Michio Ito

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

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES:

Books/Articles:

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. 

Films:

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.

Dancer Diary
Claire, McAdams, courtesy Houston Ballet

Former Houston Ballet dancer Chun Wai Chan has always been destined for New York City Ballet.

While competing at Prix de Lausanne in 2010, he was offered summer program scholarships at both the School of American Ballet and Houston Ballet. However, because two of the competition's winners that year were Houston Ballet's Aaron Sharratt and Liao Xiang, dancers Chan idolized, he turned down SAB. He joined Houston Ballet II in 2010, the main company's corps de ballet in 2012, and was promoted to principal in 2017. Oozing confidence and technical prowess, Chan was a Houston favorite, and even landed himself a spot on Dance Magazine's "25 to Watch."


In 2019, NYCB came calling: Resident choreographer Justin Peck visited Houston Ballet to set a new work titled Reflections. Peck immediately took to Chan and passed his praises on to NYCB artistic director Jonathan Stafford. Chan was invited to take class with NYCB for three days in January 2020, and shortly thereafter was offered a soloist contract.

The plan was to announce his hiring in the spring for the fall season that typically begins in September, but, of course, coronavirus postponed the opportunity to next year. Chan is currently riding out the pandemic in Huizhou, Guangdong, China, where he was born and trained at the Guangzhou Art School.

We talked to Chan about his training journey—and the teachers, corrections and experiences that got him to NYCB.

On the most helpful correction he's ever gotten:

"Work smart, then work hard to keep your body healthy. Most of us get injuries when we're tired. When I first joined Houston Ballet, I was pushing myself 100 percent every day, at every show, rehearsal and class. That's when I got injured [a torn thumb ligament, tendinitis and a sprained ankle.] At that time, my director taught me that we all have to work hard, memorize the steps and take corrections, but it's better to think first because your energy is limited."

How it's benefited his career since:

"It's the secret to me getting promoted to principal very quickly. When other dancers were injured or couldn't perform, I was healthy and could step up to fill a higher role than my position. I still get small injuries, but I know how to take care of them now, and when it's OK to gamble a little."

Chan, wearing grey pants and a grey one-sleeved top, partners Jessica Collado, as she arches her back and leans to the side. Other dancers behind them are dressed as an army of some sort

Chun Wai Chan with Jessica Collado. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, courtesy Houston Ballet

On his most influential teacher:

"Claudio Muñoz, from Houston Ballet Academy. The first summer intensive there I couldn't even lift the lightest girls. A month later, my pas de deux skills improved so much. I never imagined I could lift a girl so many times. A year later I could do all the tricky pas tricks. That's all because of Claudio. He also taught me how to dance in contemporary, and act all kinds of characters."

How he gained strength for partnering:

"I did a lot of push-ups. Claudio recommended dancers go to the gym. We don't have those kinds of traditions in China, but after Houston Ballet, going to the gym has become a habit."

On his YouTube channel:

"I started a YouTube channel, where I could give ballet tutorials. Many male students only have female teachers, and they are missing out on the guy's perspective on jumps and partnering. I give those tips online because they are what I would have wanted. My goal is to help students have strong technique so they are able to enjoy the stage as much as they can."

Music
Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.


"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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