In recognition of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month (AANHPI), Grand Rapids Ballet continues to celebrate our dancers from within AANHPI communities.
Company dancer Yuka Oba-Muschiana, who has been with Grand Rapids Ballet for 10 seasons, shared a glimpse into her background growing up and what moved her to begin a professional career in ballet. She comes from a hard-working family, her father worked in the construction industry building homes in her hometown of Fukushima, Japan while her mother also stayed on her toes, raising two daughters, both with big ambitions. Yuka, spent many hours of her young life honing her skills on-stage, and her sister, Marina, aspired to become a Geisha; both sisters accomplishing their hefty goals.
Oba-Muschiana shared that from an early age, her parents instilled a strong work ethic within her. She did not originally set out to become a professional ballerina but was always drawn to becoming an artist of some kind. “I always saw that as so cool,” she shared. “I wanted to spend my life doing something I love.” Her mother signed her up for her first-ever ballet lesson at age six so she could begin exercising and learning how to care for her body. She transitioned to more advanced training a few years later, around age 10. “I started a little later in life than other dancers,” she laughed.
Furthering her training, Yuka began participating in competitions across Japan, knowing that ultimately, she would have to leave her country to secure a job in the future. In 2006, she began that transition, moving to the United Kingdom to study at the English National Ballet School. Reflecting on this time, she recalls traveling to the UK for the audition and being awed by the city’s beauty. “It was like everything came out of a movie,” she said.
The scenery wasn’t the only thing that she recalls vividly, there also was a culture shock that she had to adjust to in moving to another country and being exposed to a new language. She studied English in high school but experiencing it in person was a different experience. Communication aside, another jarring experience was adjusting to the food. “One of the hardest things I had to get used to was the food,” she said. “I never cooked for myself in Japan, so that was all new.”
Upon graduating from the English National Ballet School, Yuka was invited to join the Slovak National Ballet in Bratislava, Slovakia. During that time, Oba-Muschiana performed a variety of classical and contemporary ballets, ultimately leading her to receive an offer from Patricia Barker, former Grand Rapids Ballet artistic director, to move to the United States to join the company. Due to unforeseen circumstances obtaining employment authorization, she had to wait one year before moving to the US.
During that time, she moved back home to Japan where she trained intensely and prepared for another international move. Oba-Muschiana shared that she was more prepared to move this time around with years of travel under her belt and having already lived in other countries. What she was not prepared for upon her arrival in the states was readjusting to an American accent versus the British accent she grew accustomed to while living in the UK. “I practiced my accent at home with my roommates,” she laughed.
That type of support, in addition to the support of other company dancers, helped ease the transition further. “I immediately felt like the company was my second home because I saw everyone at the company almost daily, and we worked really closely and we support each other so much,” she shared.
During her 10 seasons with Grand Rapids Ballet, Yuka has performed a variety of principal roles and has graced the stage as a soloist and within the corps de ballet. Among her favorite roles, she enjoyed dancing Aurora from “Sleeping Beauty.” “That was my dream, so it was a big moment for me,” she said. She also has stretched her creative muscles further, choreographing ballets for Jumpstart. One of her favorite choreographic works, “Eriha,” was inspired by her sister’s story of becoming a Geisha.
Drawing further from her family’s work ethic, she shared that her attention to detail and ability to work hard has always helped her onstage. “We are here to make a magical moment on the stage,” she explained. “We are here for you to escape and we work very hard to the moment.”
And her hard work and dedication are apparent. “Yuka is one of those dancers who can really do it all,” said James Sofranko, artistic director at Grand Rapids Ballet. “For instance, she can easily shift between the Sugar Plum Fairy in ‘The Nutcracker,’ the lead role in Alejandro Cerrudo’s contemporary ‘Extremely Close,’ and Danielle Rowe’s emotional duet ‘For Pixie.’”
Adding to her ability to transition between roles, Yuka shared that she loves dancing any Balanchine works, portraying classical ballets, while also extending into contemporary works like “Extremely Close.” Whichever ballet she is working on, Yuka shared that her ultimate goal is to give everything to that moment, and doing so makes her feel alive.
“I know that Yuka will give each role 100% effort, putting attention into every detail, character, phrasing, and expression,” said Sofranko. “When we found ourselves down a dancer for the filming of our ‘Nutcracker Experience,’ Yuka jumped into the corps de ballet role in Waltz of the Flowers without hesitation and saved the day with a smile on her face.”
Looking ahead to the upcoming season, Oba-Muschiana shared her excitement to return to performing for a live audience. “We train our whole lives for so many hours and we only show the audience a few minutes,” she explained. “We bloom on stage for such a short time, and I focus on how I can make them smile. It’s always about the audience, so please come see us,” she exclaimed.
Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month takes place annually throughout May and aims to recognize the contributions and influence of Asian Americans and Pacific Islander Americans to the history, culture, and achievements of the United States.