Warning: Spoilers ahead for “The OA” season one.
Netflix’s new show “The OA” is a memorable sci-fi story about a woman named Prairie who — through a set of harrowing circumstances — comes to understand that she is the Original Angel (hence “OA”) and has been gifted with a cosmic “movement.” Her movement is one of five necessary components to an overall dance that, when performed in tandem with others and in a precise order, has the power bring people back to life or cure disease or open a portal to another dimension.
“The OA” showrunners Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij brought in seasoned choreographer Ryan Heffington to create the movements. Even if you don’t recognise that name, odds are you’ve seen his work.
“The choreographer was Ryan Heffington, who I’ve admired for over a decade,” Batmanglij told Entertainment Weekly. “When I first saw one of his performances I was 24 and my brain was blown.”
The movements had important narrative meaning, and Batmanglij and Marling were looking for a way to show expressive power. Here’s a section of them performed in the finale:
People familiar with Heffington’s work might have recognised his style. The recent choreography done for Sia’s videos (usually performed by dance star Maddie Zeigler) has similar elements of facial expressiveness and a sort of deep primal quality.
“It was Tarantino who said violence is uniquely cinematic, you can show violence easier than you can write about violence, and I think that’s very true,” Batmanglij told EW. “Violence doesn’t interest me very much. Brit [Marling] and I were fascinated by exploring something uniquely cinematic that was the opposite of violence. Could there be something that’s the opposite of violence?”
Batmanglij found the answer in Heffington’s work.
According to an interview with Vanity Fair, Heffington was brought in pretty early on in the writing process to help craft the movements as they related to the story. Here’s an excerpt from the Vanity Fair piece:
Eventually, Heffington began conceptualizing those all-important movements. He knew he couldn’t create something “cheesy” or “commercial — it really had to hold deeper meaning.” So he turned to a set of disparate sources for inspiration: the “skeletal shape” and attributes of various animals — as you can see in the movements’ bestial hissing and fluttering — as well as less obvious inspirations, like “African jewellery.” Says Heffington: “It’s a lot of face choreography. It felt like ancient African jewellery on the face.”
Marling — who plays OA — described the intense amount of dance training she and the other cast members underwent while preparing for filming “The OA.”
“When you try something new or different, something that feels strange at first in your body, you feel awkward about it, but you get closer to one another,” Marling told EW. “Eventually, it started to feel like the choreography was more expressive than any dialogue you could write. Movement is immediate and primal and says a lot without having to open your mouth.”
Heffington was impressed with the results from the cast’s hard work.
“These movements would be challenging to a professional dancer — activating your breath, your face. It’s very uncommon to do in choreography,” he told Vanity Fair. “I think what was most impressive was their dedication to what I had created. They really had passion behind it, the movements. It was thrilling to watch.”
The movements are a very polarising part of “The OA” (people seem to either find them “silly” or incredibly powerful) and it’s not the first time his work has been divisive.
Sia’s video for “Elastic Heart” starred Maddie Zeigler and Shia LaBeouf performing Heffington’s choreography. The two were dressed in simple, small leotards and had plenty of physical contact throughout. But while Heffington’s choreography was meant to invoke a sense of inner battle and emotional turmoil, some people misconstrued it as sexual in nature.
With Ziegler and LaBeouf then 12 and 28 years old, respectively, this sparked enough controversy that Sia herself had to publicly address concerns on Twitter.
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
— sia (@Sia) January 8, 2015
These two warring ‘sia’ self states.
— sia (@Sia) January 8, 2015
No matter which way your feelings about Heffington’s modern style lean, he is undeniably shaking up the mainstream entertainment world.
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