May Asaki Ishimoto dies; created costumes for ballet stars

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 17, 2010; C07

When May Asaki graduated from high school, her parents tried to find her a husband. They turned to traditional Japanese marriage brokers in their home town of Hanford, Calif., but their daughter -- independent and resourceful from an early age -- turned down the first three men she met.

"When suitor number four appeared," she wrote in an unpublished memoir she completed last year, "I felt sorry for my parents so I closed my eyes and said I would marry him."

Much to her relief, however, she found herself rejected by the prospective groom. His family had concluded that the slight and cultured May Asaki would not make a suitable wife for a chicken farmer.

Her mother quietly arranged for her to move to Los Angeles to attend a fashion and dressmaking school. May Asaki had been sewing for most of her life and designed her first dress, for a younger sister, when she was 12. In high school, she made clothes for her teachers.

Decades later, her skills as a seamstress would launch her on a globetrotting career with some of the greatest ballet stars in the world, but at 22 she was still living at home with her parents.

On Dec. 7, 1941, she went to a matinee at the only movie theater in Hanford. When she came out, there was an odd commotion in the street, and May learned that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.

"I didn't even know where Pearl Harbor was," she wrote in her memoir, "but I was angry that Japan had attacked us."

Her Japanese-born parents had been in the United States for more than 25 years, but they were fearful and distraught. Her father dug a hole in the back yard and burned everything from Japan: books, letters, even clothing.

"When the fire was set," May recalled in her memoir, "we watched our possessions burn and I wept."

On May 8, 1942 -- May Asaki's 23rd birthday -- she and her family were loaded into the back of an Army truck and sent to a detention center. They were allotted one suitcase each.

May, who was the second oldest of 11 children, spoke only rudimentary Japanese and had known no home but California. Her older brother volunteered for the Army the day after Pearl Harbor, but his patriotism didn't help her family. U.S. authorities considered Americans of Japanese descent to be potential enemies during World War II, and the Asaki family eventually ended up at an internment camp in a snake-infested swamp in Arkansas. Within six months, May's mother was dead at 48.

"My older brother was serving in the U.S. Army while our family was incarcerated as criminals," May wrote in her memoir, "the stress of which was too great for our mother to bear."

The only good thing to be said for May's two years of captivity was that she met Paul Ishimoto, whom she married in April 1944. Three months later, when their internment camp was closed, they moved to Washington. The federal government gave them $25 apiece to start a new life.

Mrs. Ishimoto made shirts for her husband, who had gone from a prisoner of the United States to a member of its wartime spy agency, the Office of Strategic Services. She sewed slipcovers on the side and made outfits for her daughter's ballet class. When the dance teacher joined the National Ballet, Mrs. Ishimoto was hired to make costumes for the newly formed company.

By trial and error, she taught herself to make tutus and other dance outfits. They had to be lightweight and flexible, but they also required an almost architectural structure to withstand the rigors of ballet. She created hundreds of costumes during her eight years with the National Ballet and devised a novel way to adjust them to fit dancers of different sizes. When she left in 1970, it took three people to replace her.

She planned to return to her life as the mother of four children, but her work with Dame Margot Fonteyn, Rudolf Nureyev and other world-famous dancers was already renowned in the ballet world.

In 1971, Mrs. Ishimoto received a call asking whether she could take a temporary assignment from the New York City Ballet, led by the acclaimed choreographer George Balanchine. Two years later, she moved to the American Ballet Theatre, often considered the country's finest classical dance troupe. As wardrobe mistress, she organized hundreds of costumes and instituted a set of inviolable rules, the most of important of which were that no one could smoke, eat, drink or sit while in costume.

"Dancers take it out on the costumes, like the baby kicking the dog," she told Newsday in 1989.

She was backstage at every performance. On her days off, she searched for the fabrics, buttons and brocades that she would stitch into exquisite costumes. One of her tutus, which she made for dancer Marianna Tcherkassky, is in the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of American History.

Mrs. Ishimoto had to manage more than just costumes -- she had to deal with fragile egos, as well. In time, she learned to ignore temperamental dancers who blamed a poor performance on a costume or who threatened not to take the stage unless an alteration was made at once.

In her own way, May Ishimoto became almost as much a legend at ABT as Gelsey Kirkland, Cynthia Gregory, Mikhail Baryshnikov and the other ballet stars she worked with.

When she died of a heart ailment on Nov. 20 at age 90, Baryshnikov sent a note to her daughter Mary Ishimoto Morris, a former Washington Post Book World editorial assistant: "Her quiet spirit and dedication to the theater were reminders to every ABT dancer that beauty is found in the smallest details . . . a bit of torn lace, a loose hook and eye, a soiled jacket -- these were her opportunities to pour energy into an art form she loved, and we were the richer for it."

Mrs. Ishimoto, who lived in Chevy Chase, commuted to New York for the 17 years she was with ABT. Her husband worked as a translator for the State Department and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. He died in 1997.

In addition to her daughter Mary, of Laurel, survivors include three other children, Norman Ishimoto of San Francisco, Janet Ishimoto of Silver Spring and Roger Ishimoto of Bethesda; four sisters, Fumi Inada of Gilroy, Calif., Aiko Imagawa of Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., Koko Wittenburg of Bethesda and Yo Seltzer of Silver Spring; four brothers, Sam Asaki of Huntington Beach, Calif., Jack Asaki of Lake Forest Keys, Calif., Steve Asaki of Stanton, Calif., and Goro Asaki of Pasadena, Md.; nine grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.

Mrs. Ishimoto retired from the ABT in 1990 and took up line dancing, swimming, bowling and golf. She played in a hand-bell choir, attended Palisades Community Church in the District and traveled the world.

There was one thing she didn't do in retirement, though. She put down her needle for good and never sewed another stitch.

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