'Strive to be excellent but not perfect' Professional dancer Yukiko Masui reveals her process
Yukiko Masui chats to Mandy News about her endless talents from hip-hop choreography to ballroom dancing.
Yukiko, tell us where you’re from, what kind of dancing you do and when you first decided you wanted to dance professionally.
I am from Tokyo originally and have been living in London for 9 years now. I started dancing in Hip-Hop and Ballroom Latin dance in Tokyo then moved to London to train in Contemporary Dance.
I started dancing seriously when I was around 15 years old. I started performing in clubs in Japan when I was 17 or 18. I guess you could say that I have been dancing professionally since then. However, it wasn’t until I joined Transitions, Trinity Laban’s graduate dance company, that I decided to commit myself full time to dance.
How did you go about learning your craft and pursuing it professionally?
In terms of Hip-Hop, I went to dance studio to learn first but then after a couple of years, it was mainly training on the streets with my friends and creating shows together. And I performed regularly in clubs and entered competitions. I learnt a lot from actually making shows regularly and performing them.
My training in Contemporary is more formal with a ‘proper’ MA in Dance Performance.
What was your first job? How was it?
My first job was with Cathy Waller Company. I was fresh out of school and went to the company audition thinking I wasn’t going to get it. I really enjoyed the movements at the audition, highly physical with intricate rhythm. I really enjoyed working with Cathy and have been working with her ever since (4 productions so far!). Cathy and I both have a Hip-Hop dance background and we bond over a love of a good beat and sharp movements.
How did you then go on to get further work?
I went to auditions a lot. But once I had a range of jobs with different choreographers and dancers under my belt, I started getting recommended for jobs by people I had worked with in the past – if you have a good work ethic (punctuality, positivity, eagerness to learn and improve) and people enjoy being around you in the rehearsal room, they will put recommend you to their colleagues and contacts. On occasion I have also been offered work based on going to professional dance classes – the guest teacher/choreographer spots you and decides to offer you a job (best thing ever!).
You do solo, partner and group choreo work. How do the disciplines differ? What excites you about each?
I’m not even going to lie, but the solo has been the hardest to create and perform as everything was done on my own. It was challenging to create a solo after working for about 5 years for and with other people.
I love partner work as I have done Ballroom Latin dance and it’s really close to my heart. Dance is a shared experience and when you can communicate through dance without words, there is something magical about it.
And generally, you seem to have quite a mixed creative dance life – lots of different styles. Is that typical? Is that something that’s important to you? Why?
I don’t know if it’s typical. But it’s definitely my strength – maybe even my USP? – to have a variety of dance styles in my background. This variety means that I can find my own identity, my own voice, my own movement vocabularies within all of those dance genres.
What have been your most interesting and challenging productions? Any interesting stories? Traveled much for work?
In 2013, I was in a dance piece called “A Thousand Shepherds” choreographed by Jose Agudo. The piece was about pilgrimage and I drew on my personal story – the experience of losing my uncle at an early age – to create some movements. Probably, this was the first time that I really got emotionally engaged in a dance piece on a deeper level. The piece was physically the hardest production that I have ever done as well so that helped me to be on the edge physically and emotionally.
I have performed this piece for over 2 years and I also went to Cape Town to assist the choreographer to recreate the piece on Cape Dance Company. That was a very special experience to pass on the piece that was very dear to me to somebody else.
In the past 3 to 4 years I have been fortunate enough to travel a lot with work. Especially this year I haven’t spent much time at all in London. I have been to Caracas early this year to assist a project by the British Council and Impact Dance where we curated a Hip-Hop Theatre event for the local Hip-Hop dance community. This autumn, I have been dancing for Art of Spectra in Sweden. We are going on tour across Sweden in November and I love the fact that I can continue to combine dance with travel!
You’ve done work on stage and TV. Tell us how the processes differ for you as a dancer. Whether rehearsal time, time of production or anything else you’ve noticed.
The main differences between the commercial industry and art/theatre relate to time and focus. When you do music videos or ads, usually the choreography is already done and you just need to quickly learn or freestyle on the spot. There is not much creative input as a dancer to the production. You are there to deliver high speed and standard performance. In contrast, theatre projects, we often have 1-2 month period to create an hour show where you work collaboratively with the choreographer and we generate movements together most of the times, at least in Contemporary dance. When working for the stage there is time for exploring and mistakes, whereas in TV you cannot make mistakes.
How much practice is too much and how much is not enough – for physical endurance?
It really depends on how hard the practice is, but generally, in rehearsals, I would expect to be dancing from 10a.m. to 6 p.m. for five to six days a week. I always aim to have a day off a week from physical stuff, but because I am juggling different jobs it can sometimes happen that I end up not having a day off for two weeks or more – which is where it can get dangerous for the body. On the other hand, when I have longer stretches of not working, I need to make sure that I take classes and workout for at least 3 to 4 days a week.
Some people pick up some terrible injuries. How do you take care of yourself and avoid this?
At the beginning of my career, I was juggling different semi-professional projects at the same time as it was all part time projects. I ended up dancing from 10a.m. to 10p.m. with travel time between studios taking up the time in between rehearsals. One of the rehearsals was happening on concrete floor and I ended up getting an injury a day before the premier. Since then I decided that I won’t rehearse on concrete, I warm up, cool down and go and see a physio or masseuse before anything happens AND have a bath when I worked hard but need to carry on the next day.
What’s exciting you in the dance world at the moment – whether technically or technologically?
What’s exciting about dance right now is that different dance genres are coming together, blurring boundaries and creating a new voice. I focus on foundations of each dance when it comes to techniques and training, but when I create something I quickly move beyond those techniques so that I can be free and find my own movements.
I get really excited when I see a dance performance with interesting movements that are truly unique to the choreographer or the performers.
What advice can you give to somebody wanting to be a professional dancer?
Strive to be excellent but not perfect. Be unique!
Also, know your rights as a dancer! People will try to hire you for little or no pay because there are a lot of dancers out there and they think that you are replaceable. The industry can be very tough. But do not sell your skills for cheap when you have spent a lot of time, money and effort to craft your work.
Tell us what you’ve got coming up and what you’re up to at the moment. And about your workshops!
I am recipient of the Autumn 2017 DX Choreography Award and will be creating a new piece of dance for DanceXchange in Birmingham this December. The piece is titled PROCESS and will be a solo. The aim of the piece is to make process visible to audiences, to share the missing link between source material and product, between life and death. It is inspired by traditional Japanese cremation and burial rituals. Thanks to also receiving Grants for the Arts funding from Arts Council England, I will be able to commission an original score for the project – by contemporary composer, Ezra Axelrod – and collaborate with a dramaturge, Arne Pohlmeier.
I will also be making a short piece with students at The Place, London, which will be performed as part of Live Vibe at The Place on December 2, 2017.