NEW YORK – As a toddler, Yuriko Kikuchi lost her sisters and father to illness in California, was raised by relatives in Japan and then returned to the West Coast to face internment at a World War II relocation camp — all before realizing her dream to be a dancer in New York.
Through life’s highs and lows, the 93-year-old recalled many challenges and the countless times dance became her “salvation” — a safe haven from loneliness and loss. It was also a focal point of her passion.
“Dance is living. Dance is, for me, it’s survival,” the first Japanese-American pioneer of the modern dance movement said during an interview at her apartment last month.
“For me it’s a savior. It saved my life.”
Before the San Jose, California, native began taking dance lessons at 7, Kikuchi was sent to Japan as a toddler by her mother after a flu epidemic killed her family members.
While safe with relatives in Yamanashi Prefecture, the lonely child often turned to the outdoors for inspiration.
“I made friends with all of nature and everything else,” she said, adding how insects, frogs, birds and even clouds became vital to her world.
“I had to live with my imagination, and so that’s how I think when I was teaching and choreographing in New York, my imagination would go all over the place and that was the source of my life and my career.”
Konami Ishii, a renowned dancer influenced by German expressionism, first taught Kikuchi as a young girl and trained her through high school in Japan.
After returning to California, the teen took classes but just as she was making inroads as a dancer and choreographer, an executive order forced Japanese-Americans into internment camps.
Giving up a budding career and relocating to the Arizona desert with her mother and step-father was a heart-breaking experience.
“I was so concentrated on dance and just wondered what’s going to happen to us (Japanese-Americans), what’s going to happen to my career,” she recalled, recounting a low point when she “just fainted” at the Gila River Relocation Center.
Awakening in a hospital, Kikuchi hit upon the idea of starting a dance school to share her skills and help entertain other internees.
While materials were in short supply, the imaginative teacher transformed paper, tablecloths and curtains into scarves, skirts and hats for dancers to wear during recitals, according to Emiko Tokunaga’s book, “Yuriko: an American Japanese Dancer: To Wash in the Rain and Polish with the Wind.”
After about 18 months at the center, Kikuchi was released with help from a camp administrator who secured a “domestic job” for her in the Big Apple so her dance ambitions could be realized.
“I had to survive, and as you survive one thing after another, after another, you get stronger and stronger,” Kikuchi explained of her past.
Leaving Arizona by train and arriving in Manhattan’s Grand Central Station was a taste of “freedom” for the performance artist, who quickly settled into a new life.
The aspiring dancer joined the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance in 1943 after a chance meeting with the famed teacher.
“Yuriko, if you are good you will be accepted,” she remembered Graham saying when they first met, and later cried all the way home. “I had no hope and she gave me hope.”
Working hard to improve herself and volunteering to make costumes for the company — all while holding down a full time job at a garment factory — the Graham student stood apart for her natural abilities.
After winning a scholarship, Kikuchi was eventually invited to become a principal dancer by Graham in 1944. She later joined the school as a faculty member, remaining active over the next 50 years.
Throughout her extensive career, the dancer never looked to others, only to herself, always striving to correct weaknesses.
“It’s not a comparison to anybody or I was going to achieve this or achieve that,” she explained. “It had to do with my conviction of how I could improve, and there is unlimited possibility. You can’t possibly say, ‘I’m perfect,’ there’s no such thing.”
One of her most “cherished” memories took place decades ago when Kikuchi went to the Acropolis alone just before closing time while the company was on tour.
Quietly watching the sun go down as the moon and a bright planet rose in the eastern sky, she was awed by a deep connection with a “river of people” who had also traversed through the ancient citadel long ago.
The next day, while preparing to walk on stage as Joan of Arc during rehearsal, the dancer suddenly was compelled to say “take me” aloud to herself.
“I let Joan the Maid take me so I was no longer Yuriko,” the dancer said, noting how from that time on she took her work to “another level of artistic development.
“In other words, forget Yuriko, forget Yuriko dancing this role or that role. Just become.”
Besides making an indelible mark on modern dance, the choreographer also branched out onto Broadway, performing in “The King and I” and “Flower Drum Song,” as well as appearing in films and on television.
She also counted legendary dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov as well as other Japanese-Americans like Miki Orihara, a principal dancer with Graham’s company, among her many students.
For the lifelong achievement of bringing Eastern and Western philosophies together through dance, Kikuchi received a commendation from the Foreign Ministry in January.
Among many awards the commendation, which was on display, was an “honor” and a “surprise because I never thought I was doing this.”
Coming almost full circle to the beginning of her life, Kikuchi again finds herself alone, only this time in the city where her imagination pushed her artistry to new levels.
Reflecting on her life, she said, “I’m very proud to be alone,” adding that her career and family life with two children and three grandchildren has made her world “complete and wonderful.”