Making Moves with Juri Onuki
Photo by Wyndham Garnett

I met Juri Onuki and her husband Nick at a Mets game for Nico’s birthday a handful of years ago. We were having a casual, getting-to-know-each-other conversation when it slowly dawned on me that I was already familiar with Juri’s work as a choreographer and movement director. Her work has appeared in many music videos including Dev Hynes and Caroline Polachek, she’s choreoed for brand ads like Glossier and Ralph Lauren, and (in one of her projects that moved me to tears) she’s restaged the Blood Orange music video “Time Will Tell” for Luca Guadagnino’s miniseries We Are Who We Are with its two teenaged actors.

When I asked Juri if she’d be down to chat with me about her work as a dancer, she said, “I’m not a performing dancer anymore. I make dance,” which I thought was such a beautiful and succinct description of her evolved work. Ahead, Juri gets into aging, crunching numbers, workouts, having a low-key social media presence, and her obsession with tennis. —JL

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Aging as a dancer 
“I’m not a performing dancer anymore. I don’t audition. [Now I mostly focus on] movement direction. It’s been interesting for me to experience movement at this different stage in my life. When I take dance class, I’m not thinking about how to execute this movement perfectly. It’s not my goal anymore. It’s why I also love aging in a way. I never would have thought that in my 20s or early 30s. I never took it easy. I always pushed myself to 120%. I was that kind of person.

“But now, and it really shows in my weight lifting training, my coach would say, ‘Do you want to add a little more weight to the overhead press?’ and I’d say, ‘Nah. I’m fine. This is fine. Maybe I’m fine for another three weeks with this.’ I’m not going too crazy. I know my limit. Knowing my limit gives me so much freedom because I don’t have to go as hard or as far as I used to. When I take classes I can take more risks on the musicality. It’s a different mindset when I don’t have to dance to get myself ready to be in a performance.”

Word of mouth > large IG following
“I’ve worked with the same people many times on different projects. [I get my jobs through] word of mouth, definitely. I don’t have a big social media following so I don’t know how people find me but the truly successful people I see in New York are always getting work through word of mouth. I found my acupuncturist and my yoga teacher through word of mouth. My Pilates teacher doesn’t even have a website but she teaches everyone through word of mouth. I’m still in a community where word of mouth really matters.”

Working with non-dancers
“I sometimes work with experienced dancers, but most of the time I work with models, actors, musicians, people who aren’t dancers but want to incorporate movement into their projects. Working with non-professional dancers is why I like what I do. It’s really refreshing for me to work with non-dancers who find themselves in movement. I just want everyone to be who they are. Creating a good work environment is important. I’m so lucky that I’ve been a part of great production teams where everyone’s nice and nothing stupid happens. When someone’s not feeling good about themselves and the work, that’s the last thing I want. I want people I work with to feel free to move and explore or talk to me. I want to have that kind of openness.”

Taking care of the body
“Part of the reason I work out regularly is to manage my stress as well as my stamina and build the body that I can. I’m on a structured workout three times a week: one day of dance, like ballet; one day of Pilates; and one day of yoga. And I have biweekly strength training. I used to be able to work, take dance class, do rehearsal, then work part-time at a restaurant and I was able to juggle that for a long time. Now I don’t have that kind of stamina anymore and work feels more demanding when you’re standing all day on set or whatever. I want to have more physical balance to be on set one day and be okay about it the next day. [The other part is that] I’m a freelancer, so I have these activities that create structure for me. I set up a schedule around them and I think that helps.”

The on-set uniform
“I tend to wear all black. Black Solomon shoes. A black T-shirt. Black Carhartt pants. I don’t really dress fancy on set. I’m told I have an excellent vintage T-shirt collection. I have an Alien T-shirt that people love. The day I found the shirt, I watched Alien the night before, then went to a thrift store by chance, and my husband found it. I was like, ‘I got to get that.’ When I wear it on set it’s always a good conversation starter.”

That :’) scene from We Are Who We Are
“I’m really happy that people reacted so well to that scene. Luca’s assistant Jonah Sanchez, who’s also an amazing director, and I worked together for a week to restage the choreo. I’d never restaged any of my past work to something new before so it was an interesting experience for me to revisit old material. Also, the approach was different because the actors are in character so I wasn’t trying to bring out their actual personalities through the dance. So the question that the director was asking was, ‘What would Fraser would do? What would this character do?’ That inspired me to see the piece in a different way. Luca was shooting a different scene that day and he came to check on us. He saw the take at the end of the day and he said he loved it. It was definitely a career highlight. I’m a big fan of Luca anyway. Oh my god, Challengers. So good. So fun. My husband and I went to see it first thing in the morning on Monday.”

Non-dance obsessions
“I like cooking a lot. I’m doing a lacto-fermentation right now with the beets that I got from the CSA. I love watching Tour de France cycling because it’s about suffering but they do it anyway. They just basically eat carbs and sugar to get to what? A 200 kilometer race. But they do it because the high is so high. I love tennis. I go to the US Open every year. I personally root for Naomi Osaka. Oh, I love her. I like Taylor Fritz and his girlfriend Morgan. We got obsessed with them after watching Break Point. I think Taylor is a hard worker. Alcaraz is obviously a prodigy and has been good since he was 10. But Taylor’s worked hard to get where he is and my vote goes towards someone who works hard.”

Finding beauty in bookkeeping
“I do bookkeeping and I love it. Something about organizing someone’s finances is really rewarding. Bookkeeping is great for me to balance out my brain activities. It can be tedious but if you like spreadsheets, you’ll love it. I learned how to bookkeep by taking an online course. Then I ended up working for a bookkeeping company. Now that I’m freelancing, I’m bookkeeping on my own. I’m a lucky case because the business I’m helping is growing and that’s been rewarding for me. It’s fully remote and I can work wherever I am. I have a phone call here and there. Of course, I love the dance stuff, but having money gives you a sense of peace. Having a steady income on the side, it’s like why not? It’s a hard reality [living as an artist] because America doesn’t support art. There’s no safety net here. This country doesn’t even have universal healthcare.”