Introducing Ito Micho to a modern dance class

Ito Michio has frequently been called the “lost pioneer” of American modern dance. That is quickly changing as he is being recovered by dance scholars and inserted into dance history courses.

I encourage teachers to introduce Ito first through his dance technique and choreography:

Use Clips 5-8 on this site to teach Ito’s Ten Gestures A, Ten Gestures B, and his walking step with the gestures. Have students learn and perform these gestures repeatedly and record what they experience in their bodies as they move.

These questions might help prompt discussion:

1.Does this movement feel like other dance techniques they have studied?
2. What mental images or associations, if any, did they experience as they danced?
3. An Ito technique class typically involves repeating these gestures while standing, then walking, then walking at different rhythms. Does this exercise seem useful to them as dancers and choreographers?

Have students watch clips 9 and 10, Tone Poem II (1928) and Pizzicati (1916) on this site. Can they identify the presence of the Ten Gestures in this choreography? How do they make meaning out of the choreography of these two short pieces? Can they provide a close reading of the dances?

Larger Context:

I certainly welcome the so-called rediscovery of Ito and have participated in it with my own research, but the timing of that rediscovery should give us some pause. Modern dance looks more diverse if we can insert Ito into a history that was previously dominated by white Americans and a few white Europeans, many of whom found their innovations in the classical past (Isadora Duncan) and the “East” (Ruth St. Denis), with a little African, Native American (Ted Shawn), and folk culture (Mary Wigman) thrown in. Accusations of exoticism and outright cultural misrepresentation are common and well-founded, so how convenient it would be if we could find an “authentic” Asian dancer who represented and taught his cultural dances to others!

As my research on Ito has demonstrated, he very effectively orientalized himself in order to build a successful career in modern dance, theater, and film. Most of his Japanese dances, noh plays, and hybrid performances were far from authentic. But, we need to interrogate what we mean by authenticity and why it is such an important standard for us. We also need to help our students question how our critical desires shape the way we analyze Ito. Does it make sense to include him as part of an Asian-American dance history, when he remained a Japanese native? That citizenship was one of the reasons he was interned after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and later repatriated to Japan. Why has Ito been reintroduced as a pioneering modern dancer rather than a hybrid performer, theater practitioner, film actor, director of spectacles, and teacher?