Music

The Choreographer Behind “Chandelier” Knows Just How To Move You

Why we can’t stop watching Ryan Heffington’s music videos.

It’s not often that a music video can be described as “breathtaking,” but Australian singer Sia’s music video for her explosive and haunting party-girl anthem “Chandelier” is just that. Set in a seemingly abandoned and dimly lit apartment, the music video follows a child version of Sia as she performs a solo dance freak-out. The dance is equal parts elegant and monstrous, switching from refined ballet moves to messy crawling and clawing movements, sometimes morphing into the robotic. It’s the kind of music video you actually want to watch again. And again. And again.

The “Chandelier” dance is the work of Los Angeles-based artist and choreographer Ryan Heffington. Previously, Heffington choreographed Kesha tour routines and commercials for companies such as Target, but recently he’s having a music video moment. On top of “Chandelier,” he also choreographed Arcade Fire’s “We Exist” video, starring Spider-Man actor Andrew Garfield.

Dance-heavy videos usually feature glamorous moves from a pop star, or a tight routine from their backup team. But the popularity of “Chandelier” — it’s racked up 22 million YouTube views since last month — suggests people don’t just want to watch pop stars dance, but great dancing, period.

The dancing in “Chandelier” and “We Exist” is intimate. Unlike in big, dance-featuring videos from Chris Brown or Ariana Grande, dance is the only thing that’s happening, and the engine that moves the video’s narrative forward. “Chandelier” calls to mind the fluid minimalism of videos like Kate Bush’s “Running up That Hill, Robyn’s “Call Your Girlfriend,” or Kiesza’s “Hideaway.” In those, and Heffington’s work, dance isn’t just a decorative flourish, but at the center, communicating a message.

Heffington said he isn’t particularly interested in the “tight, backup dancer experience,” where the singer leads a group of dancers into synchronized steps, because it’s already been mastered (by Beyoncé?). He takes inspiration instead from the videos floating around Vine and YouTube in which regular people invent their own moves, or turn a professional routine on its head and serve it back. “Gimme a bombastic twerk video, give me reworked Mr. Jackson moves, I love it all,” he said.

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Since he can remember, Heffington has always thought of himself as a dancer. Growing up in Yuba City, Calif., he studied tap, jazz, and ballet. After high school, he relocated to Los Angeles to pursue a professional dance career. But he soon moved from traditional stages toward the margins, making his name with a “punk” cabaret show that involved “food, bitch slapping, and tap.” Heffington danced at clubs, raves, and galleries, and “wherever else that would have” him.

Sia tapped Heffington for “Chandelier” after they met at a performance of his in 2013. “Sia has an incredible eye for utterly unique details,” said Heffington, who collaborated with Sia on the video’s choreography. “[She] knows when movements seem recognizable.”

Maddie Ziegler, the 11-year-old who plays the video’s sprightly, platinum-wigged “Mini-Sia,” is a dance star in her own right. Since 2011, she’s been a cast member on the popular Lifetime reality show Dance Moms, a program infamous for the aggressive work ethic exhibited by its cast of tiny wunderkinds. The routines Ziegler does on the show, which run the gamut from jazz to lyrical to tap, bare little resemblance to the avant-garde movements Heffington mapped for her, but she caught on quickly anyway. “[Maddie] adapted to the more strange gestures without a bat of the eye.” Heffington said. And unlike her Dance Moms coach, Heffington wasn’t looking for precision. “It wasn’t about nailing a specific move down,” he said, “but instead allowing her to interpret these gestures.”

Released 10 days after “Chandelier,” Arcade Fire’s six-minute “We Exist” video plays like a mini-drama, with dance as the dialogue. Its male-bodied protagonist “Sandy,” played by Spider-Man star Andrew Garfield, dresses up in women’s clothing and heads to a local bar. Threatened and physically aggravated by men who try to start a fight with Sandy, Garfield’s character breaks out into a Flashdance-evoking solo dance with the flash of a strobe light. The male bar customers, their flannel shirts now tied at the waist and their jeans now denim cut-offs, shake their hips in Sandy’s direction as if to start a dance-off. In the end, Sandy walks through a beam of light and into the audience of an Arcade Fire show.

The “We Exist” video begins with this statement: “Our film follows the story of a young person’s struggle with gender identity.” But its casting of Andrew Garfield as a trans woman drew criticism from Laura Jane Grace, the frontwoman of punk band Against Me! A transgender woman herself, Grace tweeted, “Dear @arcadefire, maybe when making a video for a song called ‘We Exist’ you should get an actual ‘Trans’ actor instead of Spider-Man?”

Arcade Fire’s frontman Win Butler responded in a statement, saying that “We Exist” was inspired by a conversation he’d had in Jamaica regarding the culture of violent homophobia there. “For a gay kid in Jamaica to see the actor who played Spider-Man in that role is pretty damn powerful, in my opinion,” Butler said.

Heffington echoed Butler’s sentiment, saying superstar Garfield’s casting was “a calculated decision,” with the goal of making a big impact. “Everyone was so aware of the choices made with this project,” he said. For his part, Garfield put his all into the project. He did all the dancing himself without a body double, Heffington pointed out. And the powerful, silent gaze the actor gives before he starts dancing really heightens the feeling of release that dance solo gives off.

Whether for a trans person or not, Heffington’s choreography was not just intended to accurately portray the feeling of the video’s protagonist, but to get viewers to feel like participants in this experience, not bystanders. When you watch these videos, you relate to the specific emotions communicated through these dances. Mini-Sia exudes both anger and excitement, Sandy sadness and passion. And because these emotional messages are communicated through just dancing, these primal gestures give these music videos a universally understandable quality. We watch Ziegler and not only want to dance, but we feel the careless happiness she portrays so energetically. It took a music video like “Chandelier” to remind viewers that just dancing is a beautifully effective way to release and express feelings. The takeaway from videos like “We Exist” and “Chandelier” is that the spectrum of human experience can be played out like theater using the body alone.

Above all, Heffington’s approach to dance is grounded in the idea that the body has the ability to transform the world. To him, dance is about exploration over emulation: Our bodies each move differently, and that’s something worth celebrating. “We all have a gift of movement and through moving our bodies, however we do, we can create better relations with ourselves that in turn enhance our lives,” said Heffington, “I have no qualms declaring that if we each danced for one hour a day we would live in completely different social climates.”

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