TARA NICOLE HUGHES

Museums, Runways, Dive Bars and Dance Studios. My interview with creative force Ryan Heffington.

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; Debbie Allen and Rob Marshall will be next.   

 

Here's one of Ryan's latest projects, HomePod collaboration with Spike Jonze and FKA twigs.

YOU MAY ALSO LIKE

UPCOMING EVENTS

The Art of Unplugging

Does anyone struggle with getting sucked into spending too much time on your computer or the habit of checking social media multiple times a day? I admit, I do. I'll begin with a search for something I am working on, and before I know it I'm a million miles away looking at something unrelated and two hours later, finding myself feeling a bit empty. The time spent on my computer and phone has taken me away from the trees, from the poetry, from the slow and rich rhythm of nature. The wind, the leaves in the wind, my own quiet thoughts.  

Lately, I have been feeling the repercussions of the time spent on technology. Much of my business is run from my laptop, and yes, work is necessary, important and fulfilling, but finding a balance is the key. Patience and presence are two things that I've noticed get thin when I am overstimulated from screen time. As an anecdote, I decided to take a 10 day vacation to Florida to visit family. In the past I've only taken a weekend here or there, for fear of losing work, but something has shifted in me. It’s now more important to me to find a better balance with work and down time, and to foster and nurture my relationships. I've been in the entertainment business long enough to know that the work wheel will keep turning and will most definitely be there when I return. 

The 10 days of unplugging this last month was so nurturing and rewarding for me.  It allowed me time to slow down, connect, listen, empty out, recharge. Walk the beach, talk with my parents, watch my children play, read a book, listen to the waves, sit with my thoughts, sleep deeply. It was wonderful.     

And now that I am back home and into the routine of daily life, I have decided to commit myself to solid chunks of offline time every day. I mean, who can take a 10 day vacation every month?  Not me! It takes effort to carve out that time daily, but I always feel nourished in a deeper way. I actually find that I am more productive and by letting go, more work gets done, creativity flows and I'm much happier! 

Here are three simple things you can do when you feel a need to unplug. You don't have to take a plane to a far off beach to feel more grounded and connected.  

  •   GET IN NATURE

Nature is a grounding force that transforms our energy.  I immediately shift when I am outside.  I like to take my shoes off and let the earth ground me. Gardening is a meditative act (for me), so I begin pruning, watering, digging, potting, feeling my hands in the soil. Find some activity that gets your feet and hands directly on the earth. Sit in the grass, sleep in the fields. Let the high vibration of the land align your own energy field. A daily reprieve from the to-do list adds to quality of life and productivity. 

  • DANCE  

Put on some music you love, close your eyes and dance.  Self-judgment and criticism aside, this is about releasing worry and stress, letting go, feeling good.  Let the beauty and passion of the music lead you as your heart rate increases and your body warms from the inside. You only need 15 minutes and I promise you, you will feel 100 times better than when you started! Dance is medicine for the soul. The best!

  • WRITE 

Whether it's free form writing/stream of consciousness or making a list of all that you are grateful for, the act of writing shifts emotional and physical energy. Research shows that writing about future goals and dreams and reflecting on the good things in your life can make you happier and healthier. It always calms, soothes and slows me down, and brings clarity too.    

May we all unplug at times and trust that all will be well. We have to give our intentions, dreams and creations time to root and blossom in the warm glow of the sun.

Wishing you all love,

Tara

Dancing with Pharrell

The song “Happy” plays in my house many times throughout the week, mostly on repeat while my 8 year old and almost 2 year old dance and twirl until they are dizzy and short of breath.  They say “again, again . . . ” and I can’t help but be brought into the dance party by the infectious joy of that song.  There is something about Pharrell Williams and his music that is so open, joyful and accessible, from young to old!  His style, presence, message is very inspiring to me and seeing how “Happy” has swept the world, I see most others feel the same.    

So, when I got a call to drive across town on a Friday afternoon in Los Angeles for an audition, instead of my response to my agent saying “no thank you, not in rush hour traffic”, as soon as I heard it was for Pharrell’s next music video, I said “I’ll be there”, and I made it happen.

After a super fun dance call to his new song “Come Get it Bae”, I showed up the following day to the call back and was brought in the room to dance by myself with Pharrell lounging on a couch with his beautiful wife beside him and uber chic and talented choreographer Fatima Robinson.  Not your typical audition with the artist beaming a huge smile from ear to ear while dancing for him and his crew.  He was gracious, present and very sweet.  I couldn’t help but smile and giggle back and just have a ball dancing to his tune.  So funny.  My daughters would be proud! :)   

Needless to say, I booked the job and had a blast that day!  Pharrell was super fun and so praising, kind, and cool. Love his music and very "happy" to be part of the dance.  Go on Pharrell!!!  Watch me and the gals get our dance on in the video below.

YOU MAY ALSO LIKE

UPCOMING EVENTS

This is It, with Travis Payne and Stacy Walker

While sharing my own experiences about this wonderful dance business, I’ve been inspired to call on fellow artists whom I’ve had the privilege and honor to have worked with, to share a piece of their own journey.  To inspire, to share, to connect.  What inspires them?  What words of wisdom might they impart on a young performer with big dreams?  Choreographer/Director Travis Payne and his associate Stacy Walker are two such artists that I am very happy to include in my interview series.  

Travis Payne is an acknowledged innovator of screen, stage, and song, whose work encompasses some of the most influential visual and musical moments of contemporary pop culture, created for and performed by global entertainment icons from Michael Jackson, Beyonce, Lady GaGa to Shakira, Usher, Jennifer Lopez, Mick Jagger, Mariah Carey and Madonna.  Payne and Walker (both as assistant and associate) have teamed on dozens of groundbreaking credits, including their work together on Michael Jackson’s This Is It both the tour rehearsals and subsequent film.  Their prolific, creative and vast careers are so impressive, but more impressive to me are these two as human beings. 

Thank you, Travis and Stacy, for your work, your time and your truth!  

Photo by Levi Walker Photography

Photo by Levi Walker Photography

TNH:  How do you compliment each other as a creative team?

TP:  Stacy Alexis Walker and I compliment each other by having different perspectives, as well as the understanding of how to best enhance each other’s strengths.

SW: I've always felt that Travis and I make a great team because we balance each other really well.  We bring different things to the table which allows Travis to concentrate on doing what he loves and me to concentrate on doing what I love.  We are both capable of working a job alone, but I feel our best work happens when we're together.  I've always felt so grateful to be able to work with someone (Travis) who allows me to be "me".  That's when I do my best work...  Most importantly, we both genuinely respect and love one another.  We always want the best for each other.  There is such a sense of safety in that.

TNH: From your experience, how does choreographing for tv and film differ from stage?  

TP:  Choreography for the camera is like Science and Choreography for the stage is like Math.

SW: TV/FILM is so fun to me because you can force the audience's perspective.  You have so much control.  If it's not right, you shoot again and again until it is.  This allows for more difficult and even dangerous movement.  The choreography can also be so much more intricate because you have the luxury of shooting close ups.  STAGE is exactly the opposite!  The audience generally sees everything from one angle, the front.  If someone makes a mistake or gets injured, too bad.  You get one shot to do it right and do it great!  This makes choreographing for stage really exciting but also can limit your choices.  For example, if you have a couple doing a difficult lift that they can only land half the time, better to find something safer and less tricky...  I love choreographing TV/FILM and STAGE, but for opposite reasons.  It's nice to have the balance of experiencing both!

TNH:  What was one of your dream jobs and why?

TP: One of my dream jobs was the very first music video I danced in, Cameo’s “The Skin I’m In”.

SW: I feel like I've had so many dream jobs but I really, really loved working on This is It I had been a dancer for Michael Jackson in the past, but as a woman, I only performed certain dance numbers.  On This is It, I was part of the choreography team which allowed me do (teach) all of the choreography, male and female...  It was so fun for me to dance those numbers that I never had a chance to prior.  Plus, there is nothing like working with the best of the best.  Our cast and crew were exceptional.  When you are surrounded by such awesome talent, it makes "you" work harder and brings out your best.

TNH:  Where do you find inspiration?

TP: The spa

SW: I find inspiration everywhere.  Walking my dog, tv, magazines, friends, conversations...  It's all around us, all the time!

TNH:  You both have had such longevity and success in this business?  What do you attribute that to?

TP:  Stay HUMBLE or STUMBLE

SW:  I think Travis and I are good at delivering what the client is asking for in the timeframe that is given.  It's really that simple.  It's important to remember that this is a business and we are being hired to perform a service.  I think that a choreographer working in commercial dance has to be able to separate the art from the business.  I'm not saying that commercial dance can't be artistic.  I'm saying that many times you may be asked to choreograph to a piece of music you don't particularly find inspiring or go in a direction that is the opposite of your preference, but it's not always about "your vision" coming through, it's about the clients!  Keeping this in mind makes the journey a lot easier and keeping your clients happy will lead to repeat customers!

TNH:  What advice do you have for a young dancer wanting to make it in this business? 

TP: 

  1. Protect your body
  2. Save more than you spend
  3. Surround yourself with the most positive influences you can
  4. Keep those who love you close
  5. Do not think it will be easy
  6. Have a plan/keep lists
  7. Take criticism and compliments respectfully
  8. Be fearless
  9. Don't burn bridges
  10. Call your mother

SW:  TALENT can get you a job but having a great WORK ETHIC can get you a career.  If you're not pleasant to work with, prepared or consistently show up late, no matter how talented you are, it's not worth it...

TNH:  Do you have any other thoughts or reflections to share?

TP:  Document the experience.  You will appreciate having the memories!

SW: I love what I do and I'm so grateful to be doing it!  ... especially when I get to do it with Travis Payne

 

Check out the Travis Payne shoe and apparel line at www.travispayneapparel.com

Photo by Hanser & Hue Photography 

Photo by Hanser & Hue Photography 

Travis and Stacy are represented by Go 2 Talent Agency

                                                                                                                   

                                         

                                                                     

YOU MAY ALSO LIKE

UPCOMING EVENTS

The Incomparable Debbie Allen Interview

Debbie Allen is quite frankly a force to be reckoned with.  She was larger than life for me as a child watching Fame, but meeting her and working with her has surpassed that iconic image I held in my mind as a young girl.  Her reverence and respect for the arts is so powerful that every project she touches invites the dancer, actor, performer involved to bring the best of themselves to the room.  I recently read a quote from actress Sandra Oh who said, “One of the reasons I am an actor is directly because of Debbie Allen.” 

Debbie makes things happen, she is a believer in possibilities, and even though she directs huge television shows like Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy, she always comes back to the dance.  She is a dancer, through and through.  

I’ve had the privilege and honor to have danced for Debbie on many projects like the Academy Awards, The Kennedy Center Honors with Stevie Wonder, and many live shows with incredible artists like Lena Horne, Tito Puente, Thelonious Monk Jr, among others.  My time with her will always be a special and beautiful highlight of my career.  She is an inspiring woman to me, creating no matter what, showing up in the biggest way as she guides our youth through the arts, balancing a family with a powerful business life.  She does it all!  And, has a wicked sense of humor and can make a fabulous margarita to boot!! :)

I’ve been curious how other artists handle the ups and downs of the entertainment business.  This is why I started this series of interviews.  The guidance, feedback, insight from those who have done it successfully may help a young performer on their path, or anyone along the path of life really.  Debbie Allen has done it with such grace.  I am thankful that she agreed to my interview.  May we all take a little something from her words, including the funny ones.

 

TNH:  How does being a dancer and choreographer inform you as a director?

DA:  It’s all about movement and designing where the camera goes.  Starting as a director for dance first, it’s always been the camera that moves and dances. 

TNH:  What fuels you to stay creative and make things happen?

DA:  The young people that I work with that look at me with big bright eyes every day, hopeful about their future and what is possible.

TNH:  Who have been the biggest creative influences in your life?

DA:  My mother, my sister, Katherine Dunham. 

TNH:  Do you read reviews of your work and if so, how do you separate the courage to create from the fear of how it’s received?

DA:  I’m not afraid of reviews. It’s always one person's opinion and the paper is used to clean up dog shit the next day.

TNH:  How do you find a work-life balance — as a woman, a mom, a professional?

DA:  You do one thing at a time.  You wake up and you make breakfast. You go to work, where you’re in charge all day.  You come home and you walk your dog and watch TV with your husband and you catch up with your children.  My personal life is very sobering for me. 

TNH:  What do you believe are some of the reasons to you having longevity and success in this business?  

DA:  I’m still a kid when it comes to inquiry and discovery. 

TNH:  What advice would you give to a young performer with big dreams?

DA:  Dreams are great, dreams are the lens through which you project yourself into the universe.  And then you have to be willing to do the work, the work to make your dreams come true. 

TNH:  Thank you, Ms. Debbie Allen, for your wisdom and insight.  I'll be posting more interviews monthly so please subscribe to the Newsletter below for more!!

                              This picture is an oldie but goodie!  Love you Debbie Allen!

                             This picture is an oldie but goodie!  Love you Debbie Allen!

YOU MAY ALSO LIKE

UPCOMING EVENTS

Finding Neverland

In my twenties I traveled the world dancing, living out of a suitcase and flittering about from job to job, country to country.  No roots tied to any one place, just the adventures in front of me.  My favorite thing to do was to use my dance jobs as a spring board to more exploration.  A show in Singapore turned into a 10 day backpacking journey in Thailand with blue sunsets and the most warm, loving people.  A teaching job in Germany led me to the Black Forest and the Berlin Wall as it was falling.  And the misty, magical morning at Stonehenge, thanks to my time in London filming a movie, will forever be embedded in my mind and heart.  I’ve had so many quiet and beautiful moments scattered along our world.  I never questioned, I just leapt and let the moment take me.

And now, I have a family and two young daughters, a daily rhythm that is predictable and lovely in so many ways.  My dance and choreography work has kept me close and I’ve found a comfort and security in the deep roots that have grown.  But a new adventure has come my way and even though it’s a little daunting relocating my family for the summer and leaving the safety net of our beautiful bubble, I feel ready for the change and want to give my kids a new landscape to explore.  Sunsets with a different hue, as the light is new from place to place.  I do know that.       

I am going to be a part of the creative team for the musical Finding Neverland.  With rehearsals in New York City and a run at the prestigious American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge and plans for Broadway soon after, I am excited to be a part of this moving and inspiring story about love, possibilities, and the rich, fruitful world of our imagination.       

And so the adventure begins . . .

A Conversation with Choreographer/Director Tyce Diorio

The amazing insights I have gained along my performing arts path as a dancer and choreographer have inspired this blog.  From dealing with rejection to finding the courage to create, there are many lessons on this beautiful journey.  As I share my own stories, I have decided to find out how others have handled the ups and downs of the business.  From the famous and successful, to the quiet artists who are not so known, we all have stories to share.  My first questions are for American Choreographer/Director Tyce Diorio.

Tyce is best known for his work as a guest judge on the FOX television series So You Think You Can Dance.  He has choreographed and performed for Janet Jackson, Paula Abdul, Jennifer Lopez, and Taylor Swift, as well as numerous projects for film, television and Broadway.             

I’ve had the pleasure of working with Tyce as a fellow dancer and assistant to him on So You Think You Can Dance, and other projects.  Always inspired by his creative process and equally impressed by him as a person, I wanted to know more about his inner process and how he finds balance in this vulnerable and changing business.      

TNH: As a dancer, what inspired you to move into choreography?

TD:  As a dancer, I was always in love with the process of being in the studio, the creating process with a choreographer.  It thrilled me to make their vision/dreams come true through my movement in their work. I lived and breathed for the choreographer to be inspired by my talent.  That’s all I needed to fill my soul to the highest degree. I didn’t even need money. :)  

Then the transition of dancer to choreographer happened naturally for me with the start of SYTYCD.  I received a call from the producers asking if I could do a Fosse piece and I was in CHICAGO THE MUSICAL at the time so it was a perfect fit.  I knew the work very well.

TNH: Do you read reviews or listen to feedback of your work?  If so, how do separate the courage to create from the fear of how your work is received?

TD:  I have read reviews and listened to the response/feedback of my work.  Yes, it can be a scary, fearful position to be in.  However, over time I have managed to gain perspective of it all after realizing "its not everything". 

And that comes with some experience and thick skin.  I think we will always be vulnerable to reviews and feedback.  But, I won’t let that bring me down or let it keep my head in the clouds, if that makes sense.  I’ll stay right in the middle.  I find for me, not having too much attachment to much outside of myself & my work/worth is the best for me.  I don’t ignore it.  I listen and take it all in but can measure the meter of what to keep, and what not to keep.

TNH:  Where do you find inspiration?

TD:  I find inspiration in life in general... travel, music, art, paintings, museums, films, everyday people, conversations, meditation, just living life away from dance and the business.  And of course, other great artists.

TNH: What do you love about choreographing on SYTYCD?

TD:  What I love about choreographing on SYTYCD is I am surrounded by other wonderful choreographers and dancers to create on.  We are given lots of freedom to express ourselves. It allows us to bring forth the vision of our work as a director, from the music editing, costuming, lighting, props, etc.  So that is always exciting.  And we work with the best people in their field on the show to make it happen.  Not to mention, it's a show that celebrates dance in highest level form.

TNH:  From my experience working with you, you follow your creative instincts.  How did you develop that inner trust?

TD:  I can be very trusting of myself and then NOT!  But I think having such a time constraint with working in television you must make bold, smart choices quickly and so maybe I have learned that in some way through experience....but it's not always there, I’ll tell you.  And working with artists such as Taylor Swift, I have learned to be clear and trust myself more and more.  It’s a never ending process.  It comes and goes for me. ;)

TNH:  There can be ups and downs, rejection and disregard in the entertainment business.  What tools have you developed to keep your confidence and belief in yourself?

TD:  I have always felt drawn to purity/excellence in people I work with.  And with that comes more sincerity and truth in the work.  I stay connected to what I feel in my being and I’ve never felt I’ve gone wrong with making that my guide.  I have always done what I love and walked away from what didn’t feel right, and my path just revealed itself to me easily.  The only thing I knew I could count on was me and my talent as a dancer... and the relationships I created and kept.  Outside of that there was nothing I could control as a person who auditioned, and we as people who have done that for so long, we walk into those audition rooms all the time with those questions "am I good enough?”, “do you like me?”,  “am I what you’re looking for?” and on and on.... So for that, it can be tough and you need thick skin with the ability to handle the process gracefully with ease.  So, I say enjoy the journey so you don’t become a tortured artist. 

TNH:  Do you have any other thoughts or reflections to share?

TD:  The other thing I have kept and used as a tool is understanding rejection and what people call failure.  I say, let it all in and look at the "not so great" moments clearly so you can understand where things lie on the playing field.  Failure is important to recognize and embrace.  And even with that, nothing really is failure if you have the tools to stay with your craft in this business with the inner strength to keep going when all looks and seems unclear.

Thank you, Tyce, for sharing with me.  And thank you to those who have visited this page.  For more inspiring Dance and Choreographer interviews, subscribe to my monthly newsletter below!  And share with those who might be inspired by this.  

YOU MAY ALSO LIKE

UPCOMING EVENTS