For a young, relatively unknown group of dancers to attempt to revive the long-retired works of an early choreographer is virtually unheard of. But when local dancer-choreographer Dana Tai Soon Burgess and his Moving Forward Contemporary Asian American Dance Company introduced a capacity crowd at Dance Place to the works of Michio Ito Saturday, they proved it was a risk well taken.
Born in Tokyo, Ito studied music briefly in Europe until turning to dance, and made a triumphant choreographic debut in England at the outbreak of World War I. His success soon led him to New York, where he taught and collaborated with such dance legends as Martha Graham, Ted Shawn and Lester Horton. In 1929 film work drew him to Hollywood, where he began mounting extravagant dance spectacles at the Hollywood Bowl and Pasadena's Rose Bowl, at times using hundreds of performers and a full orchestra. His work in America came to an abrupt halt, however, with the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941; he was sent to an internment camp and eventually deported to Japan. He died two decades later in Tokyo.
Burgess learned the five Ito works on Saturday's program from Satoru Shimazaki, a student of Ito's protege Ryuko Maki and the repository of the Ito repertoire. What was truly revelatory was the fact that the passage of time has not dimmed their power or made them mere curiosities from the beginnings of modern dance.
Take "Ave Maria," one of the earliest Ito pieces in existence, thought to date from his training with music theorist Emile Jacques-Dalcroze in 1914. As performed at Dance Place, the soloist (Sarah Craft), in a luminous blue robe, crouched in a pool of light, one arm before her eyes as if shielding herself from unfathomable grief. As the familiar Schubert music began, she rose, her arms appearing impossibly liquid as they circled above and before her. Craft seemed to be pushing the music through the air, so exquisitely timed were her movements to the score.
Like "Ave Maria," "Pizzicati," danced by Burgess before a spotlight that threw his shadow on a rear screen, involved only the torso and especially the arms, whipping around like windmills to an excerpt from Delibes' ballet "Sylvia." "Tone Poems I and II," danced by Mhari Saito and Tina Ryoko Matsuoka, respectively, to music by Kosaku Yamada, were more narrative, the dancers standing in for the universal struggle against natural and societal forces, and were thus less poetic, and less remarkable. "En Bateau" was an evocation of the ocean, the dancers (Craft, Emily Crews, Matsuoka, Saito and Suzie Kim Taylor) drifting in circular patterns, matching the serenity of Debussy's "Petite Suite, I."
Much of the nearly two-hour program was given over to various speakers, including Japanese American artist Hiro, who produced the concert; Michiko Kitsmiller, who danced with Ito in Japan; and Shimazaki (who spoke the most movingly about Ito, observing, "World War II tore out his heart, and his life"). Yet in a scant 20 minutes of dancing -- cool and light as silk -- more was expressed about Ito than the assembled panel of scholars, colleagues and devotees could hope to convey.