An Interview by Timothy Cowart with Director Bonnie Oda Homsey on her FilmMichio Ito: Pioneering Dancer-Choreographer
October 27, 2012 – Los Angeles, CA
Tim Cowart: What was the motivation for making this film?
Bonnie Oda Homsey: The background I guess started in 1978 when I was working with Karoun Tootikian, who was the director of the Ruth St. Dennis Foundation. In the late 30’s and early 40’s Karoun was part of the cadre of students that Ito had, as well as Ruth St. Dennis. So, in the process of restaging two Ruth St. Dennis works on my dance company she started to talk to me about Ito. Karoun wanted me to resurrect and memorialize some of Ito’s works. She wanted to reconstruct some of the dances they had learned in class with him. Apparently, his approach to class was sort of like a balletesque kind of barre, and then the arm gesture series, and then he would teach them dances. There were different ways to approach taking his class.
As a Japanese American, I wondered how despite exemplary dance training (Juilliard, University of Hawaii, and M.F.A.) that Ito was never on my horizon? So, back then the seed began to grow. This man deserves more recognition. Serving on the Dance Heritage Coalition’s Research Group in the 90’s, I nominated Ito for the America’s Irreplaceable Dance Treasures: The First 100, but there weren’t enough votes to get him on the final list. I was resolved, if the opportunity arose, to heighten awareness of his legacy.
Tim Cowart: And then, would you say that your work with American Repertory Dance Company (ARDC), and the reconstruction of six of his solo works became your next platform for helping to make him known to a greater audience?
Bonnie Oda Homsey: Yes, that was part of it. Although the Ito suite of six solos were part of a larger program called Legendary California Choreographers. The program opened with a suite of Ruth St. Denis’. The concert also featured work from Michio Ito, Carmelita Maracci, Agnes De Mille, Lester Horton, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman, Donald McKayle, and Eve Gentry. It was a celebration of those key dance icons who had benefited from the creative laboratory that Southern California had offered them at that point.
So, it wasn’t until I had spine fusion surgery, and my performance and teaching career came to an abrupt halt that I really missed having a creative outlet. I happened to get this grant from the Japanese American Community Services for $3,500, and initially this was going to be a 5-8 minute little film about Michio Ito. As I began to work and frame the questions and decide who I was going to interview and the kind of archival photographs I could use to piece together his story, it became clear that 5-8 minutes was not going to be sufficient. Originally it was going to be a documentary about Michio Ito, Jack Cole, Eugene Loring, the Nicholas Brothers, and Gregory Hines, and Busby Berkeley. I wanted to do 5-8 minute segments on each of these as part of a traveling exhibit that could just go out to different high schools and colleges.
Tim Cowart: Wow, what a great idea! So, I guess that as you began working with the Michio Ito material, that this film blossomed. Was there something about Ito’s life and work that you connected with on a personal level?
Bonnie Oda Homsey: As I started to interview Barbara Perry [one of Ito’s former dancers who is featured in the film] and Michele Ito [Michio Ito’s granddaughter, also featured in the film] in advance of doing our filming, I was gathering background information and Michele had to sign-off when NHK [Public Broadcasting Station in Japan] did the five-part documentary on Ito in Tokyo. As part of signing-off she got copies of all of the F.B.I. documents. She and I spent two meetings, long meetings, in which I painstakingly went through each of these documents, and we started to talk about the impact of the war [WWII] on Michio Ito and on her dad and uncle. I identified because my Grandfather, even though there were no internment camps per se in Hawaii, he was taken away the day of Pearl Harbor. He was gone from my family for four years. I hoped this film could achieve artistic outcomes as well as convey the personal story about Ito’s journey. We could see part of that in some of the works he was choreographing along the way. Perhaps that could be part of the takeaway for our film’s viewers.
Tim Cowart: I am glad you touch on the Japanese Internment Camps in your film, I think it is such a dark spot in American History. I believe this is a subject, perhaps because of the fact that it is often overlooked, that is still very raw in the hearts of many people.
Bonnie Oda Homsey: It’s very raw. You know my dad served in the 442nd, which was probably one of the most under-recognized companies in the war. Although, President Obama did, give a Congressional Metal of Honor to the 442 Regiment in 2012. When the reparations occurred, some decades ago, my grandfather utterly refused to be part of any of that. I remember coming home and talking with him about it. I remember Grandpa saying “No. What is in the past has already been done. And I’m never looking back again.” I guess the F.B.I. took several of his business accounts and family heirlooms that had belonged to my grandmother. My grandmother comes from nobility and some of her ancestor’s things are in the museum in Tokyo. There is a town named after Wada Yoshimori who is in the books as one of the feudal lords, and samurai.
It was a very dark time and I shared some understanding and empathizing with what the Ito family went through and what Michele’s dad went through. Not seeing his own father and the story of them reconnecting just because he happened to ask people in Tokyo, “Do you know Michio Ito?” Luckily, Michio Ito did not crawl under a rock with depression when he returned to Japan. Instead, he said you know “I’m going to be part of creating some spectacles at the Ernie Pile Theatre in Tokyo.” That was how I wanted to end the film. Despite the awful time, this extraordinary man always had hopes for how art, in its many forms could heal. It is a very powerful message.
Tim Cowart: The film is powerful. It shows his resilience, perseverance and courage in the face of unbelievable prejudice. I love what you said last night as you introduced your film. You said “He was an outsider, who became an insider through his own talents,” or how did you put it?
Bonnie Oda Homsey: Well it’s the log line for the film actually. “The outsider who became an insider through his own means of self-expression.” He left Tokyo at age 19, not speaking the language, not being familiar with the culture. He just hopped on a boat. His father, who was an architect, and who had come to San Francisco as an apprentice and had became good friends with Frank Loyd Wright. So, because of his own introduction to the West, when his eldest son [Michio Ito], who should have been in the family business said, “You know Dad, I would really like to just spread my wings and look at what is out there. I feel that there is something that I have not yet found within myself and this vision is so strong. I need to go. Will you allow me that time?” And originally, his dad gave him money for like a year, but Michio Ito sort of spent it wildly when he first went to Europe and then lived like a pauper. But he had this charm and this charisma, and he also had this sort of androgynous sexuality that drew both men and women to him.
When I had his writings from this magazine translated by Mutzi Erskine, it was revelatory, because this was the voice of an older man looking back on his very fun and fancy younger years, not understanding that the money was not always going to be there. Spending lavish money to go to the opera, and hiring a carriage to take him there and back. And then later, having to borrow clothing to attend dinners where he was sat next to the Prime Minister at Lady [Emerald] Cunard’s dinners and things.
You know, clearly this man lived large, and yet, Barbara Perry told me this story that when he was here, he barely had enough money to pay rent. But yet there was some fellow sitting outside the Wilshire Ebell Theatre, (one of our old iconic theaters), and they were going to give a performance and there was a guy who was just destitute, begging and so Michio gave this fellow his last $4. The act speaks volumes about the man!
The photograph I use from the New Mexico internment camp that I got from Hirokazu Kosaka the artistic director at JACCC (Japanese American Cultural & Community Center), Michio is in the middle of something like, 30 men. But if you look at the expression of the other men around him, they are dower and depressed. When you look at Michio, there is solemnness about him. There is something that radiates, “I am not going to let this put me down.”
Tim Cowart: Yes! That is a striking image. It is one of the things I remember most vividly from the film. Speaking of the photos, you included number of them that I had never seen before in my research of Ito. Were some of the photos from Toyo Miyatake’s personal collection?
Bonnie Oda Homsey: I did use some from Toyo Miyatake. You know, I paid the royalties to use [them]. Some of them were from Arnold Genthe, through the Library of Congress, which is credited. And some are from private collections from people who are interviewed in the film. So, that was the purpose, to try to illuminate archival photographs that either were rarely seen or helped to give visual context to the narrative that was going on in the film.
Tim Cowart: You also mentioned that the music for your film came from Teiji Ito, Michio Ito’s nephew. An interesting connection is that Teiji was married to Maya Deren the experimental dance film pioneer.
Bonnie Oda Homsey: Yes, that’s right. And he was a composer and is credited with doing experimental music both in Japan and here. So, that was just a wonderful connection. When it came to deciding what I wanted as a sort of musical thread I tried to use some of the music that the Michio Ito Foundation recorded for us [ARDC] to perform to. I wanted viewers to get a sense of his tastes musically. Whether it was overt or not, I hoped it would be subliminal. I hoped including Teiji Ito’s segments, the clapping at the beginning and the section on WWII, would give a wholeness to the story.
Tim Cowart: Can you talk to me about the budget you had for the film. You mentioned that you had a starter grant. Did any other funding come in?
Bonnie Oda Homsey: Well I probably put in about $1,000 of my own money, because the project grew. You know, once I realized that I had eight hours of interviews, just the interview stuff! I think our first cut came in at like an hour. John Flynn, our Editor and Producer, and I did six or seven cuts to shape the 20 minutes until I knew the story was compelling. Editing was influenced by all my mentors; how to get to the bottom line – what is the story? It could be abstract or narrative, but what is the story? What is it that you are trying to get across? So that is what I kept in the back of my mind.
Tim Cowart: Can you talk about John Flynn, the editor of your film. How did you meet? How did you find him?
Bonnie Oda Homsey: I first met John in 1997 when he was working for KCRW. Its a radio station [a Southern California National Public Radio affiliate]. They wanted to interview Janet [Eilber] and me. After the interview, John mentioned being a filmmaker and to call him if we were ever interested in having him document any of our concerts. So we hired John for one concert and realized how skilled he was with dance framing and transitions. We have had a long association and it was a no-brainer to have him aboard as Editor. Since I could not afford to compensate him for his dedicated work on this film, he deservedly is acknowledged as Producer. If we are ever able to market any of these DVD’s to colleges then perhaps he can get some money back.
Tim Cowart: As a university professor, who teaches dance history, I can easily see the value of your documentary and I think it can have nation wide marketability. I love the fact that it is 20 minutes long. That is just long enough to be used in a classroom setting, leaving enough time to discuss it with the students as well.
Bonnie Oda Homsey: Yes, so the teacher can talk about aesthetics and criticism and comparison of Ito with other artists as well.
Tim Cowart: Yes, this is a wonderful tool. I want it for my classes! And I think that other professors around the country will want it too. There seems to be a gap in dance history that this documentary may help to fill.
Bonnie Oda Homsey: And maybe not just dance history. Eventually, if I have time I would love to build a component that talks about what Ito was doing and compare it to other pioneering artists. You know, just to sort of open up that door and see what happens.
Tim Cowart: What are your goals for this film?
Bonnie Oda Homsey: I would like to get a distribution with a company that has contacts into the libraries at colleges and universities. Hopefully it can be a supplemental resource for Asian Studies and for dance departments. In regard to dance it may create more user-friendly marketability if I tie it into offering some kind of a guide, or pamphlet or something that offers various tracts of inquiry that could be used for integration in classes on dance history, aesthetics, criticism, at undergraduate and graduate levels. And perhaps even a segment talking about my own coaching techniques. How I approach the reconstruction process in layers.
Tim Cowart: You have been part of the reconstruction of many different kinds of works, and so learning about your approach to that process would be a valuable resource. Can you talk a little bit about your process of embodying the repertory of Michio Ito?
Bonnie Oda Homsey: Okay, I’ll talk about Tango because Tango was the second oldest work that we did after Pizzicati. So, what I appreciated about Taeko’s [Taeko Furusho set the six Michio Ito solos on ARDC back in 1998] approach, which really felt comfortable for the four of us, was that she had attained a level of performance herself making her directorial insights valuable in the reconstruction process. She went beyond correcting technical elements to helping us deepen and illuminate the essence of each solo. The why. Whatever that is. The intention. One of the first images Taeko gave was the solo occurs on a spatial diagonal. I hand to make the large space feel intimate to draw the audience in. I enter this bar and downstage right someone is at the bar who I want to seduce. I learned to take on the skin of a different presence. Even stillness must be felt and projected, 360 degrees. The best image Martha ever gave me when she was directing Clytemnestra – was that you’ve got to feel like you’ve got 1000 butterflies quivering in the body. That energy is carefully modulated so the audience is compelled to look. The audience becomes like a voyeur. The challenge was figuring out how to make the dance intimate and yet not loose the audience. How do you make them feel, like they shouldn’t be watching maybe as this seduction starts? Good coaching helps the artist find the subtext and the subtleties.
Tim Cowart: The film concludes with a quote from Ito. Something about the concern for living life ‘beautifully.’ Can you clarify what that quote was?
Bonnie Oda Homsey: It is about civilization. How does one define a civilization? And the differences essentially between Eastern and Western perspectives. That is what brought me to that notion of Ito being a kind of cultural ethnographer. Initially as an outsider, Ito observed and used those differences to establish his artistic platform. It is about the observation that the ‘ease of existence’ is what personified America for him. Versus the more abstract ‘beauty of existence’ in Japanese culture.
Tim Cowart: So it is the observation that in the West we are concerned with how to live comfortably, verses in the East where the concern is how to live beautifully.
Bonnie Oda Homsey: Yes. And how they then meld.
Tim Cowart: I see, because once you have managed to learn how to live comfortably, the next step is to find out how to live beautifully. I like your idea of framing him as a ‘cultural ethnographer.’ How what he was doing was coming from an etic to an emic perspective in regards to his overall mission.
Bonnie Oda Homsey: It is my personal takeaway about Ito. Doing the film helped me to understand and articulate that about him as a filmmaker in order to better tell the story.
Tim Cowart: I think it is interesting to think about him in that way and then contrast it with what the F.B.I. was saying about him at the same time. It makes it all the more poignant. They consider him an ‘enemy alien’ and they arrest him, but he has been doing nothing but trying to create peace through artistic expression – and then he is later exonerated and the same government that put him behind bars hires him to create entertainment for the G.I.’s over seas at the Ernie Pyle Theater in Tokyo.
Bonnie Oda Homsey: He said repeatedly that he was a kind of ‘Cultural Ambassador.’ And that it was the sort of umbrella of what he was doing here in the West. Again, maybe his English was limited, and so – I don’t know. Whatever happened – did. Examining Ito’s life was like excavating; lifting up the rock and not being judgmental about what was underneath.
Timothy Cowart has been directing the DeSales University Dance Department since 2005. His research interests are in modern dance partnering techniques, Dance Film, and the life, work and influence that Michio Ito has had on the early development of Modern Dance. Cowart teaches course work in all levels of modern dance technique, dance composition, contact improvisation, dance history, dance in world cultures, senior research seminar, and dance on camera. He has performed nationally and internationally as a company member of the Lewitzky Dance Company, The Pittsburgh Dance Alloy, and has also performed with Elizabeth Streb/ Ringside, Minh Tran and Company, and The Dance Theatre of Oregon. He holds a B.F.A. in Dance and Choreography from Virginia Commonwealth University, an M.S. in Arts Management and an M.F.A. in Dance from the University of Oregon.
Bonnie Oda Homsey is Director of Los Angeles Dance Foundation (LADF), and also serves as Chair of Dance and member of the Arts Advisory Board for the Princess Grace Foundation USA. Formerly a principal dancer with the Martha Graham Company under the direction of Ms. Graham, she also danced with Metropolitan Opera Ballet, Ethel Winter Dance Company, and Hawaii Opera Guild. She founded LADF and co-founded American Repertory Dance Company its award winning performance entity. For ten years, she lead the company to produce 40+ reconstructions presented in thematic concerts that informed ARDC’s arts education and outreach programing. She was honored to join the freshman class when the Juilliard School relocated to Lincoln Center, later receiving her B.A. from University of Hawaii, and M.F.A. from University of California, Irvine.