelt emotional content to campy humor, Ryan's work sews a story that is human and accessible. His unique style can be seen on projects for Aloe Blacc, Sigur Ros, Sia, Muse, Ke$ha, Joe Boxer, American Airlines, Evian, Target and many more.
Though trained in jazz and modern dance, Heffington works with a declared blindness to any formal boundaries, merging music, fashion design and popular culture in his stated mission to expose contemporary dance to as many people as he can. Ryan, in my opinion, is a true creative dance force in our community. Undeniably original, unique, fresh, out of the box, humanistic, real, raw and viscerally exciting, I am always inspired by him as an artist. I’ve worked with Ryan numerous times and I’m so glad that he agreed to sit down with me to talk about his art and the business. Enjoy!
TNH: When did your love of dance begin?
RH: Straight out of the womb. My parents tell me I danced every moment, for relatives, strangers. It was at age 6 they enrolled me in tap class and that's where my training began. I would watch Solid Gold and put paper clips on my fingers to emulate Darcel or run around the house as if I were in the opening credits of Fame. Dance was inside me from the beginning.
TNH: Have you always been a creative person and what fuels your creativity?
RH: Yes, I’ve always created work in one art form or another. I love to create digital collages - make flyers for my events/dance studio, paint, draw, make costumes, put together interesting looks before heading out of the house. Creating is part of my human desire that comes naturally and I never question this in it's process. Not everything I create I love but it formulates a bridge to the final product. Life in general is my fuel for creativity. I’m like a funnel where all I see, hear, and experience mixes to create a new form that is often in physical / dance form. I pull from my personal relationships with lovers, friends, family as well as steal moves from pedestrians I see chatting on their phones on street corners.
TNH: What do you find are the hardest challenges as a dancer and choreographer in this business?
RH: It's interesting being a dancer / choreographer. I find getting credit can be challenging as a choreographer. Our 'role' in the realm of the production process, people still find secondary. I’m still put under or near 'catering' 'misc' 'medic' on call sheets, even when the whole commercial IS dance. So I’ve taken it upon myself to make sure these little gestures are given attention in hopes of becoming recognized as equal to others on projects.
When I was working as a dancer more, years back, I struggled with simply making a living. I had a unique look and movement quality and not every audition called for this. But to keep my focus, I created work (dance pieces / shows) every chance I had. This fulfilled my artist's soul and kept me focused on the joy I gained from creating.
TNH: What are the most rewarding aspects of being in this business?
RH: I've been fortunate enough to travel the world within this profession. Teaching in Nicaragua, performing at clubs in Paris, choreographing a Bollywood sequence in the Sri Lankan countryside. . . this has been incredible. I've also had many interesting and challenging jobs that have expanded my interpretation of how dance / choreography is defined. This is what fuels my desire to choreograph and keeps me reinventing my art.
TNH: What advice would you give to a young dancer wanting to make it professionally?
RH: I recently taught an auditioning workshop at LMU where I held a mock audition. After each group performed I had them stand in a line and tell me what they thought I would say in regards to their audition performance. 100% of them knew exactly what my response would be. To this I say, be your own teacher. Look and listen to yourself as an artist, layout what you want and the path you think would be best (and realistic). There are many mentors / teachers out there willing to have a conversation with you about this. Reach out, ask questions, inform yourself. But most of all, love yourself. Don't let auditioning bruise your psyche.
Being on the other side of the camera now, I've realized the choreographer has such little control over what decisions are made for casting. We have the agency, the client, the director, the managers and the artists themselves with very strong opinions to contend with. If you give everything you have, which may not be enough unfortunately, you should walk away from every audition proud and with a sense knowing you did your best for that particular moment. We're all human, we fall out of turns, wear the wrong outfit, forget choreography - and this is just being human. We must love ourselves for this too, not being perfect in every situation.
...and at the end of that mock audition class, the last thing I had the dancers standing before me do was to go to the side of the room and tell themselves 2 things they love about themselves. This is the most important advice I could ever give to any artist, friend, stranger. Love yourself.
TNH: There can be ups and downs, rejection and disregard in the entertainment industry. What tools have you developed to keep your confidence and belief in yourself?
RH: I try to keep a good perspective on what it is I do as a living. I’m a freelance artist, which means I never know what will be next... a gig, 6 months of no work... it's so fickle this line of work. I don't let the business determine my happiness or worth.
I acknowledge that being a choreographer is just a fraction of who I am and concentrate on other aspects like being a community builder, a teacher, a friend. Giving back, whether it's contributing to articles like this one or lecturing at colleges, keeps my head in the right place. Anyone can donate their time and energy that in turn culminates in a better society overall.
TNH: Thank you, Ryan, for sharing with me. And thank you to those who have visited this page. This is part of a series of interviews so please check in again. Debbie Allen and Rob Marshall will be next. I am very excited that these fellow artists are sharing their knowledge and insight. I’ll be posting monthly so please subscribe to the Newsletter below for more!!