Ryan Heffington Wants the Whole World to Dance
Ryan Heffington has created many memorable dances over the years: explosive ones (Sia’s “Chandelier”), euphoric ones (Christine and the Queens’s “La Vita Nuova”) and healing ones (“The O.A.”). But his latest feels like a remedy for our troubles. With a cast of 209 people and a backdrop of 29 countries, it wraps itself around you like a big hug.
The music video, directed by Filip Nilsson for the Major Lazer and Marcus Mumford single “Lay Your Head on Me” and released Wednesday, was choreographed remotely by Mr. Heffington, 46. Because he didn’t know who the performers would be — or have a clear grasp of their dance experience — the movement couldn’t be overly complicated.
“And I didn’t want it to look like a hard-core dance video,” he said in an interview from his home in the desert outside of Los Angeles. “I wanted it to look like people were doing it with ease and enjoyment.”
Mr. Heffington’s work, seen in numerous music videos and commercials, has an enduring, natural appeal. He doesn’t like gimmicks. No matter the project, his movement shows more than the body; it reveals the person within.
When he saw Mr. Nilsson’s finished video for “Lay Your Head on Me,” he thought it was just right. “There’s something about it that’s so simple and so gratifying and honest that we don’t get 98 percent of the time in commercial work,” he said. “It’s just seeing individuals do what they do with smiles on their faces. They’re living in the moment.”
Mr. Heffington offers other possibilities to live in the moment: On Instagram, he teaches a regular class called Sweatfest, inspired by classes offered at his Los Angeles studio, the Sweat Spot. The choreography is easy to follow. “Anyone can relate to sweeping and cleaning your house,” he said. “So why can’t we make that into a dance move?”
But really, the class is about the power of dance. “I know how much dance has helped me in my life through dire situations and depression and this is the most accessible way,” he said. “It doesn’t cost anything. It’s good for the mind, the body, the soul. If people danced, it would literally change the world and change people and change culture.”
He’s fulfilling a vision he had years ago: He’s making the world dance. What follows are edited excerpts from a recent interview.
How did you approach making this?
I sent out a breakdown of the choreography, and people learned it on their own time and in their own space. It’s the safety of dancing when no one’s watching. People have smiles on their faces, and they can emote and they feel safe.
There are so many different walks of life. I think that’s exactly what we’re craving: reality. Not this superficial aesthetic of what humanity is.
It starts quietly with close-ups of the hands and arms — almost like a rich kind of sign language — then it becomes more full-bodied and joyous. What were you thinking?
The first movements are very simple. Like anyone can do this: We can reach our arms forward, we can go for a hug. I wanted to see faces and very minimal choreography so you’re going to be able to get access into the mood and the meaning rather than starting with “Five, six, seven, eight — choreography everywhere.”
And then we give them space to improv at the end, which I think is so beautiful. Like, everyone’s doing this choreography, and then you get the freedom and the explosion. It feels like such a great release. I would love to do an instructional video so people can dance along.
Did you think about the lyrics when you were choreographing?
Absolutely. I feel that line, “lay your head on me.” At this point in time, all we need is a shoulder to lean on.
How did you end up choreographing it?
The director was a fan of my work. There’s was no money involved, and everybody was doing it with their own cameras. It just felt like the right timing and the right project, and it didn’t seem that it was ego based. It just felt like, let’s put a smile on people’s faces. I was like, OK, I’m doing it. It’s exactly what I want to do right now.
What is the future of dance making for you?
The Sweatfest class has been a path that opened to me four weeks ago, and I’m going to continue down it. It’s changing people’s lives. It’s making people happy on a global scale. I say “You can’t do any wrong in Sweatfest.” I think that alone, just having someone say that to you is liberating. So sure, it’s dance. But I feel like what I’m doing is taking care of people.