Michio Ito dressed for his 1927 piece "Tango"
In 1927, Japanese artist Michio Ito presented his solo work Tango to a New York City audience. Though he dressed the part of a tango dancer, it was not a strict representation of the form. An abstract piece, it was crafted with powerful, sweeping gestures with rhythmic footing. This was not Ito’s debut performance—he had been creating work and teaching class in New York for over 10 years and would remain a major dance figure in the U.S. until 1943.
In fact, Ito may be the most important modern dance pioneer you’ve never heard of. A prolific performer of the 1920s, he was also one of the first choreographers to develop a formal modern dance pedagogy. He set up a codified way to teach his aesthetic a decade before Martha Graham had systemized an approach to her style. Young dancers flocked to study with Ito on both American coasts, and his technique influenced dance legends, including Lester Horton and Luigi. But because of anti-Japanese sentiment after World War II, his accomplishments were buried and his contributions are often overlooked.
Born in Tokyo, Ito (1893–1961) came from an artistic family. At 19, he traveled to Paris to study opera. He was inspired to dance after seeing Isadora Duncan and Nijinsky perform, ignited by the idea that movement could forge a symbiotic relationship with music. So in 1912, Ito studied at the Dalcroze Institute in Dresden, Germany. (Initially a training ground for musicians, Dalcroze Eurhythmics teaches students to learn rhythms through movement.)
At the outbreak of World War I, Ito moved from Germany to London. He started performing informally in private salons, and those occasions quickly landed him more professional engagements in larger theaters.
A pivotal event was when he created the role of the Hawk in William Butler Yeats’ play At the Hawk’s Well. Inspired by Japanese Noh drama, Ito developed his abstract, elegant style, and following this performance, he received a contract to work in a large musical in New York. For the next 13 years, Ito taught in New York, gave recitals and worked on revues and musicals, such as The Mikado and Madame Butterfly.
Unlike later modern dance pioneers, like Graham, who stressed that their work was absolutely unique, Ito acknowledged the influence of the Dalcroze method. He also acknowledged that his style was a mix of ballet, acrobatic dancing and “Oriental dancing,” which he said trains the arms. In his method, Ito formulated two sets of 10 arm movements. He characterized them as masculine and feminine and students learned both versions while walking at a controlled pace depending on musical phrasing. One can see the influence of this arm series in Horton technique and the work of jazz teacher Luigi.
Ito advocated versatile training with a holistic approach nearly a century before his time. His method incorporated both somatic practices (emphasizing breath-initiated movement), as well as the more typical replication approach, where students mirror the actions of the instructor (like in a ballet class).
“Students trained in the Ito gestures learn specific movements that embody his personal aesthetic,” writes Mary-Jean Cowell, an Ito scholar and associate professor at Washington University in St. Louis. She notes that his pedagogy had evolved from the Denishawn eclectic and Duncan freeform style of training, though it wasn’t as comprehensive as Graham’s. "It didn’t deal with the legs and feet as much as the upper body,” says Cowell. “But I see it as a transition to the pedagogy techniques later developed by Graham and Horton."
In 1929, Ito’s company embarked on a cross-country tour, ending in Los Angeles, where he continued to teach leagues of dancers. While there, he worked on six films, including No, No, Nanette and Madame Butterfly. Though he was often cast as the primitive or the untrustworthy Asian, he withstood the disparaging cultural stereotype because the commercial work provided him with the means to develop his own choreography.
Despite rising anti-Japanese sentiment, his work was respected in California. Even so, when Pearl Harbor was bombed in 1941, Ito, along with thousands of Japanese nationals and Japanese Americans, was interned in New Mexico. In 1943, he chose to repatriate to Japan as part of a prisoner exchange. There, he was hired as the director of the Ernie Pyle Theater, producing revues for U.S. occupation troops. He established a dance school in Tokyo and began organizing the 1964 Olympic ceremonies. But his plans for the ceremonies were never carried out. He died suddenly in 1961. Ito’s Tokyo studio remained open for 15 years after his death, but closed when his family lost the lease. The Michio Ito Foundation (www.michioito.org) grew in its place.
Though Ito’s achievements are often unexplored in dance history overviews, his artistry is slowly gaining national attention. His work was first restaged in the late 1970s in New York by Japanese dancer Satoru Shimazaki, and students at the University of Washington and Washington University in St. Louis study his technique. In 2010, Utah’s Repertory Dance Theatre devoted an entire program, called Mystique, to Ito. (RDT first acquired some of his pieces in the 1990s, has since expanded its Ito repertory and often leads workshops in his style.)
"RDT makes a commitment to dance preservation, and Ito is a truly necessary component to early modern dance," says artistic director Linda Smith. “It’s tricky to place a historic work alongside a contemporary piece, but because it’s so different than what’s current, it almost looks new—there’s a freshness to it. His work is beautifully complemented by classical music, it’s lyrical—sometimes with a bite—and it’s short. Ito has real audience appeal.” DT
Caldwell, Helen. “Michio Ito.” International Encyclopedia of Dance.
Caldwell, Helen. Michio Ito: The Dancer and His Dances. University of California Press, 1977
Cowell, Mary-Jean and Satoru Shimazaki. “East and West in the Work of Michio Ito.” Dance Research Journal. Autumn 1994: 11-23
Cowell, Mary-Jean. “Michio Ito in Hollywood: Modes and Ironies of Ethnicity.” Dance Chronicle, 2001.
Prevots, Naima. Dancing in the Sun: Hollywood Choreographers, 1915-1937. 1987
Wong, Yutian. “Artistic Utopias: Michio Ito and the Trope of the International.” Worlding Dance. Ed. Susan Leigh Foster, 2009.
Booloo (1938). Directed by Clyde E. Elliott. Paramount Pictures, Inc. (Ito dances as the Sakai chief)
Michio Ito Repertory Dance Theater on Vimeo: http://vimeo.com/14008278
Facing West: Dance and Film (2005). A Kennedy Center presentation
Rachel Straus teaches dance history at The Juilliard School.
Photo courtesy of the Michio Ito Foundation.