When Ballet San Jose Silicon Valley decided to include Martha Graham’s masterpiece Appalachian Spring for its 2003-2004 season, Artistic Director Dennis Nahat invited Yuriko to set the work.
She was an obvious choice. Having danced with the Martha Graham Company for more than two decades, Yuriko, 83, was an original cast member of Appalachian Spring. She traveled with the company in the summer of 1943 to Bennington College, a hotbed for dance innovation, where Graham choreographed the piece to music Aaron Copeland composed especially for her.
Now Yuriko gazes at the rehearsal studio and recalls, “The studio at Bennington looked a lot like this, with the small balcony overhead to watch the dancers.”
Conceived on the eve of World War II, Appalachian Spring conveys the uncertainty and anxiety of that time, expressed through the story of a 19th century Quaker bride and groom. A preacher and a pioneer woman warn the couple that their future is certain to be as bleak as it will be bright.
Appalachian Spring also represents Graham’s conflicting emotions, Yuriko says. “Martha Graham was at that time deeply in love with Eric Hawkins and, for the first time in her life, she was very happy. She was contemplating marriage, but of course she had many questions: What would marriage do to my career? Do I want a baby? Would he try and control me?
“Instead of sharing her personal story, she put it on this Quaker community, which had these restrictions placed on them. Her restriction was another kind of restriction. There was a whole sense that she might get choked by marriage.”
Yuriko was never so contemplative. She just did whatever needed to be done. Born in San Jose, Calif., in 1920, she started taking ballet and Japanese dance classes spurred by her mother, an aspiring opera singer. At 10, she and her family moved back to Japan, where she studied seiyo buyo (foreign dance) for seven years.
Asked if teachers encouraged her to pursue the art, she responds, “I wanted to be a dancer period. From the time I started dance, I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”
After the family returned to the United States in 1937, this time to Los Angeles, Yuriko performed with Dorothy Lyndall’s Junior Dance Group, spending her evenings at the theater watching the 20th century’s great modern dancers. She planned to go to New York, but World War II broke out and Japanese Americans on the West Coast were sent to internment camps.
Yuriko spent a year and a half at Gila River Relocation Center in Arizona. “At one point, I didn’t know what was going to happen to me or any of us,” she says. “We weren’t told how long we would stay there, when or how we would get out. So it was a kind of limbo. There was no focus in life. That was the hardest time.”
To refocus her energy, she started teaching dance to other internees. She also choreographed works, which she and her students performed.
When the opportunity came to resettle on the East Coast, Yuriko packed her bags. Viewing that experience from a glass-half-full perspective, she says, “For me, being sent to camp brought me closer to New York. We weren’t allowed to go back to the West Coast yet, that was 1943, so there was only one place, New York, and that was my goal anyway.”
Yuriko brought a list of her three favorite dancers with whom she hoped to study — Doris Humphrey, Hanya Holm and Martha Graham. “My preference was Doris Humphrey; Martha Graham was at the bottom. But when I looked at my collection of three names, the address that was closest to me was Martha Graham’s studio, so that’s where I ended up,” Yuriko laughs. “I never told Martha that, but I told Doris Humphrey, ‘I missed you Doris. I wanted to come to you first.’”
Yuriko made an appointment to meet with Graham, remembering, “It was evening, so she was alone. We talked and she invited me to take her class the next day. But the Japanese way of thinking is that you don’t start learning from the master; you start with a lower sensei (teacher).
“When she said, ‘Come take my class,’ I said, ‘No, I can’t do that. I can’t take your class. Send me to your students or a company member.’ I insisted and so she sent me to a company member’s special course. That was the beginning. It was October 1943.”
Two months later when Yuriko heard the company needed someone to assist with costumes, she volunteered. She already had been working as a seamstress to earn money. “The second time I met Martha Graham was helping her to sew, and that’s how I got to know Martha Graham personally, not as a dancer,” she says.
By February, Yuriko was already a favorite among Graham’s student teachers. Graham offered her a scholarship, though she had yet to see her dance, and Yuriko accepted. She immediately started learning the repertory and within a month was performing with the company as an extra dancer.
One of the first and only dance masters of that time who invited Asian and black dancers into her company, Graham asked Yuriko to be a permanent member that summer. “She asked the company if that was all right with them because the war was still on. They said of course it’s OK, a good way to introduce me to the New York public was with two dances, American Document and Primitive Mysteries,” Yuriko says, pronouncing each syllable with particular dramatic flair (Primi-tive MYS-teries).
The first non-white dancer in the company, Yuriko says she never thought about racism. “I just don’t think that way. You see, my focus was dance. I didn’t have room for other thinking.”
Then, suddenly she remembers an incident. “The only thing … yes … was when I danced with Martha Graham for the first time in March, a story got out, something about ‘the evacuee girl making good.’ At the time, Mayor LaGuardia objected to Japanese Americans settling in New York City, so the newspaper came back to me and asked my opinion of what he said. I told them, ‘He can’t say that. He’s a second-generation Italian, so he has no right to discriminate.’
“I had my opinions,” Yuriko laughs. “But I never spoke for any cause. I was too busy dancing.”
Yuriko was soon handed lead roles, earning accolades from dancegoers. But she was never a diva, as her name might suggest.
She explains, “My maiden name was Amemiya. It was misspelled in the program from day one, so I decided to hell with it. I’m going to throw it away and go by Yuriko.”
A number of other Asian dancers joined the Martha Graham Dance Company following the success Yuriko, including Takako Asakawa, Miki Orihara and Yuriko’s own daughter, Susan Kikuchi, who now works as her associate. Graham also hired sculptor Isamu Noguchi5to design the sets for many of her works, including Appalachian Spring.
“Martha Graham in some way loved the way I moved and maybe she thought all Japanese moved that way,” Yuriko chuckles. “And besides dance, she was very much into Zen. She loved Japanese culture, Japanese philosophy, and that’s why she loved Noguchi’s work.”
Yuriko married in 1946, but unlike Graham, she never questioned her decision. “I met him and knew he was my husband. Three months later, we married. I never thought about it,” she says.
She continued to perform with the Martha Graham Dance Company until 1967, along the way having two children and starring in the 1951 Broadway production of The King and I. For nearly a decade after her retirement from the stage, she directed the Yuriko Dance Company, but then returned to the Martha Graham school to teach. Eventually, she became the company’s rehearsal director. In 1983, she started the Martha Graham Ensemble, an apprentice company.
The ’80s also marked a turning point for the company. An aging Graham, was often absent and her artistic vision became less and less clear. After her death in 1991, the fate of her works was in peril. Not only was a lawsuit brewing over ownership of her dances, many critics complained that dancers no longer understood Graham’s technique or philosophy.
Yuriko has tried to set things straight. After having recently staged Appalachian Spring for the Joffrey Ballet and Boston Conservatory, she has been lauded for instilling new life in the Graham repertory.
“I’m getting old, 83,” Yuriko says. “I don’t have enough time to leave all my knowledge and my experience with the next generation. It would be a shame to take all that with me.
“I give dancers the core and the thinking behind Martha Graham’s approach to choreography. I give them the why’s, why this woman, why this man. Martha’s work is not just positioning. She never choreographed that way. She always choreographed from within, out,” Yuriko says holding her hand to her belly and then extending her arm.
Graham explained the intent of the characters she created, Yuriko says. As she prepared for her role of a “follower,” one of four teenage girls who worships the preacher, in Appalachian Spring, Graham “would tell us that young girls are not allowed to talk to men or older boys and not allowed to go out on dates,” Yuriko recalls. “The growing maturity they felt has to go to the preacher. He’s the only one you’re allowed to, not completely look at, but slightly gaze at. Because you are the followers, when you are talking to each other and the preacher passes next to you, your skin should tingle with excitement.”
In rehearsal for Appalachian Spring, Yuriko passes on the lessons she learned from Graham, narrating the story, as Sayaka Tai practices the role of the bride.
“Oh, my love,” Yuriko calls out as Tai raises her hands through her groom’s encircling arms.
“This is my place,” she says, as Tai runs toward the back of the studio, opening her arms overhead.
“Oh, my childhood was sweet,” she tells Tai, as Tai jumps with her legs and arms scissored to side of her body.
Yuriko stops dancers from acting out their characters with exaggerated gestures or facial expressions. The movement alone, when executed with the correct feeling and intensity, tells the story.
“In dance, you become. You have to go physically there. It’s not pretending,” Yuriko says. “It’s like spring water. It wells up from the body and the strength of that comes out.”
Ballet San Jose
Stravinsky Piano Pieces
Choreographer: Michael Smuin
Music: Igor Stravinsky
Choreographer: Martha Graham
Music: Aaron Copland
Choreographers: Dennis Nahat and Ian Horvath
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