Yuriko, famous dancer and choreographer of Martha Graham, dies at 102

The daughter of Japanese immigrants, Ms. Kikuchi was known professionally by the single name of Yuriko. She had been dancing since she was a child, touring Asia for seven years from the age of 10, and later became one of the first Asian American members of a major New York dance company. yorker. She became a celebrated and versatile dancer for Martha Graham, worked as a freelance choreographer, and appeared in the original 1951 Broadway production of “The King and I,” playing dancer Eliza and later directing a long-running comedy revival. musical.

But she was perhaps best known for her more than five-decade association with Graham, the groundbreaking dancer and choreographer who helped create a modern alternative to classical ballet. Long after Graham’s death in 1991, Yuriko helped dance companies and student groups stage the choreographer’s works, resurrecting early pieces considered lost and championing modern dance as a vital art that affirms life. “The dance is alive”, she said the Japan Times in 2013, after receiving a commendation from the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “Dancing is, for me, it’s survival. For me it is a saviour. It saved my life.

Yuriko was 102 when she died on March 8 at an assisted living facility in Manhattan. His daughter, Susan Kikuchi Kivnick, confirmed the death but did not name a cause.

By some accounts, Yuriko became the first non-white dancer hired by Graham when she joined the Martha Graham Dance Company as a permanent member in 1944. Later that year, she danced in Washington at the premiere of “Appalachian Spring,” a one-act ballet set on the American frontier, with choreography by Graham and a Pulitzer Prize-winning score by Aaron Copland.

Although she was a little short in stature – “I had no legs, no feet, a long torso”, she later recalled – she had an inordinate stage presence, with a fluid and lyrical style who helped land her featured roles in a host of Graham’s works, including the premieres of ‘Cave of the Heart’ (1946), in which she played the doomed princess, and ‘Canticle for Innocent Comedians ” (1952), “Clytemnestra” (1958) and “Besieged Garden” (1958). She also starred in the TV movie “A Dancer’s World” (1957), in a pas de deux with Bertram Ross, and reprized the lead roles originally played by Graham, including the Virgin Mary in a 1964 revival of “Primitive Mysteries”. .”

“Yuriko represents about as authentic an embodiment of Graham technique and idiom as one would expect to find outside of the creator of the originals,” wrote New York Times dance critic Allen Hughes. in 1963, after a concert in which she performs dances influenced by Graham. He added that “she can make almost any dance she does look good. She has a fluidity of movement, even in Graham’s most angular expressions, that is extraordinary, and she can stretch easily and convincingly through a wide variety of dramatic roles, projecting each as if it were her own. .

By the late 1960s, Yuriko had largely moved away from performing with the Graham Company to concentrate on her own choreography. But she continued to work with Graham as a coach and choreographer, and founded the Martha Graham Ensemble, a pre-professional company now known as Graham 2before serving as Associate Artistic Director of the Graham Dance Company in the early 1990s. Until her death, she remained a dynamic bond with Graham, often discussing the choreographer’s intense style and creative outpouring in the 1940s and 1950s.

“She did all her choreography on location in the studio. And she only did it once,” Yuriko told the Boston Globe in 2004. “Dancers should remember that by watching it. We were like her machine, and she tried to mold our bodies into what she wanted.

Yuriko Amemiya was born in San Jose on February 2, 1920. Her mother was a midwife who opened her own clinic, and her father became the clinic’s director before dying in the 1918 flu pandemic. Two of the sisters Yuriko’s also died, leading her mother to send her to relatives in Enzan, Japan in an effort to protect her from illness.

Abroad, she studied with experimental dancer Konami Ishii. She returned to California at age 17 and continued her studies with Dorothy Lyndall, adopting the unique name Yuriko because theater programs consistently misspelled her surname. She was sent to the Gila River War Relocation Center in Arizona after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and traveled to New York after her release in 1943, supporting herself as a seamstress in a clothing factory while trying to break into the scene city ​​dance.

As Yuriko recounted, she had arrived in New York with a list of her three favorite dancers, including Hanya Holm, and hoped to study with one of them. “My preference was Doris Humphrey; Martha Graham was downstairs,” she told publication AsianWeek. “But when I looked at my collection of three names, the address closest to me was Martha Graham’s studio.” She took the elevator to the seventh floor and introduced herself to Graham, who apologized “for what America had done” to Japanese Americans, according to Yuriko, and encouraged her to enroll in dance classes.

“I had no hope,” Yuriko told the Japan Times, “and she gave me hope.” The two women grew closer after Yuriko volunteered to sew costumes for the company; within months, Yuriko was recruited as a full member. “Martha asked if the other dancers in the company were okay with me, because the war was still going on. But they took me in,” she told the San Jose Mercury News in 2003. “I I never felt prejudice there.

She made her Broadway debut in the Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II musical “The King and I,” performing choreography by Jerome Robbins in the “Small House of Uncle Thomas” sequence. She reprized the role in the 1956 film adaptation and supervised the choreography for later productions, eventually directing a 1977 Broadway revival with Yul Brynner that ran for over a year. The revival also introduced Yuriko’s daughter, Susan, a dancer who took over the role of Eliza and followed Yuriko in supervising choreography for subsequent productions, helping to keep Robbins’ dance moves alive.

Yuriko also danced in the musical “Flower Drum Song”, adapted from a novel by Chinese-born author CY Lee, which opened in 1958 and became the first major Broadway show with American actors. of Asian descent in leading roles. His other Broadway credits included the musical “Sandhog,” which premiered in 1954, and a Graham production of “Clytemnestra” in 1960.

She received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1967, which helped her focus on choreography and taught Graham’s technique as an instructor at schools including the University of Rochester and Brooklyn College. She has also directed revivals of Graham’s works, including a 2000 production of “Appalachian Spring” for Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet. “She restored the coherency of the work, clarified the meaning of the choreography, and directed it so strongly that the whole piece clicks into place on an emotional level that feels startlingly new,” wrote Anna Kisselgoff, New York Times dance critic.

Her husband of over 40 years, Charles Kikuchi, a psychiatric social worker, died in 1988, after being hospitalized with colon cancer amid a peace march in Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union. In addition to his daughter, of Manhattan, survivors include a son, Lawrence Kikuchi of Burlington, Mass.; and three grandchildren.

In the mid-2000s, Yuriko started the Arigato Project, a volunteer effort to stage a group of Graham dances that had passed into the public domain. “Arigato means thank you in Japanese,” she said. told the DanceView Times publication. “It’s my thank you to Martha Graham and the dance world for giving me such a great life, and I want to give it back. The knowledge, the experience: I can’t take it with me. is my legacy to young dancers.

“I’m not ‘Yuriko’ when I do it; I am a missionary,” she continued. “Yes, I’m doing it for Martha, but Martha isn’t here. I’m doing it for Martha’s job.

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