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Double Grammy Whammy: Meet Ryan Heffington, the Choreographer Behind ‘Chandelier’ and ‘We Exist’

Chandelier choreographer Ryan Heffington has been called mad (with a sewing machine), a cult trainer (for his Sweaty Sunday classes at his dance studio), an electric, all-around creative force, and dance genius more times than you could count.

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To look at his handlebar mustache and long hair, you wouldn’t be blamed for envisioning him as an ’80s hair band singer, ’60s exploitation film villain or a catwalk pirate. (In fact, thanks to his lifelong refusal to shorten his locks or shave, he once was hired to play the evil witch in Snow White for one of those huge Disney industrial shows.) And his body of work testifies to phantasmagoric visions infused with manic and infectious vitality.

Talk to Heffington about his double Grammy whammy, though — his choreography is behind Sia’s Chandelier and Arcade Fire’s transgender-acceptance We Exist, both in the Best Music Video running — you get a sense of a Zen-content guy who feels blessed about making millions of people obsessed with his hypnotic visions. The guy who grew up in the small, blue-collar town of Yuba City, Calif., always talks about the “humanity” underlying his work — making what could be marginal or exclusive accessible. That may be why Chandelier has broken the 500-million mark in views.

“I think we were very fortunate to tap into the mainstream with our art form and have it received so well. We were kind of blown away — and we accept it and love it,” Heffington says. In fact, days before the Grammy awards, he and Sia talked on the phone about the “incredible timing of it all, what we’re producing for the world. And people were hungry for it, and I don’t think it’s always the case.”

Bring on the emotional debate
Heffington, 41, is not a household name, although in the art and dance world, he’s earned his rep for outlandish underground punk cabarets, mob parties, spectacular museum projects and the critically acclaimed direction of his L.A.-based hysteria dance co.. It’s not surprising that he shows such a sure hand behind two very different videos — one artistic, the other political.

We Exist and Chandelier aren’t his only venture into mainstream pop culture by any stretch: He was behind the Joe Boxer holiday ad with its twist on jingling bells, the Evian commercial featuring adults dancing with their inner babies, the big Target dance party that took over 144 rooms in a New York hotel, and that Sigur Rós music short known as the naked Shia LaBeouf video.

Chandelier‘s disturbing, wretched intimacy, showing an 11-year-old girl twisting through themes of isolation, gluttony, and fear has captivated, repelled, and confused millions — and it’s an emotional debate that Heffington appreciates. “I think the opportunity for viewers to question what’s going on and have their own opinion is very instrumental in its success, because there are so many questions, and that’s why people watch it over and over,” Heffington explains. “They want to understand more. The answer’s not given.”

The movements are as far removed from the synchronized crisp dance routines of the usual music video as you can get. While abstract, he says, “the concept’s not necessarily forced on anyone.” And these days, people are more ready to unravel the intricacies of avant-garde performance art. With so many TV dance competitions — Dancing With the Stars and So You Think You Can Dance, there’s a shared vocabulary now to begin the discussion.

“It’s kind of opened up people’s appetite for dance, whether they understand it or not,” Heffington says. He jokes that even his parents are talking about dance in ways they never did before. “And I’ve been dancing since I was 6!”

How the collaboration came to be
Sia hooked up with Heffington after friends urged her to see his 2012 performance installation KTCHN, inspired by the paintings of queer New York artist Nolan Hendrickson. “She showed up and watched the show and fell in love with it,” Heffington recalled, drawn by active audience, the spectacle, and the beating heart beneath the fantastic. KTCHN convinced her they needed to collaborate but, he says, “We actually didn’t connect until a month or two before Chandelier.”

The two brainstormed, and originally Sia’s conception of the dancer was an older woman. And then she was absolutely dead set on in using Maddie Ziegler, one of the stars on the Lifetime reality series Dance Moms. Sia wooed Ziegler on Twitter — no auditions required — and choreography turned to how to use an 11-year-old girl in a song ostensibly about alcoholism. What intrigued Sia, Heffington says, how gestural movements and their repetitive qualities — in combination with the environment — could play out. “I [didn’t] want to play out the lyrics,” he recalls. “So it’s more of a sense of extreme emotions and situations that one might have created if they were in fact addicted or an addict.”

Ziegler turned out to be more than an apt student: In three days, she picked up the choreography down to the haunting and at times terrifyingly aching facial expressions. “She is a very special, special, special artist,” Heffington says. “Even artists my age or, you know, 20s and 30s — you don’t find that. You don’t find dancers that can emote and display emotional extremes.” The two became fast friends and even now hang out, texting one another and sending pictures. “I get to be a kid around her and we work as adult. It’s a cool mesh of experiences.”

Immense joy, guaranteed
Post-Chandelier works included, of course, another Sia work (Elastic Heart), a Google Glass conceptualization with British singer-songwriter FKA Twigs, a so-called punk water ballet (Wading Games), and a project with Florence Welch of Florence + the Machine.

While his profile has been raised exponentially, Heffington really sees himself as doing the same work he’s done for years. “I’m just more exposed,” he says. But that he’s able to make a success in what had first been an extracurricular escape from small-town living is wondrous. “I always had an immense joy and sense of being attached to my body, and I never let that go.”

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And while his parents may not have to worry that their son can make a living, they still don’t quite understand a lot of what he does. “It’s not super mainstream per se,” he admits. Except that now, it is.

By the way, if you want to swing from your Chandelier, watch this riveting tutorial that’s as much poetic code as it is instruction. Herrington boxes actions with concepts like Morse code, hunger pains, repetitive tear, wax on/wax off, cockroach up the wall, imaginary friend, same problem different angle. One instruction is Don’t attempt this at home. Actually, do.

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