Review of Michio Ito Pioneering Dancer-Choreographer By Timothy Cowart, M.F.A.
Bonnie Oda Homsey, has created a remarkable film about an overlooked but extremely important modern dance pioneer. You may have not ever heard about Michio Ito, he has often been overlooked in dance history text books and consequently in dance history course work both at the undergraduate and graduate levels. More people should know his name and he should be able to take his place in the annals of dance history alongside other well known pioneers such as Graham, Humphrey, Weidman and Holm.
The documentary begins by detailing Ito’s prolific choreographic outpouring of over 120 dances and 23 theatrical productions. Many of his performances featured accompaniment by full symphony orchestras and with casts of over 100 dancers. At the height of his career, he was choreographing for films in Hollywood, and filling stadiums like the Pasadena Bowl, the Rose Bowl, and the Hollywood Bowl with thousands of audience members. Then, on December 7, 1941, the same day that America was thrust into WWII, Michio Ito was arrested, labeled an ‘enemy alien,’ sent to an internment camp for two years, and eventually deported back to Japan. This pioneering artist, seems to have been erased from most history books but his legacy is important not just because of who he was, but because of the principles he believed in and the work he did.
Homsey, has created the first documentary of Michio Ito in English (in 2006, Japan’s National Public Broadcasting Company NHK created a Japanese documentary entitled Michio Ito – an Artist Abroad). Homsey is the director of the Los Angeles Dance Foundation and she co-founded its touring company the American Repertory Dance Company (ARDC). In 1998, Taeko Furusho, one of Ito’s leading dancers in Japan, came to L.A. to work with ARDC and to set six of Ito’s solos on the company. Highlights from these performances appear in the new documentary as it traces the life of this remarkable dancer-choreographer.
The twenty minute documentary features commentary by Ito’s granddaughter, one of his former dance company members, and by artists and scholars who provide a well rounded picture of his life and passions. Some of the music for the film was composed by Michio’s nephew, Teiji Ito, (Teiji began his career by composing music for the pioneering experimental dance filmmaker Maya Deren. Teiji and Deren were also married in the late 1950’s). Homsey’s documentary features rarely seen archival photographs that help to make this film a treasure.
In 1912, Michio Ito was 19 years old, he did not speak French, German or English, but he left his home in Tokyo to study music in Europe. He first traveled to France, visited Paris for a few days where he happened to see Isadora Duncan perform and his life was forever changed. He decided to become a dancer. In order to pursue this new focus he traveled to Germany to study Eurhythmics (a form of movement visualization) at the Delazroze Institute where he enrolled as the only person from Asia in a student body of over 300. At the outbreak of WWI he fled to London where he connected with George Bernard Shaw, Ezra Pound and Y.B. Yates and he began to make a name for himself as an artist. Yates cast Ito in a leading role in one of his new plays, one done in the style of Japanese Noh theatre. In 1916 Ito had an opportunity to travel to New York where he continued choreographing, performing and developing his own unique style of modern dance. From the beginning Ito described his style as one that blends Eastern and Western sensibilities and by 1919 he had established a school in New York to teach his technique to others.
Ito stayed in New York for another 10 years, developing a company, performing and teaching his technique. In 1929 he took his company on the road for a cross-country tour that ended in Los Angeles where he decided to stay. In L.A. Ito quickly established himself as a teacher and a choreographer. His students, including Lester Horton soon began performing at the Argus Bowl and he continued to mount performances to wide acclaim. Some of his symphonic dance compositions were accompanied by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and he held performances at the Rose Bowl and at Hollywood Bowl.
Homsey’s documentary film traces the trajectory of Ito’s extraordinary career, it discusses his arrest and internment by the U.S. Government, and the film does something even recent biographical accounts have failed to do. The film is able to shed some light on what happens to Michio Ito after he returns to Japan. This is an aspect of his life completely left out by his biographer Helen Caldwell in her 1977 book Michio Ito the Dancer and His Dances. This documentary gives a touching, personal account of how Michio Ito was reunited with his son Gerald (Jerry) Ito in Tokyo while Jerry was a serviceman stationed in Japan with the US. Navy.
Homsey’s groundbreaking film is a must-have in the library collections of dance historians, colleges and universities. It is only 20 minutes long, the perfect length for instructors who want to show the film in their classrooms. Perhaps with the advent of this film, we will not let another generation of dancers slip by without knowing the name Michio Ito.
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 dancer/choreographer Michio Ito 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 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 has teaching certifications in DanceAbility, Body Flow, and in Stott Pilates. In addition, 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.