"We're really of both worlds," reflected Nobuko Miyamoto in her comfortable, spartanly furnished living room.
"We're probably more American than we are Asian and (we're) looking to recapture some of our Asian roots to give us a kind of understanding of ourselves."
That makes her work as artistic director of the Great Leaps performing arts troupe--one of the groups in Los Angeles dealing with Asian-American culture--all the more personally important. The ongoing challenge for the singer/songwriter/dancer is creating awareness that Great Leaps' works are a synthesis, distinct from traditional Asian art forms.
"There is a bag that you're stuck with--people look at you and think you should speak Japanese and know Kabuki," she explained. "It's really an education process to say we exist. I like doing what's needed and that's what I feel I'm doing."
That in itself is her reward.
Miyamoto's dedication to her art is intense. But her pursuit takes her out of the mainstream; the monetary rewards are slight, and her kind of artistic passion seldom gets attention.
Great Leaps began eight years ago as a community-oriented operation with performers and technicians donating their time and materials. The group now performs its shows--a blend of dance, music and drama--at colleges and intimate theaters like the Japan-America Theatre--and has toured in Japan.
Great Leaps survived the shoestring budgets of its lean early years largely due to Miyamoto's ability to successfully juggle the often conflicting roles of artistic director, administrator and single mother.
Like many artistic mavericks, Miyamoto, 47, was often frustrated creatively by the time-consuming necessity of attending to business details. But Great Leaps recently hired a part-time administrator to handle the details of the operation and free Miyamoto to concentrate on artistic work.
"The creative thing is so important to me now I'm actually compelled to do it," she explained. "It's something that passes through you and you catch it. I can't, on command, just do this now because it's on a schedule. Sometimes an idea is right now and can't wait a year or two.
"The difficulty is that you're trying to build something stable at the same time you're trying to allow the creative flow to happen. My mind is going zoom zoom, but the time element is very hard. I fight for time to sit down and practice."
Miyamoto is one example of an artist who had the maverick's role forced on her. The Southland native started dancing at 4, playing the piano at 7, and was taking 12 hours of music and dance classes each week after school when she was 12. It wasn't long before she came face to face with the question of her ethnic identity.
"My teacher at the American School of Dance said, 'You're Japanese and, in order to get a job, you're going to have to be twice as good as anybody else,' " Miyamoto remembered. "So, being slapped in the face with that reality at 14, I went out into the world and tried to do what she said and got rejected because of what I looked like. The first three jobs I did, I wore white face."
Miyamoto did win parts as a dancer in several musicals in the early '60s, including "West Side Story." She moved to New York in the mid-'60s and ultimately found her artistic focus shifting away from the commercial stage during the Vietnam War. She began writing and performing folk music, criss-crossing the country for appearances at community centers that gave her a grass-roots feel for the issues affecting Asian-Americans.
She returned to Los Angeles in 1973 and began teaching classes at the Senshin Buddhist Temple near USC two years later. The formation of Great Leaps--which recently opened an office in Santa Monica--was a natural outgrowth of those classes and the Warriors of the Rainbow musical group that she formed.
"Artists are oddballs because they don't really belong anywhere," Miyamoto maintained. "You belong to the other oddballs because you have to take risks and do things that are different from other people's dreams.
"We've become part of the fixtures at the temple, but it's been a process of many years to become accepted. It's a different kind of atmosphere from Hollywood, more homey. People can watch the rehearsals, make coffee, go have their community events and then come back and laugh because you're still rehearsing."
Great Leaps' projects have included a full-scale musical, music videos, short films, an album of Miyamoto's reggae-inflected pop material and live concerts. An educational offshoot, Performing Tree, presents workshops in schools from the perspective of the working artist.
Miyamoto helped to choreograph the hit film "The Karate Kid." Viewing the legal and ego entanglements of the movie world only reinforced her preference for the creative freedom and community orientation of Great Leaps.
"There's a connection I feel to this community," she acknowledged. "I guess my energy is investing for the future of what I do and the belief that it's filling a need that's just not there as far as the mass media are concerned."