Piece originally tiled: “In Lagos, dancing was life. In Ireland, it was a career. In New York, it made him a star
Mufutau Yusuf is to debut his first hour-long solo show at the Irish Arts Center in New York
By Brian Seibert
WHEN dancer Mufutau Yusuf says, “I will always consider myself a migrant,” he means it in several senses. One is biographical. Born in Lagos, Nigeria, he moved to Ireland when he was 9. As a young adult, he studied dance in Austria for four years. Now 29, he lives and works mostly in Belgium.
“That informs how I like to make work,” he says. “Which is: Never stay with one idea but see how that idea migrates and changes depending on the context. Artists are migrants.”
From Thursday to Sunday, Yusuf is debuting his first hourlong solo, Owe, not in Europe but at the Irish Arts Center in New York, the city where he had his professional debut as a dancer in 2011. Owe is an investigation of identity, particularly of his roots in Nigeria, a country he returned to for the first time in January. “It’s about me understanding who I am and where I came from,” he says. “It’s about my ancestry, my Yoruba heritage.” (Owe means “proverb” in Yoruba.)
Dance is a piece of that heritage, although Yusuf didn’t learn Yoruba dances as a child. In Nigeria, dance was “present everywhere,” he says, as part of social life. “I learned to groove.” He has a scar on his right hand from when he was 3-years-old and fell while dancing at his cousin’s christening; the Coke bottle in his hand broke and cut him, but as soon as the wound was bandaged, he went right back to grooving.
“I had a need to express myself physically,” he says. “But my formal dance training started when I moved to Ireland.”
His parents were divorced. His father, having migrated to Belgium, had married a woman from Finland and moved to Ireland. They invited 9-year-old Yusuf and his brother to join them in County Meath, outside Dublin. “It was difficult for my mother,” Yusuf says, “but she agreed it was the best thing.” He didn’t see her in person again until this January.
There were other adjustments. “I was coming from the most populous city in Africa to the countryside with two neighbours,” he says. “That was drastic.” People had trouble pronouncing his name, so he started going by “Junior.”
At 12, he began taking dance classes, and at 16, he joined the Dublin Youth Dance Company, commuting into the city each Saturday to learn contemporary dance. “Coming from Africa, where dance is not a job but a way of life,” he says, “I became struck by the idea that in Europe it could be a career.”
That idea grew sharper a few years later, when John Scott, the founder of Irish Modern Dance Theater, asked him if he had an Irish passport. Scott was taking Fall and Recover, a work he had made with immigrants who were survivors of torture, to La MaMa in New York, and he needed to replace a dancer who had dropped out. “When I was a kid,” Scott (62) says, “nobody immigrated to Ireland. Everybody was trying to get out. But since the mid ’90s we’ve had a lot more migration, which I consider a gift.” Yusuf, by then an Irish citizen, filled the slot.
“It was a piece with 13 dancers,” Scott says, “but somehow Mufutau almost turned into the star. It was like there was more light shining on him. He was not trying to upstage anyone. He’s very, very modest. But he just kind of radiated.”
Gia Kourlas, reviewing this 2011 performance for The New York Times, agreed. Noting Yusuf’s buoyant jump, his calm and the faint sadness in his eyes, she wrote, “it’s hard to look anywhere else”.
For Yusuf, the experience was “a big eye opener,” he says. “It was understanding a creative process where I could be myself and what I have to offer is appreciated.” He decided to become a professional dancer.
As Scott says, “Ireland does not have a full-time dance training academy, so if people want to become full-time dancers, they have to go away.” Yusuf went to the Salzburg Experimental Academy of Dance, in Austria, for his formal dance education.
In Salzburg, teachers rotated through often, each with a different technique and approach. “It was an education that taught you to adapt,” Yusuf said. “You had to be open but you also had to learn how to make each approach yours.” He began signing up – usually at the last minute – for end-of-semester showings, presenting partially improvised solos. “As migrants, you always improvise, attuning yourself to your surroundings, and that comes across in my work,” he says.
After graduating, he joined Ultima Vez, a popular company in Brussels, but he continued performing in Scott’s work. In 2019, Scott invited him to participate in New Dance Ireland, a showcase of Irish choreographers at the 92nd Street Y in New York. The Irish Arts Center, a co-sponsor of that event, offered him a commission for its first season in a new building. (He also contributed the short film Observations to the organization’s pandemic film project.)
Aidan Connolly, the executive director of Irish Arts Center, said that Yusuf fits right into the organisation’s mission. “We have this enormous opportunity to communicate things that are authentic and at a very high level artistically, but perhaps not what you were expecting out of an Irish Arts Center.”
From April 29th to May 1st, Yusuf is also returning to La MaMa to perform in Scott’s duet, Cloud Study. It, too, is in some ways a study of migration, and Yusuf says working on it reminded him of when he was a child in Ireland and would imagine that clouds above his garden might also be seen by his mother in Nigeria: “It was that longing for her, that longing to understand that we are connected.”
When he first moved to Ireland, he says, his father had a mobile phone but his mother didn’t; she had to travel far to contact him once a month. He recalled the difference it made when his mother got a phone and later when WhatsApp video made it possible for him to see her face. “It was such a shock,” he says, a shock surpassed only when he saw her in person this January.
That two-week trip to Nigeria was the end of his work on Owe – “like tying the string,” he says. The artistic process had begun online, with him studying Yoruban music, dance, textiles and mythology, along with Nigerian history. Drowning in information, he realised that the show would be about “exploring my own archive,” he said, even though it’s fragmented. “How do I fill up the holes?”
Early in the solo, he plays the tape of a speech that Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, the first prime minister of Nigeria, gave when his country achieved independence from Britain. At the same time, Yusuf contracts his body and shakes, as if to connect the birth of the nation with his own birth. Throughout the show, he makes similar personal-public links. The solo ends with the voice of his father, speaking about Yusuf’s grandfather, after whom he is named but whom he never met.
“How do I embody the spirit of my grandfather?” Yusuf asks, explaining this moment. “How do I show my ancestors that I am embodying what they passed on?”
The trip to Nigeria brought some answers. “It made me reconnect to that Yoruba rhythm,” he says. “It was like restarting a car that had been idle for 20 years. I felt at home.”
But Yusuf also feels at home in Ireland. “I think I’m more Irish than Nigerian, even if I have a Nigerian accent,” he says. “I’m very proud to be Irish. I’m very proud to be Nigerian. I’m very proud to be me.”
–*This article originally appeared in The New York Times.