The residence of Ambassador Shigeyuki Hiroki, Consul General of Japan in New York, was filled with dancers on Wednesday, January 30. They gathered to celebrate the life and career of Yuriko Kikuchi, a Japanese American dancer, choreographer, and instructor who was an influential member of the Martha Graham Dance Company for fifty years as well as the first Japanese American star on Broadway.
Known throughout the dance world simply as Yuriko, she is the recipient of the Foreign Minister’s Commendation from the Japanese government, recognized for her outstanding achievements in the field of dance and for her contribution to friendly relations between Japan and the United States. Through dance she promotes cultural exchanges and inspires collaborations between different American dance companies, cultural institutions, and government agencies.
The ceremony began with remarks from Ambassador Hiroki, who described Yuriko as “a pioneer of the modern dance movement,” someone who merged East with West and changed the concept of dance during her time with Martha Graham.
“Her passion and creativity in the field of dance has brought not only an expansion of an art form to audiences and performers all around the world, but has brought Japan and the United States closer,” says Ambassador Hiroki.
Yuriko’s remarkable story took her from the US to Japan, an internment camp in Arizona, and finally to New York City. She was born in San Jose in 1920, but spent the majority of her childhood in Japan after losing her father and two sisters to an influenza epidemic. Her mother, in a state of panic, sent three-year-old Yuriko to live with her aunt, uncle, and grandmother in Enzan, Japan. What Yuriko remembers from that time is loneliness and “no one to cuddle up to.” So she made friends with the nature that surrounded her, forging bonds with birds and insects.
“Later in my life in New York City,” says Yuriko, “this appreciation of nature came out in my choreography and in my dancing . . . Somehow I often went back to Japan for a creative source. I am 100% American, but deep down in my guts, Japan stayed with me. So artistically, I’m also 100% Japanese.”
Using that creative source and her own understanding of Japanese culture, Yuriko developed her contemporary dance style.
“Ms. Kikuchi is known for enhancing her Martha Graham performances with tenets of Japanese philosophy and Zen Buddhism,” says Ambassador Hiroki. “In her case, respect, harmony, and cooperation became intertwined in her approach to this developing American style of modern dance.”
Special guest speakers at the ceremony included Marnie Thomas Wood, a former soloist and teacher with the Martha Graham Dance Company; Emiko Tokunaga, who wrote Yuriko’s biography, Yuriko An American Japanese Dancer: To Wash in the Rain and Polish with the Wind; and Miki Orihara, a principal dancer with Martha Graham.
Thomas Wood praised Yuriko, the first non-Caucasian to join Martha Graham, for reviving older, forgotten pieces from Graham’s repertoire, which created a way for current audiences to appreciate these works in new ways.
“From a childhood formed by two cultures, which she learned to meld together, Yuriko fashioned a lifetime of living fully and to each moment with extraordinary mastery,” says Thomas Wood.
Tokunaga commented on Yuriko’s influence on women of Japanese descent, saying, “ . . . you have crossed cultural and racial boundaries, which contributed to the mutual understanding and respect for Japan and for America.”
As an example, Tokunaga mentioned Yuriko’s time at the Gila River War Relocation Center in Arizona, one of ten internment camps established by the US government to detain more than 110,000 Japanese Americans during World War II. While interned at Gila River, Yuriko gave dance lessons to her fellow detainees.
“ . . . Your dance classes and recitals reinforced a positive self-image for women and girl attendees,” says Tokunaga. “You showed us that freedom must accompany the ability to enhance one’s perceptions of the world . . . You are an American who happens to be Japanese.”
In her toast to her mentor, Orihara recounted a story of watching the production of The King and I as a child in Tokyo in the late 1960s, not knowing that Yuriko was the director. Years later, Orihara arrived in New York and she studied under Yuriko, whom Orihara calls “the link between American modern dance and Japanese modern dance.”
She eventually performed in The King and I, thirty years after she first saw the production. A principal dancer with Martha Graham, Orihara says her career has come full circle, following the groundwork first laid by Yuriko.
“Yuriko makes a lot of people cry,” says Orihara. “She does not have any hate or anger underneath it, but it is so honest, that’s why it hurts.”
Kenneth Topping was one of those dancers whom Yuriko made cry, but that didn’t deter him from declaring she was “the best director I’ve ever worked with.” But he was quick to point out that Yuriko was never abusive, saying that she was direct, but her words forced you to examine yourself and your work more thoroughly.
Topping says of Yuriko’s criticism, “She would put you on the path, but you had to figure it out for yourself.”
He did figure it out; he went on to succeed Yuriko as Artistic Director of Graham II during his twenty-year career with the company.
Yuriko turned 93 on February 2, but save for her use of a walker, she could easily pass for 25 years younger. After the ceremony, Yuriko said she always had in mind to return to the US once she graduated high school in 1937. “That’s my place; it’s where I was born,” Yuriko says of California. “I went to Los Angeles because that’s where my mother was. Then the war, and then relocation, then when the East Coast opened up in 1943, I was one of the first ones to come (to New York).”
As for her commendation, Yuriko appreciates being honored by the Japanese government as well as her many friends in dance. “I didn’t expect THIS, the whole atmosphere,” Yuriko says of the ceremony. “And many surprises of praise that were given to me are just unbelievable.”
Yuriko overcame loneliness, racism, and the cruelty of internment by her own government, choosing to blend the positive parts of both of her cultures and to serve as a genuine example.
“For me, life is beautiful,” says Yuriko. “I can’t ask for anything more.”