ILYSM texted with Juri Onuki, the choreographer behind all your favorite moves from Blood Orange and HBO’s We Are Who We Are, about learning to dance for herself, and absorbing the space around you…
♡: Hi Juri 🐛
Juri: Hiii Jenna 🌞
♡: I want to start this conversation with an anecdote around your skillset, specifically around Ex Machina.
I went to see Ex Machina as soon as it came out in theaters, and you were one of the first people I messaged leaving the theater - because of the iconic disco dance sequence. I asked you to see the film and teach me. Which you kindly obliged.
You have the video?! Amazing!!
♡: As spontaneous as this was, we (or rather I) took this super seriously and rented out a studio. But I was incredibly impressed because we only had limited materials to work off of but low and behold you got the steps.
Juri: That scene was epic!
I'm used to learning dance off video because I went to Merce Cunningham studio which they do a lot of video check for learning the original choreography.
♡: I'm wildly out of practice and feel like we still need some sort of performance. I also vote you to do it with me.
I need to get back in the studio soon bc I was back home in Japan for few weeks!
♡: Yeah to clarify to people reading this, it was before the film was available to stream or anything so there were just limited press clips to watch and even the song I had to track down on YouTube
How was your trip
Juri: Yes, that was true. I remember finding the scene on YouTube
My trip was very meaningful. I went home for my grandmother's funeral. She was 101.
It really re-evaluated what family means to me
♡: My respects to you and your family
How do you define family?
Juri: Thank you. 🙏🙏 she lived so well and I am proud to be her grandchildren. I think we did a nice farewell for her. 💕
That's an excellent question.
Family obviously means connection in blood but also connected in spirit and value and love...
I have been away from my family for quite a while that my friends became a family to me as well. That said, my family defines the place where I feel comfortable and safe. 😊
♡: Has your art allowed a space for you to process your grief, through movement
♡: Or is there a part of your grandmother you feel like you express in your movement
A continuation of her
Juri: Hmm. Not in terms of movement. 😂 she was more conservative of career choices. My grandma was a teacher and she cared a lot about her students and I care a lot about people around me.
That's similar and I carry on that.
♡: I've been told I carry some of my mom's facial expressions
Juri: Ahaha. You guys look alike 👯♀️
♡: As one of your "students" I agree!
Awhile back you invited me to a Blood Orange show that you choreographed. I was so blown away because it wasn't like the dance was this alienated component or forced in, but movement was so integral to the full concert experience. Everything you do with Dev Hynes is reflected in this approach. How did you guys start collaborating?
Juri: Haha. Thanks! Choreographing a dance is a lot about deep conversation with bodies too. So don't we wanna be in the place that has good vibe?
I am so glad you came to the show!! It was a very special one. I hadn't been responsible for any production size that big before! Dev and I knew each other from our mutual friends.
Started working together after we met.
♡: That's cool that it was such an immediate connection through mutual friends
The best vetting system
Juri: Yeah totally!! And half of the crew moved to LA now. 😂
♡: How do you approach working with talent? Going back to your vibe comment. I feel like you are super conscientious of bringing out someone's essence versus giving them something trendy or more generalized.
Juri: Aww! That's so sweet to hear that! Because that's what I value in dance 💃🏻✨
I want something real
That is convincing, sometimes raw. That's when the magic happens
However, you should practice a lot before you get there tho 😅 so clients who I don't have much time with before the shoot or production, I will take and incorporate as much of their movements as possible.
♡: That's interesting
Juri: But the more I work with one person, we start to communicate better and faster.
♡: What do you think separates your approach from other choreographers?
Juri: It me! Thing?
I don't compare to others because each choreographer has different POV in their craft. My approach is more like casual?!
I care about dance and production that I work on but at the same time, I can let things go.
♡: Going back to Cunningham is there something you took away from that experience versus what you learned on your own in how you work with other people
Juri: I had a great time in Cunningham studio because the technique is really hard!! 😆😆And program was intense, so my technique got improved while I was there. Also, they encourage to make your own choices in movements. You can play with that if you are taking workshops too
♡: I feel like you find poetry in isolated movements, even with our photo shoot I loved your approach to mimicing the motions of people around you. Theres a reflective awareness that I find super interesting. And it translates even in stillness - which is rare...
Juri: I highly recommend to try Cunningham technique for any dancers. It opened my eyes 👀
Aww, thank you so much 💕 how did you know that I am into the surrounding of moving bodies as well?
I am really into what happens to the space around while something is moving lately😎
♡: How does a space influence your work? Do you have a preferred type of environment to work from?
Juri: I love being in the dance studio
That's my default! But I have learned that being a choreographer means a lot of desk work as well. Studio time is a reward for me
I get inspired by space. It had its own unique character
Theaters are magical because you can make any space possible ✨✨
♡: Definitely and there is something to be said about maximizing a space and a specific energy to that space
How often do you get to dance for yourself
Is it hard to make time
Juri: Trying to as much as possible.
I go to Pilates, yoga and ballet
♡: What is your creative process like
Juri: Depending on the project, but usually start off of being a studio by myself playing around, improvising a lot.
If some movements stuck, I'll develop something from there.
I am very fast making dance when I am with dancers tho. 😂
♡: Do you record movements on your phone like a journal, or how do you keep track of these ideas
Juri: I record movements on my phone and review them. And edit for next rehearsal.
I should have a movements journal.
I also have to write it down my ideas in order to remember. Sometimes that keeps me more than video
Keeps my memory
♡: Dancers' muscle memory also amazes me, envious of how quickly things stick
Juri: Yes that's tru
♡: Were you an active kid?
Juri: I was! The daycare I went to provided very physical activities, so I was moving a lot since I was little
But not sure if I was good at it
♡: When did you start using movement as a means of expression? Did you study dance as a kid or did that come later?
Juri: Yes, I started ballet when I was 5. But choreography came in very late in my lif
Life like when I was 28 or so
I wasn't interested in before
♡: What changed things for you?
Juri: I think I started to get frustrated to digest someone else's ideas especially when the rehearsals weren't in the good vibes.
I didn't know what I felt that way for a while and realized that I haven't been dancing with my true self.
HOWEVER, I have to tell you. It changed. I just performed my friend Leslie's work in November and LOVED performing it.
I felt like I finally started to find how I truly perform. And also thankful for Leslie to allow me to be myself in her work.
♡: I love "dancing with my true self." I think that's such an important distinction to recognize in your own needs. But conversely someone like Leslie highlighting the best of you.
Juri: That extra mental space that choreographer can provide is golden ✨✨✨💕
♡: Both are possible under the right environments of collaboration
Juri: Yes, that's right 🙌🏼🙌🏼
You know, you collab with people all the time so how everything works out well when you meet the right people.
♡: Sometimes it's nice to be under someone else's control because they push you in ways you didn't think possible while still giving you the space to do you
Juri: We are totally different. In fact, I had to speak for her work 🙀😎
Absolutely! I like that ride.
♡: Is there a preferred medium you like having your work showcased in?
Live performance is the best.
But I like film and videos too.
♡: Is it frustrating to work on choreography but have it visually translated in a way that doesn't reflect what you were trying to showcase
Like a bad edit on a movement
Juri: Ah yeah, editing is tricky
♡: What video are you most proud of?
Juri: Luckily I only have one experience like that
My goal is having as many good takes as possible so the editing will work in my favor
I like all my videos!
My dance short, 4F is definitely something that I wanted to try.
For music videos, I like them all.
♡: How can people watch 4F do you have a link?
Juri: You know every child is special 😆
It's on my website. jurionuki.com
♡: You somewhat recently worked in Italy, can you tell us about that project?
Juri: I was working on a dance sequence for an episode of We Are Who We Are (HBO) directed by Luca Guadagnino
♡: I feel like the atmosphere on that set must have been so refreshing. I loved the show so much, there's genuinely nothing like it. Something I was intrigued with was Jack Dylan Grazer and Jordan Kristine Seamón's characters in the show are Blood Orange fans, and in this scene they are paying tribute to the original choreography you had for Dev. There's so many layers to this - I'm curious what it was like for you to have your movements reinterpreted within this narrative setting and reworked as a vehicle of expression between the characters. Like the goal isn't perfection it's about this exchange of energy which I just found so utterly charming...
Juri: At first, when I got the email from the team, I was like this is crazy. This dance was one of our first MV I did with Dev and we had to make it in a few hours.
So 7,8 years later, being able to restage on what we did was really an amazing experience.
So looking back, it was a lot on Jack and Jordan to not only deliver the choreography but also be true to their characters. I was there to teach them the movements but when I was the episode, it really made sense, everything they were doing in the rehearsals.
I was only there for a week but when I saw the dance in the show it really sums up the journey of them and I am so honored that this dance was there to represent that in their story
Working on a narrative definitely added more depth to the movements themselves
It's just the nature of "stories"
Does this make sense to you 😅
♡: I love that throughout the series and within this dance - it shows how we reveal ourselves to other people. To me, it was a refreshing choice to have this extension of conversation be more than dialogue but expressed so beautifully with your dance. There's so many way to celebrate getting to know someone, finding different ways to express intimacy. There's something so raw about it that I find especially captivating considering how lately everything feels so manufactured.
What else can we expect to see from you this year?
Juri: Something fun!
I am working on with this new artist Lalita to develop her live set.
It's super early stage, but hopefully we can develop and progress.
♡: What drew you to her?
Juri: And will see, work always comes so unexpectedly 😂
She is so special!!
Talented, really like her taste in music and visual. One of a kind
♡: Can you give us a taste?
Is there a visual that speaks to her vibe
What makes her distinctive to you
Juri: Music. Her sound is tribal, dancey and can be aggressive
She is not afraid of anything doing her own thing
♡: I look forward to all of your collaborations, you have a way of bringing out the best nuances in people
Outside of your website is there any other outlet people can track what you're up to
Juri: Thank you Jenna 💕🙏
Thank you Juri it's been a treat