Home / Arts & Life / Twirly Legs and All: Spike Jonze Spreads His Dance Wings

Twirly Legs and All: Spike Jonze Spreads His Dance Wings

The fashion and dance worlds have long flirted, and Opening Ceremony has a history of collaborating with Mr. Jonze, a friend, and others in their cool-kid clique. “We have this relationship where we dip in and out of each other’s projects,” said Humberto Leon, one-half of the design team Opening Ceremony. “He comes by our office like every other day.”

This is the first time they’ve opened their work to the public, though. “We wanted to be inclusive, not just insidery,” Mr. Leon said.

Though Mr. Jonze is known for his dance-heavy music videos (he twice won MTV awards for helping choreograph Fatboy Slim videos, including “Praise You,” in which he danced), “Changers,” which runs about 30 minutes, is his first crack at a longer dance piece. “I can really explore telling a story in a language which is all dance,” he said. “I like trying to do things I’ve never done before, that I don’t know how to do. That’s when it’s exciting, because you don’t know whether it’s going to work or not.”


Spike Jonze directs Ms. Wasikowska and the dancer Chris Grant

Dolly Faibyshev

He wrote a script and came armed with movement ideas. On tour recently with the singer Frank Ocean, “I’d be in the hotel by myself during the day,” devising steps, Mr. Jonze said. “I’d videotape myself dancing out phrases and then text them to Ryan.”

Mr. Heffington, a Los Angeles choreographer and studio owner with a dedicated following, who is best known for his work on videos with Sia (on YouTube, he’ll teach you to do the “Chandelier” dance), saw himself in a supporting role, helping fulfill Mr. Jonze’s precise vision. “It’s been more specific than I think any other project I’ve had the pleasure to work on,” Mr. Heffington said, “because there is such a specific narrative.”

The piece is the story of a couple, Ms. Wasikowska and Mr. Stanfield, and the evolution of their relationship. “We’re fast-forwarding this couple’s life, to bring us to present day,” said Carol Lim, the other half of Opening Ceremony. The set includes two wardrobes, and the dancers change clothes throughout, in front of the audience — their way of modeling Opening Ceremony’s designs.

Though there’s no dialogue, “they all have dialogue inside every move and gesture,” from the script, Mr. Jonze said. “You’re on a mission,” he told Mr. Stanfield in rehearsal, as he crossed the stage at La MaMa, tearing his hair.


“Changers”: from left, Mr. Stanfield, Mr. Heffington and Mr. Jonze.

Dolly Faibyshev

For Ms. Wasikowska (“Alice in Wonderland”), who does have dance training — she was on the ballerina track until she was a teenager — it was a welcome change from regular acting. “This is actually my ideal stage performance,” she said. “I don’t have to speak, I just move.”

On Wednesday she was deep in rehearsal at La MaMa, learning her solo from Mr. Heffington: “We chassée, piqué arabesque upstage, we shimmy downstage,” he instructed as they practiced in front of a mirror. A three-step turn, another chassée, a stomp on the left foot that Ms. Wasikowska couldn’t quite get. “Could I do the other foot, please?” she begged, jokingly.

Beforehand, Mr. Jonze and Mr. Heffington bounced ideas back and forth, quickly. “Where the piano goes dink-dink-dink, I don’t know what it’s called but those sort of twirly legs, put two of those in there,” Mr. Jonze instructed Mr. Heffington.

Mr. Heffington didn’t bristle at the simplified movements he was being asked to make. In traditional dance performances, he said, “there’s such a beautiful skill set, that sometimes you can get whisked away with what that is.” But this is different, “because the language of emotion is so strong and loud, and you see these characters.”


The Opening Ceremony designers Carol Lim and Humberto Leon.

Vincent Tullo for The New York Times

“Dance,” he said, “is just like the shell of how they communicate.”

The 10 or so tracks that form the score were mostly songs that Mr. Jonze already loved, with some suggestions from Mr. Heffington, said Sam Spiegel, the music director and Mr. Jonze’s brother. Mr. Jonze also pulled inspiration from street performers, and from a Buddhist retreat he went on in Dharamsala, India. “The song ‘Downpipe’ by Mark Knight was being played regularly during their aerobic yoga classes,” Mr. Spiegel said, and made it into the piece.

As cross-disciplinary exercises, some say that the Opening Ceremony collaborations reach in the wrong direction, though their intentions seem genuine.

“Full of easy laughs and ersatz emotion,” Vanessa Friedman, the fashion critic at the New York Times, wrote in her review of a Fashion Week play that Mr. Jonze wrote with Jonah Hill for Opening Ceremony in 2014. “Totally, really, uncool.”

In “Changers,” Mr. Stanfield, tall and lean, was not concerned with looking cool. “It causes me to have to learn and fail, a lot, and that’s what makes it so rewarding,” he said of his first dance show. Learning these movements, he added, “I hope it can influence me to tell more organic stories.” Before, his energy came “from my waist up. Now, I think I can maybe incorporate a little bit more toe action.”

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