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The Shortstop Who Slid Into Choreography
By Rachel Straus
March 4, 2014
Takehiro “Take” Ueyama was on the road to professional baseball until his team lost the nationals. Then he discovered Michael Jackson, the Moonwalk, and, much to his dismay, wearing tights.
Takehiro “Take” Ueyama fell in love with baseball as a boy growing up in Tokyo, but when his team didn’t make it to the Big Time, he knew he had to find another passion. Thinking he was signing up for lessons in break dancing, he ended up in a modern dance class, where a visiting choreographer ignited an entirely unexpected passion. After supporting himself as a bartender, he moved to New York, aced the audition for Juilliard, and ended up dancing with Paul Taylor for eight years. Now, the 47-year-old choreographer has his own troupe, TAKE dance, to essay his big, bold, east-meets-west style. Here, Ueyama describes how 13 years of playing baseball helped shaped his artistic vision.
Tell me about your life as a baseball player.
By the time I was 17, I was on a high school team that had played against about 200 teams, one from each region of Japan. We qualified for the quarter finals of the national league championships at Koushien. It’s a big event—the gateway to a professional career—and about 50,000 people attend. It’s even televised.
My position was shortstop, which requires a lot of throwing, and my shoulder had started bothering me. I knew it might one day stop me from continuing to play, but I didn’t focus on that. I just wanted my team to win so we could get into the nationals. When we lost, we all cried so hard, because we knew we weren’t going to play baseball together ever again. Many of us had grown up together.
Did you ever think you’d take up dancing?
I didn’t like modern dance or ballet, and the first day I wore tights was awful, but I kept on going to Tatsuo’s classes because he was interesting. He had a great sense of humor. He took me to artists’ hangouts and bohemian spots, places unknown to regular Japanese people.
What made you fall in love with dancing?
Then, when I was about 19 years old, [Graham-based Juilliard teacher and choreographer] Kazuko Hirabayash gave a workshop at Tatsuo’s studio. Taking Kazuko’s class shocked me. Her movement went through my spine like an electric jolt. I felt a deep connection with her speed, her dramatic style. I fell in love. I began to get serious about dance. When Kazuko came back to Tatsuo’s studio a year later, I told her that I didn’t fit in with the Japanese dance scene. Kazuko said, “Why don’t you come to New York?”
So I did, just to study with her. She suggested I also study ballet with Alfredo Corvino, so I took two of his classes every day, Monday through Friday, that entire summer.
How old were you when you finally auditioned for Juilliard?
Can you point to a single moment where you knew your life had changed?
When did you become interested in Paul Taylor’s choreography?
After eight years dancing with Paul Taylor, I realized that I wanted to be like him. Taylor controls everything: he makes his own dances and works with dancers of his choosing. The year I left the company, I choreographed my first work. I was 35 years old. Two years later I founded TAKE Dance.
What is the major difference between baseball and dancing?
What has been your family’s reaction to your dance career?
Rachel Straus, MusicalAmerica.com’s dance critic, teaches dance history at The Juilliard School and writes program notes for the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival. Her more than 200 articles and reviews have been published in a wide variety of media. She holds an MFA from Purchase College Conservatory of Dance, and is working toward her PhD in Dance Studies at London’s Roehampton University.
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