Sometimes a music video is more than a music video -- with choreography often the catapult. When Spin named Australian singer-songwriter Sia the 2014 Artist of the Year, they called "Chandelier:" "a top-ten hit that's inseparable from its striking music video, which is, in its own right, a blunt yet graceful performance-art piece that illustrates an inebriated crackup."
Sia took the same edgy dance-driven artistic route when she released her second video this year, "Elastic Heart," which stirred viewers to study -- and attempt -- its choreography. Both these Sia songs -- with versions of their dances -- may even be featured during the artist's first appearance on Saturday Night Live this weekend.
Directed by fellow Aussie Daniel Askill (who also shot Sia's "Believe Me,") the seismic "Chandelier" and "Elastic Heart" videos marks Sia's first collaborations with revered local choreographer and studio owner Ryan Heffington (The Sweat Spot), who was contacted by the pop artist after she saw his KTCHN dance concert in Los Angeles in 2013.
Raw, virtuosic and gritty -- the two effecting videos follow a simple concept. In "Chandelier," a skinny-boned 12 year old named Maddie Ziegler, trained in the rather artless world of competition dance (she's a "Dance Moms" regular), stalks and careens around a darkened, lifeless apartment, grimacing and spinning and galumphing in unfamiliar shapes. Sheathed in a flyaway platinum wig and flesh-toned leotard, Ziegler's bullet-speed directional and emotional shifts seem to leave no marks on her gleaming self. Will she just keep flickering forever, like a failing fluorescent bulb? Viewers become hooked by the video's alchemy, superimposing Sia's music alongside Heffington's choreography, capturing moments of lingering incongruities.
A dance omnivore who moved from Yuba City to L.A. at age 18, Heffington turns out to have the precise wit, boldness and sensitivity to fulfill Sia's call for survival stories that are more nuanced than "victim to victory."
With Heffington's intense, compulsively-watchable movement vocabulary, it's no surprise "Chandelier" was nominated for a Grammy Music Video of the Year. But amazingly, that's not Heffington's only Grammy feat this year. He also choreographed and performed in the dance sections of "We Exist" by Arcade Fire, featuring Andrew Garfield as a trans youth, also nominated for a 2014 Best Video. He may be the first choreographer to work on two Best Video nominees in one year, though the official nominations cite only director, artist and producers. When reached for comment, a Grammy rep wrote that "the awards department doesn't keep such records."
A darkly handsome, mustachioed bunhead, Heffington is not hard to locate -- he's still teaching five days a week at The Sweat Spot when he's not busy on corporate jobs and music videos. Speaking recently from his Silver Lake dance studio, nursing an ankle he twisted in the sand, Heffington talked about the "amazing" feeling of having more work than he can handle, and few constraints. "Clients tend to contact me when they're looking for something creative," he says. "So generally, they let me do what I want."
Heffington reveled in the surprise pleasure of the combined success of his Sia collaborations. "Chandelier is still getting 1 million hits a day," he said. "It's amazing." Compared to the disequilibrium when folks started recognizing him for his work on "RuPaul's Drag Race" a few years back, Heffington says his current success had landed at a time when he feels grounded. He's got a house now in Echo Park, and his studio runs in the black.
He is certainly on his creative game, usually churning out music video dances in one day. For "Chandelier," he wanted more.
"I said, 'You have to let me into that room days before'," he explains. "'I have to see this furniture, I have to see what it feels like'."
He knew Ziegler would interact with the walls, floors, and tables. "You can put kids in a pile of dirt and they are so content. She should know the underneath of the table because she lays under there and that's where she sleeps and she can stick her gum to it. She leans up against this wall, she frames herself, she can jump on the furniture -- that's her world, whether she was left there or she never had anyone from the beginning, you don't know these things."
Ziegler was so "f-cking smart," Heffington says. He ended up using only two of his allotted days, and sharing much of his motivation with her. For the scenes where she rubs her belly, or slides into a full split with a distended stomach, he told her to think of a "hoarders" mentality. "You're old, you're obese and you're stuck here. She was able to attach to some of that."
Heffington explains the names of some of his "Chandelier" moves ("Mustache," "Robot Bird!") in a video on Nowness and it's one of the site's top hits.
Concurrent with "Chandelier" video release, Sia decided to conceal her face during all performances and interviews. Showing only the back of her blond bob, she's not unlike an orchestra conductor these days, and in that vein, Heffington -- more than Ziegler -- her true concertmaster/first violin. Heffington adapted all of Ziegler's live appearances with Sia this year (the "Ellen Show," Jimmy Kimmel, "Dancing with the Stars") as well as appearing posed frozen with her as she sang for three minutes on VH-1 Soundclash (she faced upstage, he faced the audience.) "Just the vibration, the heat from her body, " he said about Sia's performance. " I was somewhere else."
In their second video together, "Elastic Heart," Ziegler's spooky, skittish child character returns, this time walled inside a giant metal cage with actor Shia LaBoeuf, with whom she tussles in the same fidgety, playful and powerful way she wailed on her "Chandelier" surroundings. Another grand slam invention, "Elastic Heart" features a swift, unfussy portrayal of life's limitless beauty, even amid anguishing full stops.
LaBouef, 28, appeared once before in a Heffington work, in a much more sexual role in Sigur Rós: "Fjögur píanó," And while these non-verbal roles have a healing quality -- LaBouef's muteness feels to uncouple him from past drama, rebuilding him from the body up -- it's arguable that memories of his nude turn in "Fjögur píanó" may stain the tentative sense of caretaking and intimacy achieved with Ziegler in "Elastic Heart."
Indeed, Sia heard an outcry of comments from victims of abuse.
A day after the "Elastic Heart" release, Sia sent out explanatory tweets: "I anticipated some 'pedophelia!!!' cries for this video. All I can say is Maddie and Shia are two of the only actors I felt could play these two warring 'Sia' self states." Then later she added: "I apologize to those who feel triggered by #ElasticHeart. My intention was to create some emotional content, not to upset anybody." Reports that she will be releasing a "making-of" video also surfaced.
Heffington doesn't censor himself -- he's beloved for raunchy, uninhibited club performances, too -- but he's wise enough to know what belongs where. Responding to criticism that he had "sexualized" Ziegler by dressing her in a nude leotard in "Chandelier," he says, "For one, it's a leotard from a dance class."
And two: "I can do sexy," he says. "When I do sexy you will know it is sexy."
Once Sia tasks him to portray certain characters, he says, she steps back. "I love Sia for that," he continues. "She trusts me. It's such a huge compliment."
Arcade Fire's "We Exist" also got people talking. For Heffington, discussions over the casting of actor Andrew Garfield in place of a transgender performer don't detract from the work. In the video, he choreographed all the dance, and appears in the dream quartet of dancing men, first seen in a bar, then onstage during a roaring outdoor concert that was filmed at Coachella. "I feel like when we're dancing at Coachella -- I'm getting teary-eyed," Heffington said, "In the middle of tens of thousands of people, gay men in heels and cutoffs, performing with confidence and pride while being supported by one of the biggest bands in the world -- this is important."
As his work life accelerates -- this fall he also delivered an 11-minute pool-side dance piece at Art Basel, and hints at a coming collaboration with Marina Abramovic -- he's made two promises to himself: "Never stop teaching and never stop going to clubs." To do it all, he's learned moderation and adaptation; when he first taught he was so committed he wouldn't take a day off from teaching for 2 and a half years; now he gets subs. And last week he went out dancing, leaning on his crutches.
"I just had to have my assistant hold my tequila," he explains.