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New Legs for a Legend

He wowed 'em at the Bowl, pioneered modern dance--but did you ever hear of Michio Ito?

March 15, 1998|Jan Breslauer | Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Calendar

It's the weekend after Christmas and the spirit of Michio Ito hovers over a dance studio in the heart of seediest Hollywood.

Inside, the late choreographer's son, daughter-in-law and granddaughters sit on folding chairs in front of the mirrored walls. A boom box plays the strains of Isaac Albeniz's Tango in D as a petite woman in black jazz pants and a Spanish hat goes through the precise, formal paces of a tightly coiled, sensual dance.

The dancer, Bonnie Oda Homsey, executes a series of slow, controlled lunges, her hips propelling the subtle motion from side to side. She turns, spins and glides forward across the wood floor--a whirl of taut, agile energy.

Homsey stops abruptly, looking over at a woman watching her from the side of the room. Soon the other woman joins her, and the two dancers go through a complex sequence of kicks and steps, repeating the moves until both seem satisfied with the correction.

It is a slow, painstaking process, setting a dance such as Ito's "Tango" on a new dancer. But both the former Martha Graham dancer Homsey and her mentor of the moment, Taeko Furusho, are up to the task.

That is, after all, why the astonishingly lithe 71-year-old Furusho, director of the Michio Ito Foundation in Tokyo, has come to Los Angeles today. American Repertory Dance Company is the first American dance company given permission to perform Ito's works, and she is here to make sure it's done right.

"Tango" is part of ARDC's "Legendary California Choreographers" program, which will be presented at UCLA's Schoenberg Hall on March 21 and 22. In addition to the four solos that comprise the "Michio Ito Suite" ("Pizzicati," "Tango," "Tone Poems I and II" and "Greek Warrior"), the bill also features the choreography of such noted artists as Ruth St. Denis, Doris Humphrey, Donald McKayle and Lester Horton.

"Of all the programs we've done, this is significant because it depicts the range and inventiveness that characterized these choreographers whose work reverberated all over the world," says Homsey, 46, who co-directs ARDC with fellow Graham alum Janet Eilber. "But these choreographers chose to be in California."

"Part of what I love about this is putting California back on the dance map," she continues. "My hope is that once again we will allow California to take its place as a seat of dance."

Gerald Ito sits on a couch in Homsey's elegant Los Feliz home, not far from the venues where he once watched his father work. A Broadway veteran who recently retired from a major acting career in Japan--including more than 50 films and four television series of his own--Gerald Ito, at a youthful 70, is a gracious man whose presence suggests some of the magnetism for which his father was famous.

"The dance that Bonnie is doing, I remember my father doing that when I was maybe 8 years old," he says, recalling the earlier session in the studio, speaking English that is marked by aphasia, due to a stroke he suffered in June. "Today was my first time to see Bonnie dance that dance, and I felt like tears because I could see my father, and I could feel her dance with his feeling."

It is, however, a feeling and a dance that hasn't been seen in L.A. in more than 50 years. For while Ito is part of California's culture and history, most Angelenos aren't aware of it. Unlike Agnes de Mille, Lester Horton and other familiar names on the "Legendary California Choreographers" bill, Ito isn't well known outside the dance community here. Yet the Japanese-born artist lived and worked in L.A. from 1929 to 1941.

"He was so famous here," says Homsey. "He was an integral part of the history of the Hollywood Bowl."

Born in 1892 in Japan, Michio Ito was the offspring of an architect. His six brothers would become artists and architects as well. As a teenager, he went to Europe, originally to study music. But once he saw Isadora Duncan perform, he was inspired to dance.

According to an Ito biography by Helen Caldwell (now out of print), Ito went to London after the start of World War I where he met and impressed William Butler Yeats and Ezra Pound, helping them both with Noh projects and choreographing and dancing in a Yeats "dance play." He came to the U.S. in 1916, where he put on dance recitals and worked in theatrical productions. Martha Graham danced in his "Garden of Kama" in 1923 in the Greenwich Village Follies. Pauline Koner, best known as principal dancer in the Limon company in the '40s and '50s, told the New York Times' Anna Kisselgoff that she took the "path" she did because of encountering Ito in New York in the '20s.

"Ito was a total artist with tremendous charisma," Koner said. "In his 'Tango,' he didn't do an authentic tango. But he did do it with an Oriental concentration and containment, with a right sense of Spanish hondo. . . . He was out to be more abstract, more poetic."

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