How did Michio Ito--charismatic dancer, choreographer, and theatre director-become the “forgotten pioneer of American modern dance”?
Ito was born in Tokyo in 1893 and died there in 1961. His life was extraordinary in its artistic accomplishments, visionary ideas, and disastrous experiences. From childhood, Ito tended to exaggerate actual adventures and fabricate stories, many of which he repeated in interviews and in his own “autobiographical” essays. This website describes the reality of Ito’s experience but also shares with you some of the dreams that were part of his sense of a “truthful” life.
Ito was born in an era when affluent “modern” Japanese families like his were interested in ideas, technology, and artistic styles from the West. His father studied architecture in the United States and, influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright, built an earthquake proof home back in Tokyo. Ito was one of ten children, one of seven brothers. All but one of the Ito sons made careers in the arts. The family interests included theatre (Western imports as well as noh and kabuki) and Christianity. Ito, however, never identified himself with any one religion in his adult years. His spirituality would be most consistently expressed in his sense of art and its mission to uplift, to bridge cultural boundaries, and to foster the brotherhood of man. In an early interview he said: "The real artist is like a priest‑‑he comes to proclaim the truth and to uplift...
Ito’s family had expected him to enter Tokyo Imperial University, but at the beginning of 1912, Ito received formal permission to study singing at the Tokyo Academy of Music. A high school teacher had encouraged him to think that he had a future as a singer. Later that year he decided to pursue training for an opera career in Europe. Just 18 years old, he sailed for Europe in November, arriving in Marseilles on December 23 and in Berlin on December 28. He stayed in Berlin with a sister and a brother-in-law in the diplomatic service. However, Ito liked to say that he spent considerable time in Paris. He claimed that he went to the opera with great expectations and was disillusioned by how fat the singers were and how poorly they acted. On the other hand, he was overwhelmed by the dancing of Isadora Duncan, Pavlova, and Nijinsky and abandoned his interest in opera for a career in dance.
In 1913 he entered the Dalcroze Institute in Hellerau, near Dresden, and studied eurhythmics, a system that Mary Wigman and some other early European modern dancers pursued as an alternative to ballet training. Eurhythmics focused on making musical rhythm and melodic structure visible in movement. Already acquainted in Japan with the new scenic design ideas of Gordon Craig, he saw Adolph Appia’s innovative lighting in productions at the Dalcroze Institute. These production concepts and Dalcroze’s training method would influence his own theatrical work and his approach to teaching. When World War I broke out in 1914, Ito fled to London. He was a very young artist with little formal training, yet he established himself as a charismatic and distinctive performer when he danced impromptu at some high society gatherings.
In 1915 he secured a professional engagement at the Colliseum Theatre where he performed choreography described as “harmonized Europe-Japanese dances that have created a furor in society.” His performances, both private and public, brought him to the attention of a small group of artists interested in non-Western art, including the poet Ezra Pound and William Butler Yeats. At the request of Pound and Yeats, Ito and two Japanese friends created some semblance of a noh performance. Inspired by this, Yeats wrote At the Hawk’s Well, a poetic dance play designed for stylized performance and a connoisseur audience. In April 1916, Ito played the Hawk-like Guardian of the Well to great acclaim. Ito’s costume, designed by Edmund Dulac and himself, reflected the dancer’s interest in Egyptian art as well as influence from classical Japanese theatre.
Once again Ito moved on because of war, this time to the United States. The commercial theatre contract that brought him there proved to be work that did not satisfy his aesthetic ideals. There was no “modern dance” movement in New York when he arrived. Outside of ballet, most dancers who aspired to art rather than revues were music interpreters, aesthetic dancers, barefoot dancers, or exotic dancers, the latter mostly Caucasians in generic Oriental attire. Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman, and Martha Graham were dancing with the Denishawn company as Ito pieced together a career as a director, a choreographer, and a concert performer of more or less Japanese-style dances, responding to the popularity of Oriental things.
In 1917 Ito danced with Adolph Bolm’s Ballet Intime, a relatively small group of international performers that toured featuring non-western dances. He presented more authentic productions of Japanese plays, some adapted by himself, for small theatres like the Neighborhood Playhouse and the Greenwich Village Theatre. While Michio continued to present concerts of his own work, he also choreographed or directed large scale theatrical ventures ranging from revues like the Pinwheel Revel to notable productions of The Mikado and Carmen. Having accepted the necessity of commercial theatre work, Ito performed in revues like the Greenwich Village Follies, joined by Martha Graham from 1923-25. He introduced Graham to his friend, the sculptor Isamu Noguchi, who would later design sets for a number of Graham’s dances.
From the time that Ito arrived in New York in 1916, he described the objective of his work as a fusion of Western and Eastern elements, as he perceived them. For Ito, this concept was central to his vision of art and life, for himself and for all mankind. "In my dancing," he said, "it is my desire to bring together the East and the West. My dancing is not Japanese. It is not anything‑‑only myself." In this one statement Ito challenged the commonly accepted phrase from Kipling, “East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.” But he also asserted a basic modernist stance because he was declaring that the artist could and should express himself in an individual style rather than in one that was traditional or classical. Duncan had asserted that each individual had a unique way of moving. Ito even more radically asserted that his personal style was not necessarily limited by his cultural heritage. However, throughout his career, Ito came up against the fact that most audience members and critics saw him and his work through a lens of stereotypical assumptions about Japanese people and Japanese art. Ironically, many of his employment opportunities were linked to the stereotypical assumptions that contradicted his personal and artistic ideals.
As the modern dance movement emerged in the late 20’s with the work of Humphrey and Weidman as well as Graham, Ito was recognized as part of this new development. His concerts were generally very well reviewed, and he was always singled out as a charismatic performer. John Martin, the pioneer dance critic for the New York Times, saw his work as more like Humphrey’s than Graham, more abstract rather than mimetic. His Tango, a solo choreographed in 1927, captured the sultry mood and Hispanic flavor of the popular ballroom dance without a clinging partner and with little authentic Spanish movement. Ito saw himself as a music interpreter and thus fulfilled the expectation of many dance audience members of that era. He said, "When I dance, the music does not accompany me‑‑we become as one. Sometimes the instrument has the melody, and sometimes the melodies are intertwined." Ito’s choreography tended to follow the structure and accents of the music that he chose, but not as strictly as some of the music visualizations in the Denishawn repertoire. He sometimes changed the tempo and dynamics of the music to suit his idea for the dance.
Ito felt that Japanese dancing had a literary basis, while music was the foundation of Western dance. Much classical Japanese dance is performed to sung poetry or prose, or occurs within the narrative context of noh or kabuki plays. Consequently, Ito believed that Western dance was more abstract because the accompanying music allowed the spectator's imagination to interpret the dance more freely. A specific motivating idea or emotion was important to Ito in defining the movement vocabulary of each dance, but he expected that the music and movement might call up different thoughts and associations in the spectator. Ito often called his works "dance poems," suggesting a theme or mood expressed obliquely and succinctly.
By 1929 Ito had married one of his dancers, Hazel Wright, and they had two sons, Donald and Gerald. Early that year Ito set out on a cross-country tour with his company, including Hazel and a very young Pauline Koner. The tour ended with a late April concert in Los Angeles that deeply impressed the local artistic community, musicians and visual artists as well as dancers. A few weeks later, Ito began teaching at the Edith Jane School of Dancing, offering master class for professionals and community class for anyone. By August, 1929, members of his master class were performing in a series of recitals at the Argus Bowl, a small amphitheater on an estate near LA. One of the things that Ito presented was the Yeats dance play, At the Hawk’s Well. Ito cast Lester Horton, a young student in his master class, in the role that he himself had performed in the London premiere and in his 1918 remounting in New York. In September he choreographed for 200 dancers in the Pasadena Rose Bowl, accompanied by live orchestra and chorus.
Some of these dances, unlike his dance poems, were long, to music like Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite and Dvorak’s New World Symphony. During the next twelve years, Ito would choreograph several highly successful large scale symphonic dances performed in the Hollywood Bowl accompanied by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. None of this ambitious and effective ensemble choreography has survived.
In 1931 he took his wife and two sons and his company to Japan, his first trip home in close to 20 years. He was warmly received and acclaimed as an artist who had achieved international recognition. In 1934 he took a small company to Mexico for a successful tour. Ito also worked in various capacities in six films but continued to survive largely by teaching and concert tours.
Life in California became more difficult for Ito personally and politically. He was divorced and remarried and became increasingly concerned about the growing racism on the West Coast and the political tensions between the US and Japan. In a post World War II memoire, Ito wrote: “Japan is the land of my birth. America gave me my education and reared me. That these two countries should be at war astounded and confused me. As time passed the seriousness of this situation filled me with a trembling fear. As an artist, my hope was to build a bridge between Japan and America…so that a new and higher civilization could be developed. That such a destiny could be fulfilled was my fondest dream.”
Ito had high placed friends and relatives in Japan, and he made several trips there that included informal peace-making efforts. His connections, his travels, and some other projects intended to foster peace brought him under surveillance by the FBI. Within 24 hours after Pearl Harbor he was arrested as an alien enemy and unjustly accused of espionage. Ito and his second wife Tsuyako were repatriated to Japan in 1943 as part of a prisoner exchange. Shortly after the war, Ito was hired by the American Occupation administration as dance director of the Ernie Pyle theatre, the primary military entertainment center in Japan. This was clearly an acknowledgement that he had never been an enemy agent.
Ito, however, spent the rest of his life in Japan, opening a studio there, presenting dance concerts, working as a theatrical director, and establishing the first training program for fashion models. In 1960 he was commissioned to choreograph the opening and closing ceremonies for the Tokyo Olympics of 1964. His plans for the Olympics again expressed his idealistic vision of world peace and brotherhood. The torch would travel the ancient Silk Road route, symbolic of peaceful transmission of trade and culture. Ito also wanted to create a new Olympic tradition: the closing ceremony would include a circle dance to Japanese work songs with both winners and losers participating. It wouldn’t matter, he said, if the participants were awkward because the spirit of harmony would be wonderful.” This Utopian vision failed to come to fruition because Ito died suddenly in November, 1961. “He was,” said his obituary, “a man who pursued beautiful dreams all his life.”
Prof. Mary-Jean Cowell
Associate Professor in Dance
Dance Program Coordinator
Washington University in St. Louis
About Mary-Jean Cowell
Mary-Jean Cowell performed with the Katherine Litz Company and in her own work, produced at Clark Center and Dance Theatre Workshop. Since then, she has choreographed more than 50 works which have been presented in New York, Hawaii, Tokyo, and more recently in St. Louis and other midwest venues. In Tokyo, Cowell taught and choreographed for the Kobo Abe Repertory Company. Her work often evades genre distinctions: for instance, she appeared in the St. Louis production of performance artist Ping Chong's Angels of Swedenborg, and she scripted, choreographed, danced, and acted in "Komachi" and "Research," and "For Robert: On Orders."
One of her research interests is Michio Ito, a Japanese born dancer who contributed to the development of modern dance in the United States . Her articles on Ito have appeared in the Dance Research Journal and Dance Chronicle. She presented her most recent study, “From Enemy Agent to Army Choreographer: Michio Ito at the Ernie Pyle Theatre” at the Congress on Research in Dance conference in Taipei, August, 2004. Another interest, developing new methods of dance pedagogy, has been shared in several workshops given at National Dance Education Organization conferences. Cowell is currently on the National Board of the American College Dance Festival Association and is also a board member the Missouri Dance Education Organization.
Cowell’s awards include an exchange fellowship to the University of Strasbourg, a Council of Students of Arts and Sciences Award for Outstanding Teaching and Dedication to Students, a Japan Foundation grant, and a Missouri Creative Artist Project grant. She has secured two National College Choreography Initiative grants to bring dance artists David Dorfman and Alonzo King to teach master classes and set choreography on WU students. She was project director for these NCCI grants and Festival Coordinator for the 2005 Central Region American College Dance Festival hosted by the WU Dance Program.