Known as the “forgotten pioneer of modern dance,” Michio Ito was the most daring and arguably the most versatile of his peers. Born in 1893, he left his native Japan as a teenager to pursue an artistic career in music in Europe, and then America. Here he began a career as a dancer-choreographer, a teacher, a stage director, a designer of costumes, lights, sets and posters, a film actor and consultant. From 1916 to 1941, first in New York and then in California, he became recognized as a prominent figure in the emerging world of an American art dance distinct from ballet. When America entered World War II, Ito was interned as an enemy agent and returned to Japan as part of a prisoner exchange. He never returned to the United States, but continued to choreograph and run a dance studio in Japan until his death in 1961. His themes and movements sometimes evoked “the Orient,” especially in his early years, but he was essentially a modern artist. His dancing, choreography and teaching method embodied a contemporary, individual vision of dance rather than a collectively formed traditional or classical mode of expression. The racism of the era sometimes affected perception of Ito’s work as well as his job opportunities and his personal life, yet he consistently asserted the potential of dance, and of art in general, to promote balance and harmony in the individual, in society, and in international relations.
Pictured left: Portrait of Michio Ito by Toto Miyatake, taken in 1929 when Ito had recently relocated his multi-racial company to Los Angeles. Mary Jean-Cowell writes: "While Ito was warmly received by Californians with similar interests in the arts and utopian ideals, he encountered much more anti-Asian racism on the West Coast."(Photograph courtesy the Toyo Miyatake Studio) Toyo Miyatake (1895-1979) gained renown as a pioneering Japanese American photographer in Los Angeles. He met Ito in 1929 and became his official photographer. With the outbreak of WWII, he and his family were sent to Manzanar War Relocation Center in California. He smuggled in a lens and film holder then built a camera. Those images are the finest documentation of the internment camp experience.
Pictured above: Michio Ito School Brochure (1919), a gift from David Pacun to the Michio Ito Foundation. Ito had begun teaching his own classes in 1919, well before Graham left the Denishawn company and began developing a personal technique. He felt that dance would benefit everyone because it created a mind-body balance, an integration now associated with somatic practices like yoga and Alexander technique. In a brochure for his school, Michio describes his classes as embracing "the ballet, which trains the legs; acrobatic dancing, which trains the body; Oriental dancing, which trains the arms; and Dalcroze Eurhythmics, which develops the brain control of all three."
Pictured left: Michio Ito performs Pizzicati. Mary Jean Cowell writes, "In an exception to his ensemble choreography for such venues, Ito performed in the Rose Bowl a signature solo work, Shadow Dance (Pizzicati), with flood lights casting his enormous shadow on a forty-foot-tall gold screen. The ecstatic audience demanded an immediate encore." (Photograph courtesy the Toyo Miyatake Studio)
Pictured above (right): Michio Ito’s Blue Danube, Hollywood Bowl. "Ito rapidly became a well-known dance artist through his large scale choreography for outdoor venues such as the Pasadena Rose Bowl and the Hollywood Bowl," writes Mary Jean Cowell. "Michio met the challenges of presenting dance in a huge setting designed for an orchestra and an audience of up to twenty thousand by using the space in unconventional ways, by costuming the dancers in brightly colored and somewhat bulky costumes (to make them more visible), and by innovative lighting." (Photograph courtesy the Toyo Miyatake Studio)
The Michio Ito online exhibition is curated by Bonnie Oda Homsey, who is also the Production Director and Executive Producer of Michio Ito: Pioneering Dancer-Choreographer. The short documentarytraces Ito’s journey from Japan to Europe to America, from success to reversal and obscurity and finally to re-discovery, through interviews and footage of Ito’s solos reconstructed and performed by American Repertory Dance Company in 1998. To view the trailer, click here http://www.ladancefoundation.org/#!michio-ito-documentary/c1f1d or purchase from http://www.amazon.com/Michio-Ito-Pioneering-Dancer-Choreographer/dp/B00HO13FF0
John Flynn is the Producer and Editor. Interviews are with Michele Ito, Barbara Perry, Mary Jean Cowell and Nobuko Miyamoto. Performance footage features Janet Eilber, Risa Steinberg, Nancy Colahan and Bonnie Oda Homsey.