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Ito, Michiolocked

(13 April 1892–06 November 1961)
  • Naima Prevots

Michio Ito, c. 1916–1921.

Photograph by Arnold Genthe.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-G432-1577-B-002).

Ito, Michio (13 April 1892–06 November 1961), choreographer, performer, and teacher, was born in Tokyo, the son of Tamekichi Ito, an architect, friend of Frank Lloyd Wright, and the first Japanese to graduate from the University of California, and Kimiye Iijima, the daughter of a zoologist. As a youth in Japan Michio had a close association with Noh, the traditional, stylized lyric drama of Japan, and also received training in the popular theatrical form, kabuki. In 1911 he traveled to Paris and Berlin where he saw Isadora Duncan and the Diaghilev Ballets Russes and became interested in dance. Starting in 1912–1913 he was a student at the Dalcroze School in Hellerau, Germany, where he pursued interests in music and rhythmic movement, but at the outbreak of World War I he left Germany and stayed in England for two years. There he began developing his abilities as a solo dance performer/choreographer, appearing along with other acts for a two-week engagement in 1915 at the Coliseum and at private parties and theater benefits. It was in London at the same time that he met and worked with William Butler Yeats and Ezra Pound and helped Yeats to produce his play At the Hawk’s Well, based on Noh drama. For Ito the production in spring 1916 was integral to his search for ways of combining Eastern theater techniques, which emphasized symbolic illusion, with what he had learned in the West about movement, music, lighting, costuming, and choreography.

Ito was offered a contract to appear in a New York theater and arrived in fall 1916. Although the initial contract was not to his liking and was canceled almost immediately, Ito was to spend thirteen years in New York, involved in numerous dance and theater activities as a performer, teacher, choreographer, and director. Among the highlights of his varied activities, he was choreographer and scenic designer for Bushido with the Washington Square Players (1916); created two works for Adolph Bolm’s Ballets-Intime and toured with that company (1917); produced and directed At the Hawk’s Well (1918); directed and created two productions of Tamura, with Noh translation by Ernest Fenollosa and Ezra Pound (1917, 1921); and produced and directed three musical reviews—Greenwich Village Follies (1919), What’s in a Name (1920), and Michio Itow’s Pinwheel Revel (1922). In 1928 he choreographed for the experimental Neighborhood Playhouse group, using fellow dance artists Martha Graham and Benjamin Zemach; the group performed at the Manhattan Opera House and the Neighborhood Playhouse.

Although versatile and able to work in a variety of capacities in the performing arts, Ito was mainly interested in dance. Here his emphasis was on distillation of emotion, inner concentration, and symbolic use of gesture and space, which were influential directions for others to explore in the ferment of artistic experimentation that was going on during the years 1916 through 1929 in New York. Pauline Koner, who went on to become a major dance artist, studied and performed with Ito in 1928–1929 and noted in her autobiography, Solitary Song, that “Ito’s premise was the blending of Eastern and Western cultures … a style that could express emotions motivated by the kernel of an idea. Most of his works demanded absolute concentration and a filtering of all naturalism from an emotion… . It had the purity and the clarity of a single brush stroke in a Japanese painting and at the same time it was like a modern painting influenced by the Japanese style.” The dance critic John Martin wrote in 1936, “Of all the foreign artists who have been active here in recent times, none has had so direct an effect upon dance as Michio Ito” (America Dancing, p. 170).

It was in New York that Ito began developing a teaching methodology that emphasized training the body for economy of movement, conciseness of statement, and mysteriousness of mood. His technique was based on ten arm gestures, used with numerous variations of context, rhythm, space, and energy, which he combined in many ways. He felt that the upper body and movements of the arms and head were the important communicating mechanisms; movements of the lower body were auxiliary and would follow the direction and intent of upper-body gestures. Ito wanted to train dancers who would have the ability to express their own feelings and ideas; he wrote in a program note, “When the technique of any art form is mastered, it is possible to express the inner life. Everyone has his own individual feeling and mode of expression, therefore the dance should be a creation not an imitation.”

In 1928 Ito put together a small concert group of six dancers who had studied with him, in preparation for a performance in New York, followed by a national tour. Ito’s wife, American-born Hazel Wright (they married in 1924 and divorced in 1936), was one of the dancers and brought along their two children. Among the cities on the tour were Detroit, Chicago, Kansas City, El Paso, San Francisco, Seattle, and Los Angeles, where Ito decided to stay after disbanding the company in March 1929 for lack of funds. He made his Los Angeles debut in a performance on 28 April 1929 at the Figueroa Playhouse, and then began teaching. Among his first students was Lester Horton, soon to become one of the foremost choreographers in Los Angeles and chosen by Ito to play the lead in his production that summer of At the Hawk’s Well. It was also in 1929 that Ito did choreography for a sequence in the movie No, No, Nanette (released 1930). He later worked on two other movies: Madame Butterfly (1933) and Booloo (1938).

In Los Angeles Ito’s work took on a new dimension. His choreography in the city was characterized by large group dances accompanied by live orchestra, which he called “symphonic choreographies.” The first was presented on 20 September 1929 in the Pasadena Rose Bowl, with 180 dancers, symphony orchestra, and a chorus, followed by appearances in 1930 at the Hollywood Bowl and in 1936 at the Redlands Bowl. The most important took place at the Hollywood Bowl on 19 August 1937 when he presented a large group work to Johann Strauss’s “Blue Danube Waltz” and Etenraku, based on Japanese forms but using Western ideas of use of space and forms of movement. For Etenraku Ito took a stanza from a sixteenth-century Noh play as a basis for the dance; the Japanese conductor Viscount Hidemaro Konoye led the musicians in his contemporary orchestration of eighth-century Gagaku music.

In 1940 Ito married a woman by the name of Tsuyako. He lived in Los Angeles until 1941, when he was evacuated from the West Coast after Pearl Harbor along with the rest of the Japanese community. In 1943 he was allowed to return to Japan, where he was active in theater and dance and resumed teaching. He occasionally returned to the United States, the last time in 1959, and died in Tokyo.

Ryuko Maki, one of Ito’s students, kept alive his repertory and training methods, passing them on to Satoru Shimazaki, a Japanese contemporary choreographer/performer. When Shimazaki came to New York to study in the 1970s he began presenting Ito’s work in concert, and did so through the 1980s. In 1977 Helen Caldwell, a Los Angeles student of Ito’s, published a biography and in 1987 Naima Prevots published Dancing in the Sun, which includes a chapter on Ito.

The documentation and live performances reinforced Ito’s importance as an original artist who influenced modern dance in America. He brought to this country from his Japanese heritage the concept of evoking an emotional quality through suggestive gesture and understated movement. In his teaching and choreography he emphasized the value of abstracting the essence of an image or feeling through intensive use of torso, hands, and strongly defined body shape. For Ito, each movement carried its own weight and significance and the poetry of dance consisted in clarity of the individual minute components. He regarded time as a companion in his journey for expression, an element that was to be savored and caressed allowing for contemplative exchange of images between audience and performer.

Bibliography

Helen Caldwell, Michio Ito, the Dancer and His Dances (1977), remains the only full biography although Pauline Koner in Solitary Song (1989) devotes a chapter to her experiences of working with Ito and Janet Soares in Louis Horst: Musician in a Dancer’s World (1992) discusses Horst’s training with him. The summary of a lecture-demonstration on Ito exists in the Proceedings of the Twelfth Annual Conference of the Society of Dance History Scholars (1989), pp. 155–56: “East and West in the Work of Michio Ito,” by Satoru Shimazaki and Mary-Jean Cowell.