“I think we’re going to nail it.” Ryan Heffington is in an airport hangar. His two assistants gather a group – or, more accurately, a crowd – of 40+ dancers to the center of the airy space. The ceiling, still shockingly high whenever one looks up, or leaps up, provides a drafty yet comforting space for the collective to warm up. Heffington begins to speak: of the 70s, of soul – both the genre and the concept – and of the song that will inspire their movement for the next few days, Aloe Blacc’s “Love Is the Answer.”
Heffington and his assistants then begin to pace out just one of the dance segments they’ll be learning over the next 48 hours, right up until the cameras start rolling. They start by counting out each step – the music will come in later. This part is about building muscle memory, and nothing else. “There’s no texting, there’s no checking your emails,” says Heffington. “We only have a certain amount of time to do this and there’s so much to do.”
The choreography that they are learning can be seen in the recent redux of Aloe Blacc’s interactive music video made in partnership with The Lincoln Motor Company as part of the Music Uncovered series. Set in the legendary Park Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles, the film follows four people as they experience hearing, feeling, and dancing to Blacc’s song throughout the space – all precisely synced to seamlessly toggle from one to another while weaving Blacc, himself, throughout each storyline.
Dance played a large role in telling the story of the song as Blacc had envisioned it – as a feeling. And yet, the complexities of conveying this feeling through dance in interactive film were great. “It’s not just a stage piece with ten dancers, but it’s like forty-fifty dancers and camera angles, and traveling through buildings,” says Heffington. “It’s kind of like choose-your-own adventure with choreography and sets.” But instead of taking months to write out each path of the adventure, Heffington had 3 days from the moment he and his collaborators first moved through the performance space, pacing out the stories, until the cameras would roll. There, in the airport hangar, before he and his dancers pushed themselves to incredible limits, he proclaimed what was to be very true: “It’s going to be insane.”
Having first watched Heffington’s demonstration, the dancers, like disciplined athletes, begin to work. Again, there is no music, only a beat count and a few words of direction from Heffington. And then the magic begins to unfold: sixty people or more, all picking up the same complicated dance moves one by one, barely missing a beat. The result is a beautiful movement, with the group moving first in waves and then all together, perfectly in sync. The repetition was painstaking and precise. “It’s very, very technical,” says Heffington. “I love it. It’s such a great challenge.”
Having observed this magic of human art scale up from the mind of one individual to the bodies of sixty in mere moments, one can’t help but wonder what technical components go into creating such exacting physical communication. What do dancers talk about when they talk about technique? What do they mean? There are schools to study the subject, key movements and pop culture icons that define the various genres, and – on the other hand – moments in every person’s life when they were so moved by an emotion or song that they begin to dance from instinct instead of instruction.
A trained dancer will study “technique” every day and build a practice to keep their muscles trained to narrate stories through motion. The body then follows the mind’s will, and is able to convey a narrative through body language.
Dance is one of the harder storytelling methods to find a full history on. Dancers have been portrayed in medieval scrolls, hieroglyphics, and even cave drawings, but rarely are there artifacts left behind to convey any description of dance movements. Before film, the only way to fully convey a dance technique and pass on the traditions of dance to a new generation was to precisely to keep dancing.
Ballet is one of the earliest forms of recorded dance technique, first flourishing during in the Renaissance in the royal courts of Italy. The Russians quickly mastered the art form, and then a widespread competition began among nations to perfect, systemize and evolve the art took place throughout the 1400s and beyond. Pointe ballet was implemented by the French and was considered a dance to be practiced by athletes with the best technical skills. Knowing how much to curve the arch of your foot, to bend the knee at any certain angle, and to spin an an exact rotation rotations of degrees – these studied numbers and forms were considered technique.
In the painting world, hundreds of years went by before anyone was brave enough to depict something other than a religious figure or battle-scene. It wouldn’t be until the early 20th century that other forms of dance began to have the same studied technique as ballet. Choreographers like Vlaslev Nijinsky of the Ballets Russes modified his dancers’ costumes to be conducive for movement and new techniques that defied convention in the early 1900s. The costumes also became a part of the narrative. His innovations would be make way for modern dance – a more free form of lyrical movement, and the Ballets Russes would go on to influence modern culture in nearly every creative medium.
Over the decades that followed, regional storytellers whose families had been dancing in different ways for centuries began to come out of the woodwork, finally able to share their talents with a world that now accepted dance in all forms. Folk dance had found an interested mass audience, at last.
And so, when Ryan Heffington calls a dance “extremely technical,” we no longer wonder what that means, we merely watch with wonder as it unfolds. We see the precise techniques – each step perfectly in sync, the angles, minute movements, and the echos of Soul spring out in their motion. Street art at its finest is being perfected, tuned, and brought to life.
Back in rehearsals, Heffington points out the emotion and passion of the dancers, along with their extreme attention to detail. “You know it, and you see them as humans,” says Heffington as he watches his crew move about the hangar. They are almost ready to perform for the cameras at the Park Plaza Hotel. “
Watch Heffington’s final choreography and toggle between the four perfectly synced narratives of “Music Uncovered” at www.YouTube.com/Lincoln