Michelle Mishina's photos of Mark Kanemura in Los Angeles, CA
From touring with Lady Gaga to Insta-celebrity, choreographer Mark Kanemura dances to his own beat.
Text by Mitchell Kuga
Images by Michelle Mishina
When he was about 10 years old, dancer Mark Kanemura saved his allowance for months to buy a strobe light from Radio Shack. “I loved anything that would contribute to my theatrical vision,” Mark says over the phone from his Los Angeles apartment. “I really wanted a fog machine, but I don’t think I ever saved enough.”
The strobe light was for homespun productions of Broadway musicals that he and his younger sister, Marissa, performed in the living room of their ‘Aiea home. Their typical audience consisted of their parents, but that didn’t stop Mark from selling handmade merchandise—sequined cardboard magnets shaped like cat eyes—after their living-room production of Cats.
For their recreation of Phantom of The Opera, he remembers cutting out a cardboard chandelier and making it fall on top of Marissa’s head at the end of act one, “because that’s what happens in the show,” he explains.
I just knew I had to be involved in that world somehow.
More than 20 years later, in the summer of 2017, Mark reconnected with this childlike wonder via Instagram. He was crashing at a friend’s apartment in Los Angeles, heartbroken after the end of a long-term relationship, when he first heard Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Cut to the Feeling.” For 3 minutes and 28 seconds, the song made him feel “ridiculously happy.”
Like lip-synching-shirtless-in-your-friend’s-kitchen-while-wearing-a-blonde-wig-revealing-a-shock-of-red-confetti happy. He filmed with his iPhone doing exactly this before posting it on Instagram. The video went viral with nearly 100,000 views on his social media and landed on a segment of Entertainment Tonight.
A year later, to celebrate Pride month, he amplified the concept. Filmed in the West Hollywood bedroom of his new apartment, the weekly video series, dubbed #CutToTheFeelingFridays, approximated the sensation of a gay piñata bursting, unleashing a medley of wigs, balloons, confetti, and rainbow flags (which he repurposed into nearly every conceivable garment). In each stand-alone clip he choreographs these elements into a campy fantasia of precision.
To this day, Mark admits the process can be somewhat of a nightmare, a series of prop malfunctions, near injuries, and multiple takes that test the limits of his patience.
Most importantly, they’ve connected Mark to his 712,000 Instagram followers (as of this writing), giving them the permission to be as free and playful as the guy pulling a cloud of confetti out of his rainbow-striped Speedo.
Mark, who is 35 years old and describes his offline personality as “shy and introverted,” wasn’t a stranger to the spotlight. In 2008, he competed in the fourth season of Fox’s television franchise So You Think You Can Dance, and starting in 2009, he toured internationally with Lady Gaga’s The Monster Ball Tour.
Mark was born on O‘ahu to a family that indulged his flair for the theatrical, signing him up for classes at Hawaii Theater for Youth and taking him to Broadway shows at the Neal Blaisdell Center. “I just knew I had to be involved in that world somehow,” he says. “I didn’t know how exactly, but I knew that that was where I felt a lot of excitement.”
After graduating from Castle High School, where he immersed himself in the school’s illustrious theater program, Mark taught at Kāne‘ohe’s 24-7 Danceforce, a training ground for Hawai‘i’s top dancers.
Itching to break out of his comfort zone, he flew to Los Angeles on a whim when he was 24 to audition for So You Think You Can Dance. He remembers the jitters he felt waiting in line at 4 a.m. next to dancers who were more technically trained and further along in their careers.
“To this day, I think the reason I got on is I brought something that was a little different, a little unique,” he says. He describes his style of dance as a patchwork of his upbringing: the emphasis on ballet and modern at Mid Pacific Institute, where he attended middle school; the concentration on jazz and hip-hop at Castle; the shades of Polynesian he picked up from Tau Dance Theater; and his lifelong obsession with musicals.
“When I started choreographing, all those things sort of naturally blended together,” he says, “and created whatever it is that I do.”
Mark finished in the top six of the competition, but the exposure didn’t safeguard him from the uncertainties of life as an artist. “After the show, I moved to LA and was back auditioning with every other dancer that lives here,” he says. “If I’m being really honest, I remember there was a month or two where I was so broke that I was living off of cereal and ramen. I had a really hard time asking for help.”
Then a chance meeting with choreographers Laurieann Gibson and Richard Jackson landed Mark a dream gig: dancing in Lady Gaga’s 2009 performance at the MTV Video Music Awards, regarded as a turning point in her career.
His genre-melding dance style made him a natural fit for the singer, who was positioning herself as pop music’s avant enfant terrible. He toured with her for the next four years as a principal dancer and appeared in her “Telephone” music video.
“She fulfilled all my dreams of wanting to tour with an artist,” he says.
Today, Mark travels regularly to teach his choreography at dance conventions, dabbles in video work (he directed visual content for Selena Gomez’s tour), and occasionally models and acts. But he always budgets time for elaborate Instagram productions, inspired by that first one in his friend’s apartment, which allow him to tap into his inner child, the 10-year-old who made a cardboard chandelier.
“That’s my playtime,” he says. “When I’m not working, I make sure to do those videos because they bring me a lot of joy.”
“When I started choreographing, all those things sort of naturally blended together, and created whatever it is that I do.”
They’ve also brought Mark opportunities. In August 2018, Carly Rae Jepsen’s team invited him to perform “Cut to the Feeling” during her set at the San Francisco music festival Outside Lands.
A video taken by Marissa shows Mark sashaying on stage in a rainbow Speedo and cape before rhythmically snatching off each of his seven wigs and sending them soaring in high-arching lobs. The video is shaky with excitement, and over the roar of the audience, Marissa’s screams are ecstatic: “That’s my brotherrrrr!”
“To this day, there’s something about that video that makes me want to cry,” Mark says. “Because I grew up with a sister who never questioned me, she never called me any names, she was always just down for the ride—that encouraged my creativity. Being able to play and create as a child is why I am able to freely do that now.”