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.

The Conversation
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo by Quinn Wharton, courtesy of Forance

While Teddy Forance admits that performing with commercial artists like Lady Gaga and Madonna, and in front of 30,000 people, is exhilarating, he is personally drawn to more abstract music when he choreographs. It's a preference that sometimes confounds his contemporaries. "Some of my friends will ask, 'How do you choreograph to music that sounds like silverware fighting?'" he says. "I just tell them one sound at a time," he says.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Dance Teacher Web
Courtesy Dance Teacher Web

Dance students aren't the only ones who get to spend their summers learning new skills and refining their dance practice. Studio owners and administrators can also use the summer months to scope out new curriculum ideas, learn the latest business strategies and even earn a certification or two.

At Dance Teacher Web's Conference and Expo, attendees will spend July 29–August 1 in Las Vegas, Nevada learning everything from new teaching methods to studio management software. And as if the dance and business seminars weren't enough, participants can also choose from three certifications to earn during the conference to help expand their expertise, generate new revenue and set their studios apart:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Via YouTube

The celebration of tap dance legend Bill "Bojangles" Robinson's birthday comes each year May 25, and the dance world goes wild for it! Since 1989 the day has been celebrated by tap lovers everywhere through music, movement and festivals.

Interested in joining the party this year? Here's one special way to celebrate NTDD in 2019.

Keep reading... Show less
David Galindo Photography

New York City is a dream destination for many dancers. However aspiring Broadway stars don't have to wait until they're pros to experience all the city has to offer. With Dance the World Broadway, students can get a taste of the Big Apple—plus hone their dance skills and make lasting memories.

Here's why Dance the World Broadway is the best way for students to experience NYC:

Keep reading... Show less
To Share With Students

Dance Teacher 2014 K–12 public-school education award recipient, Joan Sheary, is starring in a new documentary, Toe the Line: Arts Education for Life. The film, which is currently wrapping 10 years of filming, follows a group of high school students as they participate in a public arts magnet middle school program in Worcester, Massachusetts, under the direction of dance teacher and former Rockette, Sheary.

Through the eyes of the students, the audience has the opportunity to see the value of arts education in action. The film shows students as they navigate daily practice, grueling workouts, competition, bullying, peer pressure and complex home dynamics, all culminating in the school's year-end performances.

"We have filmed for a total of 450 hours over a 10-year period," director Barbara Copithorne says. "The result is Toe the Line: Arts Education for Life—a 76-minute documentary about Joan Sheary, the origin and breadth of the program she created, the students' lives she's touched and a city that supports the arts."

As the film creeps toward festival submissions, the creators are reaching out to the dance community to raise funds for its release. You can contribute here.

Sheary's success as a teacher was celebrated at our yearly Dance Teacher Award presentation in 2014. To participate in this year's DT Awards, join us at The Dance Teacher Summit in Long Beach, California. Follow the link to get more information on registration, class schedules and events.

Dance Teachers Trending
Photo by Julianna D. Photography, courtesy of Abreu

Although Rudy Abreu is currently JLo's backup dancer and an award-winning choreographer—his piece "Pray" tied for second runner-up at the 2018 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and a variation of the piece made it to the finals on NBC's "World of Dance"—he still finds time to teach. Especially about how he hears music.

Keep reading... Show less
Getty Images

Q: Our dancers' parents want to observe class, but students won't focus if I let them in the room. I've tried having them observe the last 10 minutes of class, but even that can be disruptive and bring the dancers' progress to a halt. Do you have any advice on how to handle this?

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

James Payne, director of The School of Pennsylvania Ballet, starts class each day by asking students how they feel. "If they're collectively hurting, and I know that the day before they were working hard on something new, I might lessen the intensity of the class," he says. "I won't slow it down, though. Sometimes it's better to move through the aches and get to the other side."

A productive class depends, in part, on how well it is paced. If you move too slow, you risk losing students' interest and creating unwanted heaviness. Move too fast and dancers might not fully benefit from combinations or get sufficiently warm, increasing their risk of injury. But even these guidelines may differ depending on the students' age and level. Good pacing is a delicate balance that can facilitate mental and physical growth, but it requires good planning, close observation and the ability to adapt mid-class.

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

Running your own studio often comes with a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality. After all, you're the one who teaches class, creates choreography, collects tuition, plans a recital, calls parents, answers e-mails, orders costumes—plus a host of other tasks, some of which you probably don't even think about. But what if you had someone to help you, someone who could take certain routine or clerical tasks off your hands, freeing you up to focus on what you love?

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Derek and Julianne Hough via @juleshough on Instagram

Here at Dance Teacher, we LOVE a talented dance family. Something about parents and siblings passing their passion for dance down to those who come after them just warms our hearts.

While there are many sets of talented siblings across all genres of dance, ballroom seems to be particularly booming with them.

Don't believe us? Check out these four sets of ballrooms siblings we can't take our eyes off of. Their parents have raised them right!

This is far from a comprehensive list, so feel free to share your favorite sets of dance siblings over in our comments!

Keep reading... Show less
Courtesy of Roxey Ballet

This weekend, Roxey Ballet presented a sensory-friendly production of Cinderella at the Kendell Main Stage Theater in Ewing, New Jersey, with sound adjustments, a relaxed house environment and volunteers present to assist audience members with special needs. The production came on the heels of three educational residencies held at New Jersey–based elementary schools in honor of Autism Awareness Month in April.

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox