Picture a crowd of young dancers thrown into a carpeted convention hall with mostly strangers and handed a jam-packed schedule with few breaks. They’re asked to “have fun” while rapidly replicating movement sequences by teachers and choreographers with reputations as intimidating as the difficult choreography, all while surrounded by some of the best (and most social media savvy) dancers the region has to offer.
That’s the pressure-filled environment of large dance conventions, an experience and ultimate test of adaptability that Canadian dancer, Keanu Uchida knows well.
“I think that part of the challenge of dancing at a convention is surpassing these barriers and internalizing your growth,” reflects Uchida. “You train to be a sponge of absorption, learning from what you excel at and even more from what you don’t.”
Starting at age 13, Uchida would regularly travel over 200 miles (350 kilometers) from Ottawa to Toronto to dance alongside Canada’s strongest dancers. He remembers the events feeling incredibly daunting at first but acknowledges how this background has benefitted and prepared him for a professional career in dance.
“Much dancing at conventions is incredibly athletic and requires strong ownership and fearlessness,” he says. “Physically, you grow a thick skin. You push through the strain and from it, you become stronger.”
It is a type of rigor Uchida has continued to develop in his professional work. Last year, after a thorough audition process with choreographer, Stacey Tookey (known best for her guest appearances as choreographer and judge on the TV series So You Think You Can Dance), he was cast in the lead role of a new musical theater production called Dancer. Mounted by two of Canada’s premiere producers, Marlene Smith and John McKellar, the show is set to debut in Spring 2017 at Toronto’s Elgin Theatre, one of Canada’s most revered performance locations.
The workshop phase of Dancer was a three-week period of intense creation, during which the goal was to artistically draft as much of the written script as possible. Rehearsals were held for eight hours nearly every day, requiring considerable physical and mental endurance from Uchida as he dug into the creative process with the artistic team.
Uchida’s former teacher, Jessica Shaw of Leeming Danceworks fosters supportive and caring relationships with her students while cultivating their connections to the greater world of dance. She believes the culture of competition and conventions advanced Uchida’s already strong work ethic while also exposing him to styles and genres of dance outside of his normal dance sphere.
“I think Keanu was very inspired by these opportunities and they contributed to the creation of his own style,” she explains.
Observing that dance today no longer trickles into distinct genres, Uchida acknowledges that dancers may be required to deliver a solid performance with elements of hip-hop, contemporary, and jazz dance in a single performance. If a dancer is versatile he can be part of many of the industry’s tributaries.
While some dancers perform well in their genre or when playing to certain strengths within a style of dance, they lack the technical dexterity to properly carry out a wider range of given choreography. Uchida, however is a dancer valued for his versatility and ability to trickle into many channels for dance.
“I think that as a choreographer you want someone who inspires you to push your limits. Keanu is so versatile and so smart he can literally do anything,” says Nick Lazzarini, star of television series, All The Right Moves and co-founder of Los Angeles dance company, Shaping Sound.
Lazzarini has worked repeatedly with Uchida at JUMP Dance Convention, the largest event of its kind in the world. In 2014, Uchida competed in New York City against hundreds of regional convention winners.
“The week consisted of a heavy audition process, opening number rehearsal and solo performance,” he says. “I was competing in the Senior Male category, and didn’t expect to have a chance.”
In fact, Uchida was awarded the prestigious title of Senior Male Best Dancer.
“What I love about Keanu’s dancing is the risks and choices he takes,” explains Lazzarini, who goes on to describe Uchida’s unique ability to differentiate himself in a crowded dance community by always pushing to be better and more creative than before.
Shaw agrees, revealing that in addition to his athleticism and skill at making movement look effortless and fluid, Uchida, is also a smart dancer whose brain is “always working.”
“I think it’s transitions that really set him apart,” she points out. “He just makes good choices–uses space, pays attention to detail and takes risks where appropriate.”
In addition to his experiences away from home, Uchida expresses great appreciation for the tools with which he was supplied in regular training at his studio. In particular, he mentions the value of exploration in improvisational movement and repeated encouragement to find his voice as an artist.
“Improvisation taught me to dig past the surface of dance, to be an honest explorer, ready for the truths and deceptions that we look past everyday as humans. I’ve learned to incorporate that into my career,” he adds. “I’m always seeking something new to dwell upon, interpreting choreography from a different lens.”
Uchida’s social personality worked in his favor as he built relationships with fellow dancers and choreographers against the backdrop of international dance conventions and competitions.
“I’ve met some of the best dancers, teachers and choreographers from across North America and have been able to work with what I consider to be the best convention faculty known,” he explains.
In dance, a world where there is such a thing as being not good enough due to an overwhelming amount of talent, Uchida is setting himself apart. Making the most of his training and history with dance conventions as he takes leaps and bounds forward in a new but flourishing dance career, he illustrates their effectiveness as a boot camp for professionalism and success.