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Michio Ito

Biography: 

(1893-1967)

Shipped to Europe by a genteel Japanese family intending him to become an opera singer, Michio Ito arrived in 1911 and found that the ferment of modern dance - Nijinsky, Isadora Duncan, Pavlova - entranced him more than the ritual agonies of the opera house. He enrolled in Dalcroze Institute in Germany and trained in eurhythmics.

With scarcely a year of training he decamped to London when World War I broke out, and proved a sufficient novelty to be invited into aristocratic salons to entertain with his quasi-improvised dances. He combined the hieratic gestures of traditional Japanese stage performance with Dresden's modern novelties and won the attention of members of the literati. W.B. Yeats, in the midst of his experiments with a theater of symbols and besotted with Noh drama, latched upon Ito, casting him as the central attraction of his play "The Hawk's Well" (1916).

Later that year Ito crossed the Atlantic and connected with Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn in Manhattan. The Denishawn troupe had hit upon a stage-friendly version of modern dance that depended on exotic costume and spectacle to frame its explorations of lyric mood and narrative action. Ito absorbed the lessons, incorporating arresting costuming, props, and sometime decor into his work. His short pieces fit neatly into the more experimental of the revues, such as John Murray Anderson's "Greenwich Village Follies." The Broadway stage would prove to be the home for 1920s dance modernism, whether in its Martha Graham, Harald Kreutzberg, or Michio Ito manifestations.

In 1929, shortly before the collapse of the stock market, Ito moved his base of operations to southern California. In Los Angeles he began choreographing long works for the first time, paralleling the embrace of long forms by Leonid Massine of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. In the 1930s he reknit his connection to his homeland, but these visits aroused the suspicions of the authorities as relations between Japan and the United States soured. Pearl Harbor proved a disaster for Ito. He was arrested as a spy and eventually deported in 1943. The final decades of his life were spent in Japan where he assumed the status of a national treasure of dance. David S. Shields/ALS