For Yuki Tokuda, music is always the starting point for choreography.
"Some choreographers start with the movement first, before the music. But for me, the music is first," the Burnsville-based ballet dancer said. "I love dancing with live music because every time is a little bit different. So you have to really be with the music, otherwise you are going to be lost."
Tokuda's choreography is marked by grace and a keen sense of phrasing. Last weekend, her piece for Threads Dance Project brought an emotional punch to Bach's final movement of Partita No. 2 in D Minor, called "Chaconne." Transforming loss into release, her work found the shapes and breadth in Bach's achingly beautiful piece of music.
When choreographing pieces that she performs, Tokuda teams up with local classical musicians. Last year, it included the 10th Wave Chamber Music Collective, where she worked with Asian American composers, blending her ethereal movement with the contemporary classical sounds of the new music group.
She's also collaborated with Natsuki Kumagai, first violinist with the Minnesota Orchestra, on a site-specific performance that was presented outside Orchestra Hall, in the water feature of Peavey Plaza.
Tokuda has an ongoing partnership with pianist Rie Tanaka, called Mirage Performing Arts. They began working together in 2019 after a mutual friend introduced them. They found they had a lot to talk about arts, music and dance.
"We just clicked and starting doing our own stuff," Tokuda said.
Their latest work, "Iridescent Blue," features dance set to extremely difficult piano works, including Camille Saint-Saëns, Franz Liszt (from Schubert), Somei Satoh, Maurice Ravel and George Gershwin.
After performing it Saturday at Hamline University, Tokuda and Tanaka head to Japan for performances in Shiga and Osaka, their respective hometowns.
"I feel like this opportunity of performing in Japan is a gift," Tokuda said.
Neither of them have been back since before COVID-19 hit the world two years ago, so it will be a bit of a homecoming.
Tokuda said her parents haven't seen her dance since she became a professional dancer. In fact, her parents were surprised she made that her career. Born with asthma, she wasn't active as a child and spent a lot of time in the hospital. But her love of dance helped her persevere. At 20, she moved to New York to study ballet.
Her years in New York were tough. She was under pressure to find a job so she could obtain a working visa, but competition in the city was fierce. Finally, she landed a job in Bloomington, Ill., with a small touring company called USA Ballet.
"It was nice that we had a lot of performance opportunity," she recalled.
Then she got a job with Continental Ballet Company in Bloomington, Minn., and danced title roles. But for two of her seven years with the company, a foot injury prevented her from dancing. So she turned to learn about lighting and other backstage skills, which she now uses in her choreography.
"I just explored what I can do with an injured foot and still keep creating," she said. Also, music, especially classical music, helped in her healing. "So I started listening and then figuring out my own movement."
For Saturday's performance of "Iridescent Blue," Tokuda and Tanaka wanted to bring out the power of music through movement throughout the piece. They exchanged a lot of ideas to find ways to bring the music to life.
Tokuda likens the "Iridescent" play list to a French meal, complete with an appetizer, main course and dessert. Tanaka wanted to feature Ravel's "Gaspard de la Nuit," which Tokuda said is "a super hard piece for piano."
When they previously worked on another Ravel piece, "Miroirs," it was Tanaka's job to mark up the score and explain what was happening with the music. Since Tokuda was able to read music, she used the marked-up score as a starting point for her choreography.
It helped that Tokuda learned piano as a child, starting when she was 3 years old. "I don't play well now, but I love listening to it," she said.
Their communication via score notes means Tokuda is intimately aware of what the notes mean for Tanaka.
"I know when the moment is coming, and I have to be really open to it," Tokuda said.
The collaboration has also opened her up to thinking about how music takes place in physical form and time. Besides writing notes in the score about what she is thinking, Tanaka will sometimes use her own body to express her thoughts about the composer's intentions.
Tokuda "refines that and puts it in her body. I am able to think about music in a gestural way," Tanaka said. "It has been a great experience for me as a musician, teacher and scholar."
Even as she pursues her choreographic voice, she continues to broaden her scope as a dancer. Later this year, she plans to perform works by Valerie Oliveiro and Helen Hatch, a new flamenco piece as well as outdoor performances with Tanaka and Kumagai.
Through all of it, she wants to acknowledge the music and find ways to express it with bodies in space.
When: 7 p.m. Sat.
Where: Sundin Music Hall at Hamline University, 1531 Hewitt Av., St. Paul.
Cost: $10-$20, www.yukitokuda.com/mirage-performing-arts.