New Legs for a Legend

Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Calendar

It's the weekend after Christmas and the spirit of Michio Ito hovers over a dance studio in the heart of seediest Hollywood.

Inside, the late choreographer's son, daughter-in-law and granddaughters sit on folding chairs in front of the mirrored walls. A boom box plays the strains of Isaac Albeniz's Tango in D as a petite woman in black jazz pants and a Spanish hat goes through the precise, formal paces of a tightly coiled, sensual dance.

The dancer, Bonnie Oda Homsey, executes a series of slow, controlled lunges, her hips propelling the subtle motion from side to side. She turns, spins and glides forward across the wood floor--a whirl of taut, agile energy.

Homsey stops abruptly, looking over at a woman watching her from the side of the room. Soon the other woman joins her, and the two dancers go through a complex sequence of kicks and steps, repeating the moves until both seem satisfied with the correction.

It is a slow, painstaking process, setting a dance such as Ito's "Tango" on a new dancer. But both the former Martha Graham dancer Homsey and her mentor of the moment, Taeko Furusho, are up to the task.

That is, after all, why the astonishingly lithe 71-year-old Furusho, director of the Michio Ito Foundation in Tokyo, has come to Los Angeles today. American Repertory Dance Company is the first American dance company given permission to perform Ito's works, and she is here to make sure it's done right.

"Tango" is part of ARDC's "Legendary California Choreographers" program, which will be presented at UCLA's Schoenberg Hall on March 21 and 22. In addition to the four solos that comprise the "Michio Ito Suite" ("Pizzicati," "Tango," "Tone Poems I and II" and "Greek Warrior"), the bill also features the choreography of such noted artists as Ruth St. Denis, Doris Humphrey, Donald McKayle and Lester Horton.

"Of all the programs we've done, this is significant because it depicts the range and inventiveness that characterized these choreographers whose work reverberated all over the world," says Homsey, 46, who co-directs ARDC with fellow Graham alum Janet Eilber. "But these choreographers chose to be in California."

"Part of what I love about this is putting California back on the dance map," she continues. "My hope is that once again we will allow California to take its place as a seat of dance."

Gerald Ito sits on a couch in Homsey's elegant Los Feliz home, not far from the venues where he once watched his father work. A Broadway veteran who recently retired from a major acting career in Japan--including more than 50 films and four television series of his own--Gerald Ito, at a youthful 70, is a gracious man whose presence suggests some of the magnetism for which his father was famous.

"The dance that Bonnie is doing, I remember my father doing that when I was maybe 8 years old," he says, recalling the earlier session in the studio, speaking English that is marked by aphasia, due to a stroke he suffered in June. "Today was my first time to see Bonnie dance that dance, and I felt like tears because I could see my father, and I could feel her dance with his feeling."

It is, however, a feeling and a dance that hasn't been seen in L.A. in more than 50 years. For while Ito is part of California's culture and history, most Angelenos aren't aware of it. Unlike Agnes de Mille, Lester Horton and other familiar names on the "Legendary California Choreographers" bill, Ito isn't well known outside the dance community here. Yet the Japanese-born artist lived and worked in L.A. from 1929 to 1941.

"He was so famous here," says Homsey. "He was an integral part of the history of the Hollywood Bowl."

Born in 1892 in Japan, Michio Ito was the offspring of an architect. His six brothers would become artists and architects as well. As a teenager, he went to Europe, originally to study music. But once he saw Isadora Duncan perform, he was inspired to dance.

According to an Ito biography by Helen Caldwell (now out of print), Ito went to London after the start of World War I where he met and impressed William Butler Yeats and Ezra Pound, helping them both with Noh projects and choreographing and dancing in a Yeats "dance play." He came to the U.S. in 1916, where he put on dance recitals and worked in theatrical productions. Martha Graham danced in his "Garden of Kama" in 1923 in the Greenwich Village Follies. Pauline Koner, best known as principal dancer in the Limon company in the '40s and '50s, told the New York Times' Anna Kisselgoff that she took the "path" she did because of encountering Ito in New York in the '20s.

"Ito was a total artist with tremendous charisma," Koner said. "In his 'Tango,' he didn't do an authentic tango. But he did do it with an Oriental concentration and containment, with a right sense of Spanish hondo. . . . He was out to be more abstract, more poetic."

"There's an absolute method to Michio's dances," explains Furusho, speaking with Gerald's 36-year-old daughter, Michelle Ito Cloud, as her interpreter. "In his dances, the relationship to music is strong. It started from music and the methodology is similar to music."

The Ito system is based on a series of 20 basic arm gestures or positions, 10 of which are "male" and 10 "female." The male gestures, designated as "A" movements, are characterized by straighter lines, and the female, "B," movements by more soft and fluid lines. Together, they provide the building blocks from which all of Ito's dances are composed.

The formula is more complicated than it sounds. "Those arm gestures seem simple but they are wildly complex," says Homsey. "His technique was to split the body in half: One gesture from A and one gesture from B. What it feels like is patting your head and rubbing your tummy."

In addition to this system, Ito's work was also characterized by a unique cross-cultural quality. "What intrigued me about Ito was the combination of East and West aesthetics," says Homsey. "He did not dance until he was a teenager. The movement came from the physicality he had grown up with."

During his years in New York, Ito married one of his dancers, Hazel Wright. They had two sons, Donald (who died in his 40s) and Gerald, before moving to California in 1929.

In L.A. during the 1930s, Ito taught, performed and choreographed, presenting dance recitals at the Pasadena Playhouse and larger productions at the Rose Bowl, the Greek Theater and the Hollywood Bowl. He's perhaps best remembered for his outdoor extravaganzas, some with more than 100 dancers in the cast. "Triumphant gorgeousness," raved the Los Angeles Examiner after Ito's 125-dancer "Prince Igor" excerpt premiered at the Hollywood Bowl.

He also worked in film--he choreographed for a 1930 version of "No No, Nanette," and supervised costumes, movement style and the like in Paramount's "Madame Butterfly" (1933). "The difference between him and other choreographers when he was working in Hollywood was that he was Japanese," says Furusho. "Forms such as Noh and Kabuki were incorporated into his dances. Not that he learned them on any professional level, but it was just part of who he is before he came here. He didn't consciously incorporate Japanese art forms, they were just there."

In addition to his work in Hollywood, Ito also maintained a high profile in the local Japanese community. "My father was a very well known man," says Gerald Ito. "Before the war, they were planning on making a new Little Tokyo, and he was much a part of that, along with the photographer Toyo Miyatake. He wanted to make a place for the performing arts.

"There weren't so many Japanese who were prominent in the eyes of American people, but my father was."

That visibility, however, worked against Ito once World War II broke out. Gerald was 13 and Donald was 17 when their father was taken into federal custody, the day after Pearl Harbor was bombed.

"He was basically arrested, treated as a criminal," explains Michelle Ito Cloud, a TV documentary producer who lives in L.A.

"He was accused of being a spy," she continues. "I have the alien enemy questionnaire and all that. He was sent to a Department of Justice camp in Missoula, Mont., for almost two years. It was not a relocation camp. Nobody knew where he was during that time."

At the time of Ito's detention, the FBI also told Ito's sons to leave California. They went to live with an aunt and uncle in New York. Two years later, Ito returned to Japan in an exchange. Eventually, he and Wright were divorced and Ito seemingly disappeared.

Then, in 1946, 18-year-old Gerald Ito was serving in the U.S. Navy, stationed in Japan. He set out to find his lost father.

"The war was just over and I didn't know if my father was living or dead," he recalls. "I didn't speak any Japanese, but I would make some free time and go into Tokyo and go into theaters looking for him."

Finally, he got lucky. "One day I met a Japanese Nisei colonel of the American army. I approached him and said, 'Do you happen to know if Michio Ito is here in Tokyo?' And he said yes."

It turned out that Michio Ito was producing shows at the Ernie Pyle Theater--a venue created to serve American soldiers during the occupation. "Michio's job was as the liaison between the U.S. government and the Japanese cultural [community]," explains Michelle Ito Cloud. "He hired all the Japanese dancers and actresses to do shows at the EPT."

Around this time as well, Michio Ito opened a dance studio in Tokyo, where Furusho was one of his students. She also danced for him at the Ernie Pyle Theater, as did many of Ito's best pupils.

After several months, Gerald Ito returned to New York to study at the Dramatic Workshop at the New School, making his Broadway debut in "All the President's Men" not long after finishing school. He would soon be drafted again, however, this time for the Korean conflict.

Meanwhile, things began looking up for Michio Ito in Japan. "Before the war, there were just small groups of dancers doing their own thing," explains Furusho. "The Modern Dance Society was formed right after the war, and Michio was the first chairman of that organization, a dancers association."

In 1949, with his reputation flourishing, Michio Ito opened a second dance studio in Osaka, where Furusho went to be an instructor. He was in demand not only as a choreographer-director, but also for his knowledge of Western culture.

During the '50s he would work for Hollywood again, and for American TV. He returned to the U.S. on several occasions, producing and choreographing a Dinah Shore TV special called "Holiday in Japan," and working on specials with Shirley MacLaine, which were shot in London and Japan, as well as the John Wayne movie called "The Barbarian and the Geisha."

During the '50s as well, Gerald Ito returned to Japan for good, where he soon married classical Japanese dancer Wakana Hanayagi, whom he had met in New York when she came there to perform. Ito was on Broadway in "Teahouse of the August Moon," and his father had suggested that he look out for Hanayagi and the others in her troupe when they arrived.

"I just had a wonderful time in Japan, meeting my relatives," Gerald Ito recalls. "I was really having fun there and some big company, Toho Films, asked me to sign a contract with them. I said OK--for one year--and my father made my contract with them."

Michio Ito was 68 when he died in 1961.

"My father died when I was on the stage," recalls Gerald Ito. "I didn't know. They were keeping it quiet because they were afraid it was going to throw my performance off. Then later that night, they told me to go to my father's house."

After his death, Ito's students and colleagues, especially Furusho and his daughter-in-law Hanayagi, who had worked with him after she and Gerald returned to Japan, kept his studio going for 15 years, until the lease on the land expired and they lost their venue. The Michio Ito Foundation grew out of the studio.

Still, it is no easier in Japan than in America to preserve the pioneering works of modern dance. "There's still a very small percentage of people and dancers in Japan who are interested in presenting these dances," says Furusho. "There are groups of dancers in Japan who feel like once the choreographer is dead, the dances are dead. There's no preservation work."

Yet here in Los Angeles, the reconstruction of Ito's work has a resonance that goes beyond mere preservation. "This has been a search, a quest, for me to use my ethnic roots in choreography that I feel so tied to," says Homsey, a third-generation Japanese American. "This is a project that I've been tracking for three years with great intensity. For so long I've tried to bring a Japanese American choreographer into our repertory.

"When Martha Graham used to refer to 'ancestral footsteps,' I would feel part of it in some of the dances. But I understood ancestral footsteps on a much deeper level watching Taeko reconstruct the dances on all of us. My body went to places just naturally. Although I never studied Japanese dance per se, it's just part of my culture."

* American Repertory Dance Company presents "Legendary California Choreographers," UCLA Center for the Performing Arts, Schoenberg Hall, UCLA, Westwood. Saturday, 8 p.m.; next Sunday, 2 p.m. $25. (310) 825-2101.

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