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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.

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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!

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