Very mild spoilers for The OA below.
While the new Netflix series The OA is ostensibly science fiction, it’s filled with artistic choices that defy the conventions of the genre. None of those choices are more surprising than the Movements, a dance sequence that’s crucial to the show’s narrative. Over the course of eight episodes, Prairie (a.k.a. The OA) and her compatriots learn that this supernaturally potent quintet of hand and body motions can potentially heal the sick, raise the dead, and even allow interdimensional travel.
Despite the mystical nature of the Movements, series creators Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij opted to depict them without special effects. They’re simply performed with sweaty focus by the actors. In order to craft these key physical motifs, Marling and Batmanglij turned to dancer and choreographer Ryan Heffington. He’d worked with them on a previous film, 2013’s The East, and he’s best known as the choreographer behind an array of Sia’s music videos, most notably “Chandelier.” Vulture caught up with Heffington to talk about his unusual task of creating the Movements, what they represent, and how he made them “believable.”
How’d you get recruited for the show, and how on earth did the creators describe it to you?
I had worked with Brit and Zal before. I worked on The East with them, on a very simple dance sequence in that film. I’ve known actually Zal for many, many years just from living in Los Angeles. Brit had been a student of mine before, in my dance class. I think they possibly may have had me in mind when they were thinking of the Movements. We sat in the room where they were finishing the story of it all, which is great timing because it was so rich in their heads. We had a great opportunity to chat about what these movements meant, their importance, what they were, possibly what they could be. We just got down and dirty and shared influences and ideas of what could work in this very unique plot.
How fleshed out were the Movements at that point? Did they have specific instructions?
I don’t know if the actual choreography was fleshed out. They knew that they needed certain [dance] phrases for certain episodes, that it came to a climax at the end, and what the weight of that would be. I was given enough information where I could go develop some influences and some comments. I was able to go off, create, and share. The sharing was actually live. They came to watch it. It was a series of coming back and forth. I would do one phrase, we’d talk about it, they would give it to the powers that be, and then just keep moving on. Check it off and keep moving on. It was this really organic way of building.
But they must have been giving you some direction, right? Were they saying, “We want this phrase to kind of convey eating and this one to convey flying,” that sort of thing?
I think that’s where I was kind of lucky. They didn’t give me too much. They absolutely knew how it fit into the story, but I feel like it was a great collaboration. We had the scripts and we had the plot, but they’re not choreographers, so they weren’t trying to make me create something that they had so specifically designed, because it didn’t exist. Like I said, I was lucky that I came in at a point where they were still questioning and still had a lot of great weight to the last scene. It’s just, “What would work? What would be real? What would be believable?” It was a lot of contemplation on my part of, “Yeah, how could this actually unfold and possibly, possibly, be believable?” What I’ve been creating over the last couple of years, it’s abstract yet it’s totally palatable. People can understand it enough to believe it, but then they want to ask more questions.
You keep saying “believable” and “believe.” What does believability mean in the context of something as unusual and paranormal as the Movements?
Well, I think if an abstract, postmodern dance routine just happened there, it would absolutely be unbelievable. I was going for it to resonate as powerful and human-based. Something that is just — I was going to say believable again — but gives enough information, makes it be heartfelt, human, and yet the power of it is from a more abstract force. Just intertwining, braiding those elements together to create something that is palatable.
Do you want the audience to believe that these Movements could have some kind of supernatural power?
How did you decide which dance phrases would seem like they could cross dimensions and heal the sick? Do you look to inspirations? Is it improvisation?
All of the above. We shared a couple videos. We discussed life experiences. Fantasy of what would work. Certain elements within the script that I could pull from. There’s a lot of basic physical forms, whether it be an animal or a certain historical dance, that we’ve researched. It was many things. It wasn’t one single source at all.
We cut, we edit, we lengthen until it feels so compact and so forceful there’s not a weak moment to waste. I think that’s the other thing. If you throw in one recognizable move or one move that we’ve seen before or has a different reference, it’s danger zone because this story hasn’t been told before. Specifically, it has not, so I think there’s nothing common that we could portray in its movement story. I think that would’ve just killed it absolutely.
It was trust. It was a big sense of trust between all of us. In rehearsal, if I didn’t create something that absolutely stunned Zal and Brit, then it wasn’t going to work. Luckily, more times than not, when I showcased the phrases to them, they didn’t give hardly any feedback. They were just like, “This is it. We don’t know how you did it, but this is absolutely it.” Everyone felt it. Some of the execs were in tears.
Let’s talk about the Fifth Movement. The last few episodes really build up to its reveal, so there’s a lot of pressure to make it look powerful. Can you walk me through how you constructed it?
As important as that phrase is, I feel like it was just a continuation of what we’d built upon from phrase one through four. It wasn’t such a huge jump, but a continuation of that narrative and story. Hopefully, when it’s placed back to back with all these other phrases, it’s a seamless language. It wasn’t a showstopper. It wasn’t a finale. It was just a culmination of energy that happened to be the fifth phrase.
How closely were you working with the actors?
This is going to disappoint, but I was actually working on another job, so I had assistants with different actors. I would review videos and give comments. Figuring out certain avenues for them to get to where they needed to be. I think that was my role after I had initially created them. They were set on the dancers, they were drilled, and then I would come in and fine-tune and give them other ways of seeing how to do this choreography. I was luckily on set for the finale, and that was awesome. It was incredible to work with them, even if it was a short amount of time.
The dedication, it was exceptional from these people. Phyllis [Smith] and all the other actors. When you break it down, it is extremely hard choreography. No matter if you’re a professional dancer or have never danced before, it’s challenging. The articulation. Of course, that was the whole premise of the story: [The Movements] have to be done perfectly. It has to align. Not only did they have to learn it, but they had to perfect it, not being dancers. That was something that I questioned when I built these. I was like, “Damn. This is hard for my assistants. How is this going to work?” I had to have faith in humans and I have faith in my assistants and just drilling them. We put so much responsibility on them to rise to the occasion, and they definitely did.
While you were putting together the Movements, was there a moment that felt especially powerful? A motion you improvised that overwhelmed you as soon as you’d done it?
Usually, if I don’t feel it, it doesn’t get released to the public. There’s always a moment where I feel it from the inside of my being. It’s not about aesthetic. It’s about telling a story and having an emotional arc to it. I do feel that when I choreograph. If I don’t, I keep working until I do. It’s a little bit magic. You can’t force that energy, but it arises when it’s supposed to. Luckily, it arose in this project. Hopefully it works.