We Are The World choreographer Ryan Heffington connects the underground to the mainstream pop circuit, the sewing machine to the street and the studio to the wilderness to the screen. His ecstatic dance troupe, Fingered, gave me goosebumps with a genealogy of dance history that seemed to say: “Fuck ballet, fuck ice skating, fuck kung fu, fuck stripping, fuck ballroom, fuck modern …” And not “fuck” as in “forget,” but as in “penetrate with passion.” Like—celebrate them but spank ’em, too. Between touring to Mexico City and finalizing Ke$ha’s “thug dance,” Ryan took a minute to relay a manifesto that outlines dance for the people and drags performers from the stage to public space while scoffing at outdated notions of gender and sexuality—the only concepts this artist can’t choreograph. This interview by Drew Denny.
If you could choose one gesture people had to perform while reading this interview, what would it be?
One wrist attached below your heart, fingers curving upward. The other wrist attached to those fingers, curving to the mouth. Feed it.
How do you cast? What do you look for in a performer?
I look for dancers who embody individuality and don’t lose themselves with given choreography. I’m inspired by ways I can’t move. It’s a pleasure to work with both trained and organic movers if they have the soul.
What are the ways you can’t move?
I’m learning how to let go of rhythm. Years back at a dance party this guy—amazingly passionate—danced with total freedom. His movements had no intelligible pattern while doubling the tempo of any given song. Claps, fist pumps and epileptic thrusts—I was completely transfixed. Since then I’ve been practicing the idea of using my body as another layer to any given rhythm—complimenting repetition with abstract gestures and flow. This man wasn’t rhythmically challenged. He didn’t conform to the belief of what dance should be, according to most people. He was inspired—the dude had had balls.
What’s the first dance you remember doing?
The first dance I recall was my one-child-show at age 6. I gathered all the neighborhood kids, sat them on our couch and improvised for them. As far back as I can recall, dance was always serious for me. It was a great escape from the reality of the small town where I grew up. I would rehearse before and directly after school for hours—I loved it. Until 18 I lived in Yuba City—a small town between Sacramento and Chico. Dance was my passion and means of survival. I was pretty carefree and flamboyant at an early age. I had no sense of shame for being a dancer—or as other people saw it, in being queer. Often we performed at convalescent homes, county fairs and local pageants. You could imagine what life at school was like—plus the shit I got for being on local television in bedazzled unitards. Dance was my curse and safe haven. My reality was so different when I danced—I was accepted, and gay.
How do you perform yourself and your experience?
I like to perform myself in both genders and usually make my experiences into more fantastical pieces—over-the-top characterizations and situations sprinkled with truths.
I felt that Fingered at times performed love, performed sex, performed femininity and masculinity—how do you feel about the concepts of sexuality and gender as performance?
My sexuality from a young age has been a self-realized blur. I think performance is a great platform to reveal, explore and expand sexuality and gender.
If you can perform sexuality and gender, can you choreograph them?
I can’t choreograph sexuality and gender because I cannot define them.
Who are the dancers in Fingered?
Gifted creatures that are connected to their bodies in a way most humans are not. They can translate intellect into physical form with the body as their medium. Like any athlete, they develop the ability to exceed many characteristics of the average human. For instance, they possess the ability to physicalize sound. With a learned technique they acquire an expansive vocabulary of this ‘physicalized sound.’ Also they can do tricks— like the splits, two full rotations in the air, then landing like a tossed cat on its feet—or simply being able to balance on the ball of one foot for minutes.
How did they learn how to do that?
Years or decades of training. They are multidisciplinary movers that are game for just about anything. I’ve worked with most of them for years.
I saw Fingered at the Echo during the We Are The World residency and fell in love. You manage to penetrate the conventions of nearly every dance form.
For that particular Fingered—like when a grizzly feasts on spawning salmon—I seized random aesthetics and ideas to create a show. This show was loosely titled ‘She War’ —rooted in internal struggle/pleasures of cross-dressing men and the idea of housewives of Vietnam soldiers exercising fantastical mental escapades to elude the loss of their lovers. Through movement, music and lighting, it becomes the best afterschool special.
If Fingered were an afterschool special, what would the heavy-handed moral conclusion be?
Reality is fleeting.
If Fingered had a home planet, what would it be like?
A brief description of our last show: it was a used-car parking lot on a heated planet where salesmen’s wives were black-faced and impregnated others with ass darts. Dog-like mechanical humans adorned with leather pubic hair and beards celebrated with spinning tranny triangles when a hairy gladiator stripper gave birth to day-glo gymnastic ribbons. It ended in a trance rave party.
What’s it like to wake up on that planet?
Who said they ever sleep or even meditate? I think it’s one infinite twisted dance party.
I especially loved the part where the men came out in burqa-like robes but quickly revealed pastel vintage dresses, gesturing like bitchy Silver Lake chicks. Were they performing hipsterdom?
Yes. If you believe ‘yes.’ Sometimes friends lend a helping hand, but I make and design most of the costumes.
Do you design for the general public?
As of late I make an occasional piece for a friend or impulsively a garment to go out in, but I don’t have time to design much else. For some reason the Heaven’s Gate cult and the Texas polygamy sect arrest in 2008 inspired these looks. The diseased braided lumps were just an extra flair.
What is it that is so appealing about that kind of cult aesthetic?
I’m drawn to eccentric people. I find it fascinating that these people choose to strip themselves of individualism—become brainwashed. And wear Nikes. Nikes are so modern. Who made that decision? Was it the comfort? Or the need for speed to that place called Hell? I would have suggested Easy Spirits—my choice of footwear for years.
If you designed for a cult, what would the uniform look like and why?
So many possibilities! It’s a bit of an overwhelming question. Currently I don’t have time to cultivate the premise of my future cult.
What compelled you to start teaching class?
It felt like a natural progression. I’ve always possessed the craving to create and share movement. When the opportunity arose I accepted. I believe I was 22. Some people were born gay—I was born a dancer. Luckily I was given the freedom to express this at a very early age. From there, through focus I’ve become an artist. It’s something I never questioned.
How did you get the opportunity to teach?
In Yuba City at Colleen’s Dance Factory! Mid-class my teacher would on the spot ask me to come up with choreography and teach the other students—my first dose of teaching. Years later in L.A., a good friend inquired if I’d sub a class of his. Enough said.
Tell me about your site-specific dance projects. Why is it important to perform in public?
My first true site-specific work came during a mushroom trip. Concept, sound, vision, location and mood came complete in a five-minute span—‘magic,’ they say. I found myself running from room to room re-enacting what was to become ‘House Party,’ a voyeuristic journey through a night of a dance cult. Dance is communicating—to be thrown in a conversation with nature or the city that surrounds us feels right. Add audience, and the definition of dance is altered. Public performance breaks stereotypes that dance is elitist—which is exciting to destroy in my lifetime. It also levels expectation and creates the perfect backdrop for dance on a budget. I’m creating a non-judgmental, cheap, sweaty, fun environment for people to get together and release themselves. Where else can you find this in your adult life? When people voluntarily choose to dance, the possibility of invoking happiness is greater than not. I just provide good music and a bit of instruction—it’s all choice from there on. The decisions you make in class—to go the same way as others or completely opposite of the group, whether conscious or not, are valid and accepted. If you remember to celebrate these choices, your day turns to gold.
What’s it like to work with Ke$ha? What’s the craziest thing you’re making her do with her body?
Ke$ha is amazing. It’s nice to be around a young artist with confidence and vision who doesn’t take herself too seriously. One of my favorite parts of the show is the thug dance jam for her song ‘Take It Off.’ And no, Daddy’s not going on tour—I have to stay home and watch the baby.
What about your work with We Are The World?
I mostly choreograph and make costumes for the band with a bit of backup vox and sleigh bell. Robbie Williamson and I—after an impressive night of drunken improv site-specific dance exploration—decided to make a music/dance project.
Where does drunken dancing rank on the total list of all possible human experiences?
As we all know, when drunk we’re uninhibited. What could be more beautiful? To become a good drunken dancer, simply lift drink to lips, pour and swallow.
I saw We Are The World perform on Guero’s outdoor stage in Texas, and a middle-aged mom came up to me and said, ‘This is scary, but I like it!’ Are you trying to shock people or is that just a side effect?
Shock? No. But I do think that gravitating toward something unrecognizable could be frightening and exciting. Being masked in general makes people wary.
You have such a vast and varied practice–do you ever feel schizophrenic or do all your projects relate to one another some how?
Definitely schizo! But it works for me and my process. I think movement vocabulary and passion is threaded through all my work, but the concept is always new. I hope to be recognized by recreating myself—my work—each time a piece is presented. Most of my life is spent creating. However, I feel my life is completely separate from a performance. But sure—some of my work is autobiographical. I was commissioned by L.A. Contemporary Dance Company where I created a piece called ‘Diary. Entry. Final.’ that was heavily influenced by the occurrence of three events that occurred consecutively: the chance death of an acquaintance, a marriage, and a trip to the rural Mexican coast. My emotions were full-bodied. I’m sure only the closest of friends could possibly recognize these influences.
What’s going to keep you busiest this summer?
I just had a baby: the Sweat Spot. It’s my new dance space and home of my Sweaty Sundays classes. Our mission is to create a cultural mecca of dance, yoga, performance, event and rental space on the Eastside. It’s a studio for the people, and all classes are $10—cheapest in the U.S., I think. ‘Dance for the people’ means that these classes are geared toward a wide cross-section of the public regardless of age, financial means or level of experience. I find most people can relate to dance—whether they took classes as a child or in high school or are familiar with freestyling at a club. Maybe they watch it on television? It’s more mainstream than ever. A lot of people in my age group or adjacent have been left without a means to let go and have a dance party that doesn’t involve aspects of a typical night club. In most workout or yoga classes, rarely do you actually share the high positive vibrations of those around you. My classes bring together elements of dance-floor tomfoolery, positive reinforcement and communalism that is missing in most of our adult lives. My current projects include a music video for Quadron, choreographing Ke$ha’s tour, making an art/fashion video with Moon-spoon Saloon, and starting a night in San Francisco called Singular Sensation where I’ll be teaching class at a club monthly. I should join the circus—I juggle well.
If you were actually in the circus, which of the people from the freak show would become your most special loved one and why?
The bearded lady, of course.
VISIT RYAN HEFFINGTON AT THESWEATSPOTLA.COM OR SIRHEFFINGTON.COM.