Mufutau Yusuf is a Nigerian-Irish dancer, inspired by exploration of his own heritage, and by time spent training in the Austrian town of Salzburg. In his latest show, Òwe, which he’ll perform at Dublin Fringe this weekend, he explores these differing roots in an attempt, ultimately, to understand himself.
Ahead of the show, I talked to Yusuf about drawing together all teh differing strands that make up hiw show, and who he is today….
First of all, give me a little background on your new show, and how it came about?
Òwe is a solo work looking into my Yoruba identity, my root and my connection to my ancestors and heritage. Using archival materials to examine the various facets of this identity, the solo is an attempt to deconstruct a personal ontology, and reformulate it into a new body of knowledge, experience and perspective, and in a way embarking on a pilgrimage to communicate with my forefathers. This piece also intends to interrogate our conceptions about archives and to redefine the notion of archives and how we understand the workings of what is contained in them.
What can the Fringe audience expect?
I guess the audience can expect a dance performance using a varied movement expression, sounds and imagery to question ideas about identity, history, and traditions. It’s a personal, physical, and emotional piece that invites the audience to witness a journey of becoming.
What’s your dance style, and how do you use it on stage?
I was trained in contemporary dance but over the years I’ve tried developing my own movements language that incorporate quick and explosive physicality, emotional engagement and added with theatrical expressions.
There are obvious Nigerian influences in your work. Being raised in Ireland, how do you relate to your roots?
Paradoxically I feel both close to and far from my roots. The closeness comes from my relationship with my father, who is in a way my anchor. I still speak Yoruba with him, I hear stories from him, and he keeps me up to date with the current affairs in Nigeria. He always reminds me of the values of our people and raised me and my brother according to those values.
He also often relates stories of my childhood adventures growing up in Nigeria, making my heart swell and nostalgic and keeping those memories alive within me. And top of that I’ve also stayed connected myself through the food, music, books and of course I’m an avid consumer of Nollywood drama.
The distance I feel obviously comes from the fact that I was away from Nigeria for 20 years, only revisiting this year. This became more difficult to endure during my mid-twenties as I started to really question who I was and where I came from, despite having my father as a reference. Realising the gulf that existed between myself and my kins was jarring and I guess it’s what prompted me to make
Can you tell me about how you use the proverbs your dances are based on to inspire your work?
The piece isn’t exactly about proverbs, rather the proverbs were reference points in allowing me to understand what I wanted to communicate in different parts of the piece. I’m not particularly animating or physicalising the proverbs, but I use them to contextualise the movements or theatrical elements, as well as the imageries and sounds and set.
The piece is in a way segmentized into parts and each part could embody some of the proverbs that I collected in the process, and furthermore the whole show can be tied up into a single message that underlies a lot of Yoruba proverbs which is knowing thyself or becoming one with your ‘Ori’ (one’s intuition and destiny).
Is there a broader narrative to Òwe, and if so, what does it say?
On one hand the broader narrative is me trying to understand and unify the fragments of myself, getting closer to my roots and attempting to communicate with my ancestors, using everything I can find around me (in this case the various archives I have available to me). And on the other hand, I want to challenge the way we look at archive and what constitute them, and hoping to inspire others to reflect on their own self, the stories contained within and their roots.
I understand Òwe is multifaceted, in terms of bringing in different disciplines and concepts. How do you draw together, for example, sound and stage lighting, movement and style?
I think everything got tied together on the basis of what I was trying to communicate and how my collaborators understood this. I gave them freedom to experiment and the things that came out, I stringed together using my intuition and instinct. I had to trust what was manifesting and when something was not working, I either put it to the side and come back to it later or do without it altogether. And because I’m also using existing archival materials for sound and imagery and reworking them, I had to constantly readjust and reposition those materials in way to find what resonated and communicated with me.
What are the modern and contemporary elements of your work?
The contemporary elements exist through where I situate myself at this point in time, looking back into the past and making sense of what I observe with a more contemporary language and outlook. That also means approaching more traditional movements and expressions with a personal touch that is informed by my current experiences. As well, the digital element highlights the more modern aspect of the show, and it’s interesting how this weave with the traditional and ritualistic elements.
How has your education in Salzburg played into what you do today?
This period, I would say was my formative period. The school gave me so much and planted the seed for what I wanted to achieve as a dance artist, especially my last year there. The various techniques and approaches, and how the program was designed offered me more than I thought and it’s only after graduating that I realised the full extent of that. And that said, the people that I met along the way and what we shared was something truly special too.
What can we expect from you in the future?
I’m asking myself the same question, but hopefully something exciting.