During my time dancing with The Martha Graham Ensemble, I had the privilege of dancing in Martha’s 1936 masterpiece “Steps in the Streets”. It was staged and re-constructed on us by the legendary Yuriko.
Yuriko turned 93 on February 2, but save for her use of a walker, she could easily pass for 25 years younger.
She became, through twists of fate and her own desire to dance, the first Japanese-American modern dancer to perform with the Graham company. It broke a racial barrier. As a performer she held everyone’s attention with her beauty and intensity.
To this day her words from that rehearsal process still ring clear in my head on a regular basis. She instilled in us the need for authenticity as performers, the language of the body and the marriage of dance and revolutionary politics. You see dance became a tool to raise consciousness or encourage protest. The U.S. government toured Martha Graham and other dancers to cement their status as a world power much as they tout the Olympics today. Communist and anti-Communists alike seized on dance as a non-verbal way to make points, a cold war of pirouettes.
Yuriko speaks with a severe honesty that is known to hurt the ego as it helps the soul. A tough love type of teaching that demands humility, respect and a thirst for excellence.
I remember Yuriko came to the studio and requested everyone audition for her. She cut me. I was devastated.
I went home, and later that evening my director called. She said Yuriko told her that a voice told her to put me in the piece, that I was supposed to be in it and she had made a mistake not choosing me.
I now know why. It’s crazy how you can know someone for such a short time, and they can have such a profound influence on your life.
Known throughout the dance world simply as Yuriko, she was recently the recipient of the Foreign Minister’s Commendation from the Japanese government, recognized for her outstanding achievements in the field of dance and for her contribution to friendly relations between Japan and the United States.