Tuesday 24 October 2023

Interview with Mufutau Yusuf

Mufutau Yusuf initially made a substantial breakthrough in professional dance with a role in David Scott’s Fall and Recover in 2011. Then aged only 18, he had received the call up as a late replacement for one of the dancers who had pulled out. The show was performed in New York City and attracted glowing notices for the young dancer in outlets such as the New York Times, who wrote at the time that it was hard to look elsewhere on that stage.

Since then Yusuf has kept himself busy with pursuing and completing formal dance training in Salzburg alongside working professionally in the US, Ireland and various other parts of Europe and even keeping busy during the pandemic through film projects with the Irish Arts Centre and Centre Culturel Irlandais.

Last month during his residency at the Uillinn I met with the dancer, who also goes by the name Junior, to discuss his journey from Co. Meath, to where he moved from Nigeria at age 9, to the present, where he divides his time between Ireland and Belgium. I also got to ask him about the development of his new dance work-in-progress, currently titled ‘Impasse’ as well as his long term and short term inspirations in his dance career.

Mufutau Yusuf. Image credit: Jean-Nicolas Schoeser

I was interested in how the title ‘Impasse’ related to the themes of representation and misrepresentation- themes that Junior aimed to explore in the work- so I asked about this relation and what inspired the connection. “The very first title I had before ‘Impasse’ was Deep End as in ‘the deep end of a pool,’” he shares, “and the older I got, the more reflective I began to be of my own experiences because I moved to Ireland when I was 9 and growing up I realised that the representation I had was very few and the few that I had were very misleading.”

Junior explains that a lot of the representations of Black experiences available were those coming from the United States, offering an example of hip hop music and videos in his teenage years, which was something that he liked but still felt a sense of disconnect as to whether these images represented his own experience.

“Their Black experience was very specific to the United States and doesn’t reflect on my own Black experience in Ireland,” he notes, “There was a kind of a lack of representation there and then there was misrepresentation in relation to how I observed the way I was perceived growing up, first in the countryside and then in the small town where I went to school.”

His plan is for the piece to be a duet with colleague and fellow dancer, Lucas Katangila, who is a Congolese national who lives in Belgium. His aim is to focus on the multiplicity of the Black experience and the Black diaspora in Europe. “I wanted to understand that better,” he says, “Both personally and in collaboration with others.”

“Lucas had a different experience to me being a Black person in Europe”, he elaborates, “Or talking to people who are second generation, third generation Black Europeans and trying to gather all the experiences and collate them into an understanding of what is that complexity that comes with representation of Black bodies in a Western society.” 

The theme of visibility and invisibility is something else he is focusing on in this work and Junior proposes, “It’s also about trying to navigate the different spaces where we can exist and understanding the tools that we have to represent ourselves- to make ourselves seen. And that’s the other thing that I’m looking at: the idea of visibility, of what is visible and what is made visible and what is invisible and what is made invisible. The aspect of making something visible and of making something invisible is not the same as something that is visible by itself or invisible by itself. So trying to understand how that works and where the power lies.”

In shifting focus from his original title to that of ‘Impasse,’ Junior explains that it can be viewed as when you play a game and there are no more moves left. “That’s how I sometimes felt in periods of my life but also now as an adult where the tools that I have to reflect on those things have evolved somehow,” he says, “and through those reflections I started to see things in new ways and much more nuanced ways regarding my life as a Black person in Ireland but also in Europe because I now live in Brussels.”

Brussels was not Junior’s first European destination, having spent 4 years training in Salzburg, Austria. I asked him if staying and training in Ireland had been an option would he have taken it and he is emphatic that he would have, however, he didn’t think he would have found the education he was seeking here. ”I was looking for a very comprehensive dance education which entails a high level of training but then also a diversity in the kind of information that you got.”

He observes that something that European schools do differently to Irish training centres is that they bring teachers from other countries to teach. “Having an educational system that would bring dance professionals from outside of Ireland and bring them here to teach,” He says, “ that is what I had in Salzburg. All the teachers I had were from all over the world and they were coming there to teach.” He singles out the Irish World Academy at the University of Limerick as one of the most comprehensive dance educations in Ireland and a great school.

I asked Junior if his professional debut caused a shift in his mindset in knowing that he belonged on these stages and his response is casual and pragmatic, “The reviews and performing on a big stage like that in La Mama in New York. It’s a great venue and it was very glamorous somehow but that went side-by-side with what went on in the studio.” 

He credits growing up in a family where creative expression and creativity was encouraged and witnessing his artist father’s creative streak inspired him to tap into his own creativity in molding his own career. “I didn’t have any training before. I got thrown into it somehow and it was probably a very pivotal moment in my trajectory as a dancer.” he reflects, “I think that experience is what reinforced my desire to be a dancer working on such a professional level, and then also working with great artists, understanding how they work and also how they used their body, it really reinforced that desire to be a dancer and when I really thought about seeking out a dance education.”

“It’s a bit like you usually do a dance education and then you have a career after that but I kind of had a bite of a career before the education and I think it pushed me forward.” he muses, recalling that during his training in Salzburg he was still being offered work. “I was involved in The Right Piece, also with John Scott, which was in 2013, and I was in my second year. I had to beg my director to let me do that piece and go to New York again.”

Mufutau Yusuf. Image credit: Jean-Nicolas Schoeser

He viewed the opportunity to break away from his training to take on sporadic work such as this as a privilege, admitting that at times it felt like a lifeline in a way. “It was not an easy four years living in Salzburg where…,” he pauses to look for the right phrasing and then laughs as if there’s just no other way to put it, “…it was not very friendly towards people like me or toward anyone who was not Austrian for that matter.“

Junior counts among his blessings during the four years of dance training in Austria, the beautiful landscapes surrounding him and the incredible nature within it. “Nonetheless spending four years in training requires a strong will”, he says, “You have to have a strong motivation and I think part of the motivation was wanting to work with my body, wanting to be a dancer, but then also working.”

I was also curious about the Observations dance film he did in 2020 with the Irish Arts Centre so I asked Junior if he would have moved toward dance and film naturally or if it was more of a COVID contingency move. He responds that he would most likely have gravitated to it naturally having always had an interest in film. ”I’m a big film head. I watch a lot of arthouse films and I focus a lot on cinematography. It’s a big thing for me,” he shares. 

“Even when I was in school, there was a quarry near my house in Meath and I used to go this quarry. Everyday, usually in the evening, I would walk my dog there and I would just be dancing and I would be filming myself dancing.” he begins, “then I would start placing my phone in different places and trying to make short dance promos.”

On whether the pandemic restrictions brought along more opportunities for him to explore dance and video, Junior feels it might be the case but it was also a welcome and somewhat natural focus. “For sure COVID gave those opportunities and kind of gave me a chance to explore it but naturally I would have shifted into it eventually. I’ve done a few short films with friends where I’ve been in front of the camera but I’ve also been behind the camera as well asking things like, “how does this work?””

Junior says he doesn’t rule out working more with film and video in the future or even combining it with his stage practice seeing as both film and stage contain different creative advantages. “The stage can be unlimited for creativity but in terms of perception it can feel limited because you can only see things in a specific way,” he says, “whereas with a camera you have a wider range of how you can show the audience what you want them to see. And I think I would like to find those possibilities and bring them on stage but also take what you can imagine on stage and bring that onto film as well, see the interplay between the two.”

At Home With Irish Arts Center: "Observations," a Mufutau Yusuf Dance Film

I asked him if he could pick just one piece of film or media that he accessed as a younger person that inspired him to dance, what would that be. Junior is unhesitant and assured in his choice. “There was one. It’s from Eduard Lock from a company called La la la Human Steps. I think they are based in Canada and the piece is called Amelia,” he says, “You can find the full clip on Youtube and it is incredible. I was a teenager and when I was just starting contemporary dance I was watching this video nonstop.” 

I don’t have to ask what it is about Lock’s piece that captured his attention and imagination at a young age because Junior is readily full of praise for it. “The cinematography is just incredible. I still watch it today now and then. It’s a ballet and I am not a ballet dancer but the choreography, the cinematography, the music, the composition, it’s incredible.” he offers, “I don’t know who composed the piece but it is just absolutely phenomenal and I always go back to it.” 

It seems to flow back to the topic of resources and that another type of resource for a young dancer can come in the form of film or online video, “Wanting to be a dancer,” he says, “I had to go online and look for resources and that was one of those resources that made me feel, “Wow this is possible. Imagine making something like this.” I think that kind of added to the whole fantasy of being a dancer.”

‘Artists Are Migrants’: A Nigerian-Irish Dancer’s Multiplicities | New York Times


Q&A with Mufutau Yusuf – Òwe – Dublin Fringe Festival


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