Dallas Black Dance Theatre’s Encore! performance at Moody Performance Hall this weekend includes an original piece set by Japanese-American choreographer Takehiro Ueyama, founder and creative director of New York-based TAKE Dance. I spoke with the Julliard-trained choreographer, whose visceral, potently moving, and often contemplative modern work has found a place at TAKE for over ten years.
The world premiere commission ties Japan’s 2011 earthquake and tsunami to the 2017 hurricane season in the U.S. Ueyama borrowed the words from an ancient Japanese poem for In the Sea of Heaven’s title. But his personal memory of the tsunami that struck the coast of Japan on March 11, 2011 churns in the core of the work. It was Ueyama’s birthday in New York, where he was living at the time.
“While I was celebrating ‘Happy Birthday’ with my friends, at the same time, the tsunami hit in Japan,” Ueyama says, recalling the disaster seven years ago. In the days that followed, he was cut off from his family in Tokyo and experienced the vacuity of unknown. One year later, he asked to drive to the Fukushima coast on a family trip. “It looked like after WWII,” he says. “Nothing. Everything’s gone but the ocean. [The] ocean that took so many people’s lives. That was very peaceful and calm. That was beautiful. And [it was] a beautiful, sunny day.”
In the tension between destruction and peace, Ueyama found material.
“I want the ocean,” he says. But he also gleaned some imagery from the actions of the mourners. He calls this element “my fairy-tale story.”
“They leave rice bowls, food as a gift to the people who died,” he says. “And maybe we all came from the water. And they went back to the sea.”
Composer Kato Hideki created the music, which came before the dance.
Ueyama collaborates frequently in Dallas. He has set pieces for the students at Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts and will return next year for an engagement with Southern Methodist University. The anticipation caused by his unusual approach to working with dancers made him nervous about this new piece.
“My work gets physical. At same time I like the calmness. Some people might say this is really slow,” he says.
The collaborative process relies on powerful intuition as he sets a piece. “Most of the movement comes from my body. But I don’t really plan,” he says. “I just let it out however I feel. It’s almost like a painting. I just do something, just an image. [The dancers are] not improvising. I’m the one improvising, while I’m creating.”
The DBDT dancers proved trustworthy conduits for the vision, Ueyama says. “Sometimes I go somewhere and I have to change my plan, because it doesn’t work. Here, they show me something better and more, and I go with that. Technically, they are very good. And they understand my instincts. I love working with smart dancers.”
In the Sea of Heaven’s themes of fluidity and letting go extend beyond the disasters referenced in the work.
“I was initially inspired by my own country [and the] tsunami,” Ueyama says. But the loss of human life is shared by anyone who has been touched by disaster. “Their spirit’s still alive, but they’re not here anymore. We forgive all those disasters, but I think we never forget who [the beloved] are, what they are. That’s universal. Somehow you leave your imprint.”
Ueyama’s choreography, set to ambient music, will be a world premiere. It’s also an unusual and bold foray for DBDT. In a piece that’s hopeful and stark, a work of body and spirit, I imagine we may see the company moving in a different way.
Find tickets here.