Choreographer, performance artist and dancer Ryan Heffington is certainly no stranger to the melding and twisting of mediums. From the underground club scene to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Heffington has earned quite the reputation for himself as a curator of dance performance pieces that extend, break and many times completely dissolve the boundaries of Los Angeles dance culture.
With his latest installation, KTCHN (currently running through May 19 at the Mack Sennett Studios in Silver Lake), Heffington has drawn inspiration from the paintings of contemporary artist Nolan Hendrickson to create what he feels is his most “elaborate endeavor to date”.
Wanting to bring Hendrickson’s signature style of wildly colorful figures, overt sexuality, and dark humor to life in a three-dimensional setting, Heffington assembled a team of collaborators, designers, and dancers to help him realize his vision. An Indiegogo fundraising campaign was launched, through which $15,000 was donated in support of the project. Hendrickson himself joined as an artistic collaborator and flew out from New York to witness his work reinterpreted in literally living color.
“I’m overjoyed!” exclaims Heffington, when asked about his feelings on the final product. “The whole process and working with Nolan as a collaborator was incredible. I feel like I’ve never been so prepared for a performance before. We put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into it, and I think people have really responded positively to that.”
For those unfamiliar with Ryan Heffington’s work, his hybrid style of highly-stylized dance, outrageous costumes and characters, grandiose set pieces (which in this case includes larger-than-life hanging genitalia), indie music, and pop culture commentary may come as something of a culture shock. Hendrickson himself was left dumbfounded upon his first viewing of KTCHN. “I went to all three nights of opening weekend. I think an appropriate reaction to the first time you see that show is ‘What the fuck?’ And that’s being already familiar with where they’re coming from. I’d imagine that’s even more so for someone who isn’t prepared for what they’re going to see. So that first night, I was just sort of overwhelmed, and it was all a blur. When I went back the next night, I was able to sit back and look at the details and nuances. But the first night, I was a bit delirious.”
The collaboration between Heffington and Hendrickson has been one of mutual artistic respect and creative autonomy. According to Hendrickson, it all began about a year ago in true contemporary fashion…with a Facebook message. “I got a Facebook message from [Ryan]. I didn’t know who he was at the time, I just saw that he was a cute guy. [Laughs] At that time, he was just asking me about what the title was of this one particular painting. And then this past September, I got an email from him and he said that he and a friend were going to be in New York and that he had a project in mind that he wanted to discuss. I mostly just said yes because he had really fun pictures of himself. I didn’t really have any expectations. I didn’t know what they wanted to talk about. So I met up with him and his producer Allison, and we all went on a little date here in New York and it was really fun. They proposed this project, and by then I had done a little research and I knew that he was a serious artist. I didn’t really have to think about it too much — the whole thing seemed like a lot of fun. So we kept in contact, and they kept developing on the initial idea they told me about.”
When Hendrickson was invited to collaborate on the project, he intentionally remained at a respectful distance to allow Heffington’s vision and interpretation of the paintings to come through in the performances. “I had some ideas about how I thought the overall vibe of the space should be. I got the idea pretty early on that they had a lot of very talented people working on this, so I just really wanted to see what they would do. I mean, who am I to tell the choreographer how to move the dancers? I didn’t expect them to understand my work the same way I do. I don’t expect anyone to. It’s not something I care about. They told me what they were picking up from it, I told them things that I thought might enhance their view, but my efforts were mostly toward the environment that the show takes place in and general vibe of the thing. I kind of had a feeling that it would be something deep and strange, and that’s what I really wanted.”
To move beyond the canvas and bring Hendrickson’s figures to life, Heffington envisioned a fully-realized cast of characters — all with distinct looks, personalities and stories. “It was a process of discovering [Nolan’s] paintings and realizing that world as much as I could through those two-dimensional characters. There were so many elements that I could extract. Because it’s a painting, I felt that there were so many stories that I could develop from his characters. I had a strong feeling of mood from his work, so that came through in the choreography and how I would set these people onstage. A lot of times they were in very similar poses as his characters would be on the canvas. So that was a pretty direct parallel. But then I also created my own story and narrative.
“There are 10 characters, and each has…individual qualities. Yeah, at times they dance in a chorus, but it was more about their development and their relationship onstage to one another and to the audience, as well. So in that sense I may have moved beyond sort of what his intentions were, but I always found myself looking back at his paintings when I had any questions. This one time I called him because I didn’t know what a drag character in his world would be like or what their aesthetic would be. And he had the most brilliant answer ever! And we used it for the show.”
Naturally, the drag character that Heffington was inquiring about was the one he himself ended up playing. And Hendrickson’s answer did indeed translate directly into the look and feel of that character. “I got this email [from Ryan] really late at night that said ‘Hey, if you were to do drag, what would you be?’ He didn’t give any reason as to why he was asking; it was just a blunt question. I told him ‘I would be ‘business safari’ and went on to describe what ‘business safari’ was—like a khaki pantsuit, blonde power hair, and carry and attaché case and lint roller. He didn’t really respond or anything. Turns out he forwarded that to Mindy, the costume designer, and that’s where she developed the look for Ryan that he has in the show. That just thrilled me when I saw it in the flesh!”
Though the look of the KTCHN characters was in many ways a literal interpretation of Hendrickson’s paintings, Heffington fully admits that each of his characters comes from a very personal place in his own life story. “It definitely was a little autobiographical in terms of the last year and a half of my life — relationship-oriented as well as having a taste of major exposure, being on television with RuPaul, and just how people would interact with me and their level of comfort with me. It was just this very sensitive situation for a while, of me feeling exposed and sort of not wanting to be exposed. I used that story a lot in this piece.”
When it comes to delivering a fully emotionally-realized performance using only the movement, the trust and communication between Heffington and his dancers is critical. “I look for dancers who are really comfortable with themselves and who are comfortable being vulnerable onstage. Dancers who can take direction and who can take the nuances that I give them and kind of run with it. These characters are so vulnerable that I need to know that I can trust the people that I give them to. I’ve worked with most of these people for years.
“I’d rather have dancers who all have a really unique quality about them, and try to fit them into a chorus situation, than have dancers who are more comfortable blending into a chorus and then trying to draw them out of it. I think it helps that I know their history as well. I know their relationships and their lifestyles, so I think tapping into that makes it a little more real and establishes that emotion really quickly. Sometimes too real, actually! There were times where I had to remind them that ‘this is a character, it’s not you’ and having to find that performance level and make sure it was a safe place for them to go.”
One of the trademarks of Heffington’s work is the incorporation of the space and the setting into his pieces. For KTCHN, that idyllic venue for this highly-modern and experimental piece came in the form of Mack Sennett Studios — a landmark of Hollywood History. Heffington and his design team transformed the space, which is typically used for photo and commercial video shoots, into a floor-to-ceiling immersive environment where the audience is at times invited to step out onto the floor and be a part of the show.
“I wanted to present this work in a venue where the actors were on the same level as the audience. I never saw it on a proscenium stage. I needed the audience to really be in awe and care for these people, to not only look at them but really be about to reach out and touch them. From very early on, I knew I wanted it to be a very audience-participatory experience. So I needed everything to be at the same level, so the audience could go up to the characters and the characters could go out into the audience.
“When we walked into the space, we all got goosebumps. The timing was absolutely brilliant. The new owners had gotten the keys to the venue the day that we had our first production meeting. They were very receptive to how we wanted to present this piece and create a new theater. Their vision is support art in Los Angeles, and become a new art mecca for the east side. I feel like they’re going to be this new heartbeat for artists here in LA. Being in there and feeling the history of standing in the spot where all of these old films were made…it had this magic that I feel like you don’t often experience in LA from just walking into a space.“
Heffington’s desire to incorporate his surroundings rather than conforming to the typical conventions of the dance world have ultimately allowed him to carve a niche for himself. “I have just always done what I wanted to do. I feel like to find the opportunities here, you have to make them. And I feel like that’s what I’ve done. I’ve been here so long and I’ve never really worried about money. I’ve just been keeping true to my artist self and am always wanting to produce and put stuff out there. I mean, we’ve done some completely illegal performances in parks where 200 people would show up and helicopters would be circling and we’d just try not to get arrested.
“Using my environment as inspiration has also really been a big help,” he continues. Rather than relying on traditional stages, Heffington feels that setting his pieces in the “gritty nightclubs of downtown LA” has afforded the opportunity to expose dance theater to audiences who may not be able to afford high-priced theater tickets. “It has allowed us to stir things up a bit and create more dance culture here in this city. I have a drive here that I think you really need, because there’s not really a niche for the kind of performance that I do. I’ve never really looked at it that way. I’ve always just said ‘I’m gonna do this and that’s it’.”
While some critics of performance art and experimental hybrids may claim the genre is too isolating and exclusive to general audiences, for Heffington, the goal of his work is the exact opposite. Hendrickson describes the experience as “something otherworldly, but still grounded in something really human.”
For Heffington and his team, it’s an emotional experience that is meant to be immersive and transporting, and ultimately unifying much like the hybridized structure of his pieces. “I hope the audience really leaves with a sense of joy. The piece is all over the place: there’s a lot of humor, it’s dark, it’s emotional, it’s a fantasy. You’re diving into a painting, and that’s so powerful to just be able to play and be free and leave with something that doesn’t exist in reality. I hope that everyone can release themselves enough to go on this journey with us. I really want to build a relationship with these people. It’s not about excluding anyone, and hopefully they can relate to what they see and we can have a long romantic journey together.”
KTCHN continues performances at Mack Sennett Studios, 1215 Bates Ave., Silver Lake. 8 pm on May 9, 14, 15, 16. Tickets: $35. www.brownpapertickets.com/event/360947.
**All KTCHN production photos by Melissa Manning/thelookpartnership.com.Print