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The Modern Lord of Dance

As the choreographer of the video for Sia’s “Chandelier,” FKA Twigs’s Apple commercial, the Five Movements in ‘The OA,’ and, most recently, the musical finale of ‘Transparent,’ Ryan Heffington has had a larger influence on how culture moves than anyone else

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Transparent Musicale Finale, the last installation of Amazon’s first landmark series, ends with a literal showstopper called “Joyacaust.” If reading that made you wince… join the club. But that’s not necessarily the wrong response: The idea behind “Joyacaust” is that it’s an explosion of undiluted happiness, one that counters the more than 80 years of death and trauma that have shadowed the Jewish people’s modern existence following the Holocaust. The humor is Borscht Belt After Dark. The lyrics are self-satisfied. The whole vibe is a mish-mash of Hair, the Hora, A Chorus Line, Fiddler on the Roof, and Feist’s “1234” video. It’s a lot to deal with.

There’s an unfettered exuberance to the performance, which brings together the Pfefferman family and nearly everyone they’ve met, screwed and/or screwed over on the show, plus a few time travelers. It’s a relentless celebration of freedom and a purging of pain, mixed in with a gag about concentration camp tattoos. “‘Joyacaust’ is such an over-the-top expression,” says Ryan Heffington, who choreographed the finale. “The writing itself is pretty extreme. I thought the movements should match that and not live in a more pedestrian world.” It’s certainly not subtle—but subtlety has never been Heffington’s thing.

Deeply admired and fantastically mustachioed, Heffington, 46, is a verteran of L.A.’s dance community. But over the past five years his profile’s risen as increasingly mainstream outlets seek out his usually vulnerable, often hilarious and always unique approach to dance. He helped make Sia into one of our unlikeliest pop stars, without her doing a single step. He turned an Apple HomePod ad featuring FKA Twigs into a dazzling celebration of life’s expansive possibilities. He coordinated the intricately timed sequences of Baby Driver, giving some pizzazz to Ansel Elgort, whether racing a souped-up Subaru or picking up coffee. He created the dance routine for Netflix’s The OA that some fans legitimately believe can combat the forces of evil ranging over this universe. “Nothing that Ryan does surprises me,” says Jasmine Albuquerque, a dancer and choreographer who considers him a mentor. “He’s a curious human. That’s why he’s a good artist.”

Creating the dance sequences peppered throughout the Transparent finale is not Heffington’s first time working on the show. Creator Jill Soloway previously brought him in for the wrenching bonfire sequence toward the end of Season 2, where a present day Wimmin’s Music Festival becomes intertwined with flashbacks to the Pfefferman’s trans history in Berlin. “He’s got this dreamy way of interpreting movement,” says show producer Faith Soloway, Jill’s sister, who also wrote the finale’s music and lyrics. “I loved the way he came to his choices.”

Heffington had never choreographed musicals before Transparent, and he doesn’t consider them a major inspirational touchstone, but his inexperience is why he was intrigued—the chance to learn, adapt, and embrace new challenges. “A lot of my projects, these creators take risks,” he says. “You’re going to transform this series into a musical finale? I mean, there’s so many question marks around that. It hasn’t been done before, and that’s absolutely why I said yes.”

One of the biggest issues he had to face was that much of the principal cast had no experience singing and dancing, but he had his own way of looking at that potential problem. “Everyone has ability and everyone performs in a different way,” he says. “My job is to tap into your natural talents. Like Jay [Duplass] had very little movement experience, so I was like, “OK, what does work?” And we developed this robot monster walk that he looked great doing. That was his jam.”

Of course, the original intention wasn’t for Transparent to end as a musical. Soloway had talked about taking it to seven seasons, and ideas for the fifth were already in progress when series star Jeffrey Tambor was accused in 2017 of sexually harassing both his trans assistant and a trans performer on the show. The idea for the finale, which does not feature Tambor, partially came from a one-night revue Faith staged in New York called Should Transparent Become a Musical? Though the songs “Your Boundary is My Trigger” and “Your Shoes” appeared that night, Faith was still completing them and others as production began last December, so she looked to Heffington for where to add dance breaks or introductory interludes to enhance the production. “Musicals are so collaborative and they depend upon the stuff that you don’t know that the other person has as a complete skill set,” she says.

Heffington grew up in Yuba City, a small town in northern California. It was the 1980s, and the music videos on MTV brought Kate Bush, the Cure, “Rhythm Nation,” hair metal, and Stevie Nicks twirling in a diaphanous shawl into his life. He started going to a local dance studio when he was 6 years old and remained a fixture there through his high school years. In the early ’90s he moved to Los Angeles, where he soon began teaching. He booked gigs for Disney and appeared in a turquoise cutoff shirt during the “bend and snap” sequence from Legally Blonde.

The professional dance industry gave him an agent and auditions, but he was more engaged with what he did when he was bored between jobs. He created the Psycho Dance Sho with his friend Bubba Carr. Indebted to punk rock and performance art, they would douse the stage in fake blood and throw food at the audience. “It was pretty radical, but we also had a following among dancers and people who would see bands because we had technique and were very well-trained,” Heffington says. “They couldn’t really deny our credibility.”

Albuquerque met Heffington in the early 2000s and began taking classes with him, learning how to feel comfortable manipulating her body to do all kinds of weird shit in front of strangers. “Ryan’s style was amazing,” Albuquerque says. “It felt like all your organs were exploding with balls of glitter.”

He invited her to take part in Fingered, a regular Psycho Dance Sho event that they’d rehearse in his living room and then bring out onto the floors of a bar downtown or a sushi restaurant in Hollywood. “I was used to dancing on big stages, having separation of audience and performer, lots of black space, blah blah blah.” Albuquerque remembers. “All of a sudden I’m dancing immersed in with the audience, with maybe an ex-boyfriend in my face, like inches from my nose.” Eventually Psycho Dance Sho burned out. “We were making a new 20-minute show with costumes, a new cast, every week, and we’d get 100 bucks collectively for like eight people,” Heffington says. “We’d go to the weed store on Melrose and we’d buy a joint and celebrate and that was it.”

In 2013, Heffington staged KTCHN, a dance installation inspired by the bold painting of Nolan Hendrickson. “It was like jumping into Ryan’s psyche, it was totally wild,” Albuquerque says. “It was very emotional, very intense. Most of the pieces, they really hit your heart, whether they made you feel crazy or they made you cry.”

One of the people who saw the show was Sia. At the time, the singer was coming off a string of guest appearances on EDM-infected hits like David Guetta’s “Titanium” and Flo Rida’s “Wild Ones,” as well as songwriting credits for Rihanna’s “Diamonds” and Beyoncé’s “Pretty Hurts,” but she hadn’t established herself yet as a solo megastar. That would soon change. For the video for “Chandelier,” the first single off her 2014 album, 1000 Forms of Fear, that would eventually debut at no. 1 and be certified gold, Sia asked Heffington to be the choreographer. Notoriously averse to being photographed or filmed, she chose preteen dancer Maddie Ziegler to serve as her avatar. Heffington had the diminutive Ziegler spin, flop, wag her finger, and smile maniacally inside a filthy apartment set, wearing a bright blond wig and a nude leotard. The video instantly became a sensation. “I remember clicking YouTube every couple minutes and [the play count] was doubling, tripling,” Heffington says.

Heffington continues to work with Sia on her videos, but after “Chandelier,” offers to choreograph for other musicians started to pour in. He guided Andrew Garfield through his performance as a trans woman in the video for Arcade Fire’s “We Exist” and let an unhinged Emma Stone lose on the Queen Mary for Will Butler’s “Anna.” He had a trio of roller skaters sensuously glide down a two-lane blacktop for Chet Faker’s “Gold” and collaborated with Florence + the Machine for a six-part short film tied to her How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful album. He’s since taken on an even bigger part in projects like these, such as the melancholy short film he choreographed, directed, and starred in last year for Fleet Foxes’s “If You Need to, Keep Time on Me.”

Though the competition So You Think You Can Dance has had a huge part in popularizing contemporary dance, aspects of Heffington’s unique vision have spread wide. It’s in Albuquerque’s work as the choreographer for St. Vincent’s MASSEDUCTION pieces and Katy Perry’s boho wellness party “Never Really Over.” Heffington’s interest in a lack of self-consciousness and the dramatization of emotional intimacy with physical movement helped prime the world for music video phenomenons like Dua Lipa’s “New Rules” and even Childish Gambino’s “This is America.” There have also been nods to his style that come a little too close to mimicry, like the Joseph Kahn–directed video for Taylor Swift’s “Delicate,” in which her aggro posturing and grimacing facial expressions were uncomfortably similar to the ones Heffington had Margaret Qualley do in a Spike Jonze-directed KENZO World fragrance commercial.

Of all the pieces Heffington’s created, the Five Movements from The OA have possibly become the most meaningful, even though it’s one of the most divisive parts of a deeply divisive show. In Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij’s low tone sci-fi series, when the Five Movements are done in perfect synchronicity, they carry extraordinary powers, like the ability to raise the dead or open portals into other dimensions. YouTube is now filled with a host of tutorials and demonstrations of people replicating Heffington’s wrist twists, moth finger eyes, hisses and propulsive stomach stabs. When the show was canceled earlier this year, fans began organizing Five Movements flash mobs to make Netflix reconsider their decision (or at least have another service pick the show up). Heffington says he hasn’t really been following the #SaveTheOA mission, but he has been emotionally affected by people using the movements for more explicitly political causes, like the group that performed it in front of Trump Tower. “You watch shows, you don’t necessarily need to believe it, you need to be entertained, but people believe that these movements are healing,” he says. “That’s pretty huge.”

The critical response to the Transparent Musicale Finale has largely not been kind. At a set visit during filming, Jill Soloway told a Los Angeles Times reporter that if things don’t work out, they could envision traveling to Jewish Community Centers and turning the finale into a sing-along favorite, like something akin to The Rocky Horror Picture Show. With its off-the-charts campiness and elaborate productions, a second-stage kitsch appreciation isn’t that hard to imagine. Which means that soon you might see some brave soul doing an over-the-top re-creation of Judith Light’s dance routine to “Your Boundaries Are My Trigger,” where she swivels in a chair, spreads her legs wide open, and wishes she could push her children back inside her.

But long-running legacies aren’t necessarily what Heffington looks to achieve with his work, and it’s definitely not what he expects. Asked whether he had any inkling that “Chandelier” would become a sensation, something that came to alter the course of his life, he brushed off the idea. “You go to your job, you choreograph, you work with the directors, you set it on the talent, you go and shoot it,” he said. “Then you just cut it and let it go. At that point you don’t know if it will see the light of day, literally, or if it’s going to be one of the biggest videos in the world.”

Eric Ducker is a writer and editor in Los Angeles.