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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

"There's an absolute method to Michio's dances," explains Furusho, speaking with Gerald's 36-year-old daughter, Michelle Ito Cloud, as her interpreter. "In his dances, the relationship to music is strong. It started from music and the methodology is similar to music."

The Ito system is based on a series of 20 basic arm gestures or positions, 10 of which are "male" and 10 "female." The male gestures, designated as "A" movements, are characterized by straighter lines, and the female, "B," movements by more soft and fluid lines. Together, they provide the building blocks from which all of Ito's dances are composed.

The formula is more complicated than it sounds. "Those arm gestures seem simple but they are wildly complex," says Homsey. "His technique was to split the body in half: One gesture from A and one gesture from B. What it feels like is patting your head and rubbing your tummy."

In addition to this system, Ito's work was also characterized by a unique cross-cultural quality. "What intrigued me about Ito was the combination of East and West aesthetics," says Homsey. "He did not dance until he was a teenager. The movement came from the physicality he had grown up with."

During his years in New York, Ito married one of his dancers, Hazel Wright. They had two sons, Donald (who died in his 40s) and Gerald, before moving to California in 1929.

In L.A. during the 1930s, Ito taught, performed and choreographed, presenting dance recitals at the Pasadena Playhouse and larger productions at the Rose Bowl, the Greek Theater and the Hollywood Bowl. He's perhaps best remembered for his outdoor extravaganzas, some with more than 100 dancers in the cast. "Triumphant gorgeousness," raved the Los Angeles Examiner after Ito's 125-dancer "Prince Igor" excerpt premiered at the Hollywood Bowl.

He also worked in film--he choreographed for a 1930 version of "No No, Nanette," and supervised costumes, movement style and the like in Paramount's "Madame Butterfly" (1933). "The difference between him and other choreographers when he was working in Hollywood was that he was Japanese," says Furusho. "Forms such as Noh and Kabuki were incorporated into his dances. Not that he learned them on any professional level, but it was just part of who he is before he came here. He didn't consciously incorporate Japanese art forms, they were just there."

In addition to his work in Hollywood, Ito also maintained a high profile in the local Japanese community. "My father was a very well known man," says Gerald Ito. "Before the war, they were planning on making a new Little Tokyo, and he was much a part of that, along with the photographer Toyo Miyatake. He wanted to make a place for the performing arts.

"There weren't so many Japanese who were prominent in the eyes of American people, but my father was."

That visibility, however, worked against Ito once World War II broke out. Gerald was 13 and Donald was 17 when their father was taken into federal custody, the day after Pearl Harbor was bombed.

"He was basically arrested, treated as a criminal," explains Michelle Ito Cloud, a TV documentary producer who lives in L.A.

"He was accused of being a spy," she continues. "I have the alien enemy questionnaire and all that. He was sent to a Department of Justice camp in Missoula, Mont., for almost two years. It was not a relocation camp. Nobody knew where he was during that time."

At the time of Ito's detention, the FBI also told Ito's sons to leave California. They went to live with an aunt and uncle in New York. Two years later, Ito returned to Japan in an exchange. Eventually, he and Wright were divorced and Ito seemingly disappeared.

Then, in 1946, 18-year-old Gerald Ito was serving in the U.S. Navy, stationed in Japan. He set out to find his lost father.

"The war was just over and I didn't know if my father was living or dead," he recalls. "I didn't speak any Japanese, but I would make some free time and go into Tokyo and go into theaters looking for him."

Finally, he got lucky. "One day I met a Japanese Nisei colonel of the American army. I approached him and said, 'Do you happen to know if Michio Ito is here in Tokyo?' And he said yes."

It turned out that Michio Ito was producing shows at the Ernie Pyle Theater--a venue created to serve American soldiers during the occupation. "Michio's job was as the liaison between the U.S. government and the Japanese cultural [community]," explains Michelle Ito Cloud. "He hired all the Japanese dancers and actresses to do shows at the EPT."

Around this time as well, Michio Ito opened a dance studio in Tokyo, where Furusho was one of his students. She also danced for him at the Ernie Pyle Theater, as did many of Ito's best pupils.

After several months, Gerald Ito returned to New York to study at the Dramatic Workshop at the New School, making his Broadway debut in "All the President's Men" not long after finishing school. He would soon be drafted again, however, this time for the Korean conflict.

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