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Impasse choreographer Mufutau Yusuf: ‘I can’t have fixed ideas. Difference often opens up into something completely better than I imagined’

Dublin Dance Festival 2024: The dancer and choreographer has always valued collaboration, but it has been key to the creation of his new work

Some acts of creativity are solitary, others communal. The lonely playwright might peck out words on a keyboard, slowly transferring scenes from head to screen, but for the choreographer live bodies are the tools of the trade. After that first step into the dance studio, human interaction and a commitment to collaboration are essential for the act of creation.

However axiomatic, it is surprising how much Mufutau Yusuf mentions collaboration as he talks about his choreography, particularly his latest work, Impasse, which premieres during this year’s Dublin Dance Festival. Commissioned and coproduced by the Liz Roche Company, the duet features Yusuf and Lucas Katangila challenging skewed and prejudicial representations of the male black body, both historical and everyday.

Yusuf is well-known as a dancer to Irish audiences; his star quality was recognised from an early stage. After moving to rural Co Meath from Lagos, in Nigeria, when he was nine, he began dancing with Dublin Youth Dance Company in his teens. He didn’t just learn steps: youth dance companies are underpinned by an ideology of active participation in developing personal skills as well as valuing fellow participants’ artistry. For Yusuf the link between artistic success and collaboration was embedded at this early stage.

His first professional engagement came at the age 18, when the choreographer John Scott asked him to be a late replacement in a performance of Fall and Recover at La MaMa, the experimental-theatre club in New York. Quite the debut. Scott developed this hour-long dance with torture survivors from Spirasi, the national centre for the rehabilitation of victims of torture in Ireland, who performed alongside professional dancers. The work, which is non-narrative, sensitively embodies the survivors’ testimonies and experience. The sense of deep and respectful collaboration had a marked impact on Yusuf.


Picking him out in that performance, the New York Times critic Gia Kourlas wrote how “when the charismatic Mufutau Kehinde Yusuf, from Nigeria, is onstage, it’s hard to look anywhere else. His buoyant jump is one thing – he seems to float higher and higher as he springs repeatedly in the air – but it is his calm and the faint sadness in his eyes that really knock you out.” These qualities are still to be found in his performances, where his lightning-quick precision is as impressive as his concentrated stillness.

After that role in New York, the possibility of dance as a profession grew stronger, and Yusuf began studies at Salzburg Experimental Academy of Dance, in Austria, returning to Ireland from time to time to dance in professional productions.

It was in Salzburg that his choreographic career began, but almost on a whim. On the last Friday of every semester, students could sign up for free studio time with dancers. One day Yusuf found himself adding his name to the list.

“I had no idea what I wanted to make, but I just thought I would like to try,” he says. “And the pressure of having to produce something was exciting! Having worked with different choreographers helped my confidence, because as a dancer I always felt my contribution and ideas were important. Now, in the role of choreographer, I found that I was able to create a collaborative atmosphere in the studio.”

After Salzburg, he divided his time between Belgium and Ireland, dancing with companies such as Catherine Young Dance, Pan Pan Theatre, Emma Martin/United Fall, Liz Roche Company and Scott’s Irish Modern Dance Company, as well as taking up a position with the renowned Brussels-based company Ultima Vez.

Choreography was less a priority through these years, but Yusuf’s breakthrough came in 2022 with Òwe, a solo that he performed at the Irish Arts Centre in New York and at Dublin Fringe Festival. It was a deeply personal meditation on and exploration of his Yoruban identity and consciousness. With props such as camera film and cassette tapes, it was also a more general interrogation of the role of personal and institutional archives in influencing cultural identity.

That it was a solo offered Yusuf a flexibility that he relished. “No two performances were the same,” he says. “But I had the freedom to feel the energy around each performance changing from night to night.” If Òwe was a timestamp on his identity each night, then that identity could morph in the future. “I would like to revisit the dance in maybe 10 years and see how my relationship with my Yoruban roots might have changed,” Yusuf says.

For Yusuf the link between artistic success and collaboration was embedded at an early stage

Impasse is also personal. Shown as a work in progress at last year’s Dublin Dance Festival (with Tomas Ntamashimikiro partnering Yusuf), it displayed a presentational stillness rather than zealous persuasion. This is a very deliberate artistic choice that Yusuf hopes encourages engagement from the audience.

“It’s a challenge,” he says. “Some choreographers get pigeonholed into being very conceptual when they are minimalist. But I’m just interested in how I can let the audience sit with a single action – well, maybe not an action, but an experience – for a long period of time.” Conversation veers into the stillness found in the actor Andrew Scott’s performance as Tom Ripley, in the new Netflix series, and in the films of Jim Jarmusch.

“When I see a film like Coffee and Cigarettes I feel like the director has taken me into consideration: I’ve been invited to spend time with him and with the characters. Because oftentimes films are all about the story, how the plot moves and develops. And sometimes it feels nice to feel that the director has created a space for me to be with this character and resonate with their experiences.”

The convention of an audience passively sitting back probably doesn’t help either. A visitor to an art gallery has a completely different experience: they actively choose how long and how deeply to engage with each work. This difference was highlighted when Yusuf was working as movement director and co-creator of Eimear Walshe’s Romantic Ireland, for this year’s Venice Biennale.

“She’s an amazing soul and really incredible to work with,” he says. “Sometimes when people ask you to work together, they need you to do something specific, but this was a wonderful collaboration, and all the time there was zero pressure.” Creating movement that did not need to appear centre stage was liberating. “I feel that us choreographers can find ourselves following certain conventions, like compositional rules – how things should look or how bodies use the three-dimensional space,” he says. Instead he could create singular pieces of movement material that added to an evolving artistic structure alongside contributions from fellow artists.

Back in the dance studio, putting finishing touches on Impasse, he continually enjoys the way Katangila, his fellow performer, magnifies his choreography.

“I can’t have fixed ideas. There were some sections of choreography that I set on Lucas, but every time he danced it, it was different than how I imagined. It wasn’t wrong, just different. I have learned to go with this difference, and often it opens up into something completely better than I imagined.”

Impasse runs at Project Arts Centre on Friday, May 24th, and Saturday, May 25th, as part of Dublin Dance Festival