On a recent afternoon at the Ailey Studios, choreographer Takehiro Ueyama watched his company do a run-through of Linked, a joyful, high-energy ensemble piece set to music by Pat Metheny. TAKE Dance Company was preparing for its season at Dance Theater Workshop, which takes place through Sunday.
“I don’t usually do dances like this anymore,” he said afterward as the dancers sprawled on the floor, catching their breath. Darker material is more his style, he continued, plus he had gotten tired of hearing critics compare his upbeat pieces to those of Paul Taylor.
Perhaps one can forgive the critics a little — after all, Ueyama was a member of Paul Taylor Dance Company for eight years, from 1995 to 2003. And now, with TAKE in its fifth year, Ueyama no longer worries about being branded a Taylor acolyte. He’s enjoying the process of finding his own voice as a choreographer, even though it’s a gig he was initially reluctant to accept.
Flavorpill: You came to New York from Tokyo to study at Juilliard. Did you join Taylor as soon as you graduated?
Takehiro Ueyama: After I graduated from Juilliard, I had a few job offers from other companies, like Hubbard Street Dance Chicago … but I didn’t want to go to Chicago. Then, one of my mentors from Juilliard, Kazuko Hirabayashi, asked me to come to the Graham Ensemble. She became director of the ensemble around the same time I graduated.
[That summer] Taylor 2 had auditions and one of my old Juilliard teachers recommended I go. They asked me to join and I said, “No – I don’t want to dance in the second company. I want to dance with your main company.” Soon after that, the Taylor company had a men’s audition and again, one of my Juilliard faculty members asked me to go. Linda Hodes [then director of Taylor 2] came up to me and said, “Are you going to take the job this time?” And I said, “I came here for the main company.” And she went back and talked to Paul, and luckily I got the job.
FP: That was really gutsy of you.
TU: I know. If I think about it now, I think what was I doing? It’s stupid – if you’re offered a job, you take it. But I didn’t feel right to leave my mentor Kazuko at the Graham Ensemble just to join the second company. She’s the reason why I got into Juilliard and came to New York City. She’s like my dance mom. Without her my dance career doesn’t really exist.
FP: Was joining Taylor a longtime goal of yours?
TU: I didn’t really know anything about Paul Taylor or his company. They don’t really come to Japan to perform. So I discovered his company and his work while I was at Juilliard. In my junior year we did Esplanade … and when you’re performing a piece like that you just feel great, so natural. I was very happy dancing Esplanade. And that made me think, wow, I want to dance with this company. It just feels right somehow. All his choreography just felt so right for me.
FW: Why did you want to form your own company?
TU: I never wanted to do it. When I graduated and joined the Taylor company I never thought about having a dance company or choreographing. But then I started choreographing in 2003, and the dancers and people who saw my piece … just kept telling me, “You have to have a company. You can do it.” And I was like, it’s easier if I just have a pick-up company. Let’s just rent a theater and have a show. But after a while, rehearsing with the same dancers made me think, I want to keep these dancers and work with them more often.
FP: Do you like choreographing now?
TU: I do. I’m much happier than when I was dancing. With the Taylor company we performed in so many great theaters, even in the Paris Opera House. We did Esplanade and people went crazy. But somehow, having my dancers performing my work, even in a small space … that made me much happier. I thought, wow, choreography is pretty fun. I think I like the creative process more than just the performing and presentation.
FP: When you choreograph, do you go into the studio with everything mapped out in your head, or do you get ideas from your dancers?
TU: I usually have a strong idea, not in my brain; it’s in my body. But it doesn’t have the shape, and it doesn’t have a vocabulary to explain it … so somehow my dancers need to be trained, by just working with me for long enough, to understand what I want. Somehow we have a special language.
FP: You’d mentioned that you find it annoying when people compare your work to Paul Taylor’s. When you’re choreographing, do you consciously try to do something differently from the way he would do it?
TU: What was annoying was that … with any of my uplifting, joyful pieces, the critics would always bring up his name. Now I’m fine; I’m honored if they mention his name. But in my first few years, I thought, “What is this about? It’s totally different.” But what people see is different from how I see it. And I’m OK with it. When I’m choreographing I’m not trying to do anything different from him or like him; I just try to be honest with myself in what I try to create.
FP: What do you look for in a dancer?
TU: It’s just my instinct. I like people who have a lot of qualities and are great human beings. I like interesting dancers. I don’t like the dancing machine who is taking class everyday and just thinking about technique. I’ve never had an audition and I don’t want to hold an audition, because some dancers are beautiful but when it comes to the audition they don’t really perform well.
FP: Tell me about the documentary, A Year with TAKE Dance. How did that come about?
TU: It’s by Damian Eckstein, who composed the music for one of my pieces, Looking for Water. That was his first time composing music for a dance company and he wanted to videotape it for his own memory. But I suggested, why don’t you film me all the time? So that’s what he did for a whole year. It was never like he was trying to make a film or anything — it was very spontaneous. He just did it. And he sent it out to a few places and it got accepted to film festivals here and there. I think he captured our dynamic really well, the relationship between me and my dancers. I don’t like seeing myself on the big screen, but I think it was entertaining.
FP: You said earlier that you find it difficult to direct the company and dance with them. How do you balance it?
TU: It’s very challenging. I never knew it was this hard … dancing and choreographing and directing the company; working with lighting designers and costume designers, and all the meetings you have to attend. It’s a struggle, but still it’s fun because everybody is working for my product. And I’ve danced enough already, so I don’t really have the ego to be center stage. Sometimes you see a dance company and the choreographer is always dancing downstage center, and I just don’t want to be that way. I don’t have the desire to be that person. I’m done with it.