Martha Graham and the Asian Connection

posted by Wendy Perron on Monday, Mar 24, 2014
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PeiJu Chien-Pott in Nacho Duato's Depak Ine. Photo by Yi-Chun Wu, courtesy Martha Graham Dance Company.

Although the Graham season this weekend emphasized Martha’s Greek connection, it got me thinking more about her Asian connection. From the legendary Yuriko in the 1940s on down to the latest star, PeiJu Chien-Pott, these dancers have been breathtaking interpreters of Graham’s vision.

 

I’ve read that Graham cultivated an Eastern look herself and was flattered whenever anyone mistook her for Asian. Some think that, since she had a long torso and short legs, her close-to-the-floor technique was particularly suited to Asian bodies. And of course, she had a great affinity with sculptor Isamu Noguchi, whose sets for many of her pieces gave them a spare, Eastern look. The two were so close that Takako Asakawa has said, "In art they were like wife and husband."

 

Whatever the reason, more Asian dancers have found a home in Graham's company than in any other modern dance group—and most have been beyond brilliant. (By the way, Graham’s interest in Asian forms goes back to Michio Ito, with whom she studied.)

 

Here are the Asian dancers I remember:

 

YurikoYuriko Kikuchi
Known simply as Yuriko, this legendary dancer started as a seamstress for the company. During World War II, her family was forced to live in an internment camp, and that's where she started teaching. She danced in the company from 1944 to 1967 and appeared as a guest artist after that. She also played Eliza in the film The King and I (1956), choreographed by Jerome Robbins, and made dances herself. Still active as a stager of Graham works, she recently set the glorious stampede known as Panorama (1935) on the company. (Click here for the recent book about her.)

 

Above: Yuriko Kikuchi. Photo courtesy the Dance Magazine Archives.

 

Takako Asakawa
As the woman in red in Diversion of Angels, she would contract in a spasm of joy at the peak of the relevé. No one has performed that role with the same electricity since then. She took on many of Grahan's roles but left the company in 1976 to form her own group.

 

Yuriko KimuraYuriko Kimura
Known as “Little Yuriko” and, like Kikuchi, also from Japan, she danced with the company in the '60s and '70s. Onstage she was both vulnerable and strong, with exquisite sensitivity—like a filament in a light bulb. Unforgettable! I believe she still teaches in Japan.

 

Right: Yurkio Kimura in Graham's Clytemnestra. Photo by Max Waldman.

 

Dawn Suzuki
A strong and rooted dancer, she used to demonstrate for the classes I took at the Graham studio in the '60s.

 

Miki Orihara
As a mainstay of the company from 1987 to the present, she has excelled in lead roles in Appalachian Spring, Errand Into the Maze, and Satyric Festival Song. She teaches in Japan and the U. S. and also serves as Yuriko’s assistant.

 

Miki Orihara
Miki Orihara in Graham's Deaths and Entrances. Photo by John Deane, courtesy Martha Graham Dance Company.

 

Rika Okamoto
She had a keen sense of drama when she danced with the company in the 1990s. She also danced with Pearl Lang and later graced our cover as one of the daredevil Tharpettes in Come Fly Away.

 

Rika Okamoto
Rika Okamoto in costume for Twyla Tharp's Come Fly Away. Photo by Matthew Karas for Dance Magazine.

 

Fang-Yi Sheu
At a time when it seemed the Graham company would lose its relevance, Fang-Yi became its reigning star, galvanizing the public with her forcefulness and uncanny Martha-like presence. Trained in Taiwan by Ross Parkes, she earned a place on our cover as a “25 to Watch” in January 2005. She left the company to co-found her own group in 2007 and has also worked with Christopher Wheeldon, Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, and Akram Khan.

 

Fang-Yi Sheu
Fang-Yi Sheu in Graham's Herodiade. Photo by John Deane, courtesy Martha Graham Dance Company.

 

Xiaochuan Xie
Trained in China, “Chuan” is another powerhouse dancer who can be as delicate as she is forceful. Although she has the visceral fire in her belly that marks a Graham dancer, she can also be sunshine and sweetness in roles like Creon’s daughter in Cave of the Heart. She was an On the Rise in 2011 and landed on our cover last November.

 

Xiaochuan Xie
Xiaochuan Xie in costume for Graham's Rite of Spring. Photo by Nathan Sayers for Dance Magazine.

 

Ying Xin
Long and strong, she was trained in China and came to the company through Graham 2. She is fearless in Nacho Duato's new Depak Ine and buoyant as a Follower in Appalachian Spring. I look forward to seeing her in more roles.

 

PeiJu Chien-Pott
A knock-out performer, Chien-Pott starred in both world premieres this season. She's great in the fluid, whipping-around choreography of Andonis Foniadakis in Echo and absolutely electric as the twitchy, animal-like, crazed-goddess soloist in Nacho Duato's Depak Ine. She has that rare filament-like quality that I haven't seen since Little Yuriko. (See photo at top.)

 

There have been others whom I never saw dance, for instance Kazuko Hirabayashi and Akiko Kanda. Did I miss anyone?