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Photograph by John Gerbetz

Generational Wisdom: Yuriko shows a trio of Ballet San Jose Silicon Valley dancers how to approach Martha Graham's 'Appalachian Spring.'

Arigato, San Jose

Yuriko teaches Ballet San Jose Silicon Valley a few secrets of Martha Graham's movements

By Marianne Messina

WHO WOULD have thought that after conducting three days of rehearsals for Martha Graham's Appalachian Spring with Ballet San Jose Silicon Valley that a diminutive 83-year-old woman would cause such upheaval in the company? Dancers were making enigmatic claims: that Yuriko forced them to be more honest than they'd ever been before, that she demanded major transformations, that those three days were so charged with evolutionary moments they felt like weeks.

At Okida Hall in Japantown on Sept. 20, some of these dancers look on as San Jose Taiko, San Jose Ballet Silicon Valley and the Japantown Business Association honor native daughter Yuriko with a reception. She was born Yuriko Amamiya in San Jose in 1920 but spent much of her youth in Japan learning classical Japanese dance. She returned to San Jose before World War II, taught traditional dance in Japantown and was interned in a relocation camp in 1942-43.

Upon leaving the camp, she went straight to New York. "What could I do?" Yuriko says, dismissing the internment year. "I wanted to dance."

At the Japantown reception, three of her childhood friends re-create 75-year-old memories of Yuriko as a child--she was bright, charismatic, "special." The whirlwind path Yuriko beat to success makes it easy to believe she had a "special" destiny in the dance world.

Her first meeting with the legendary Martha Graham happened by sheer synchronicity. "I went to inquire about the teaching schedule, and she was there, alone, and she wanted to see me move," Yuriko remembers. "And I said, 'I'm not in training; I just came out of the camp.'"

Yuriko actually refused to attend Graham's class the next day. "My Japanese ways came out. In Japan, if you don't know the technique, you don't take it from the master first. You take it from an underling." Yuriko studied from an "underling" for all of four months before the word about her abilities got back to Graham. "Martha Graham called and said, 'Yuriko, I want you to take my class.' I got a scholarship."

Three months later, Yuriko was dancing as a permanent member of Graham's company, and the first piece she danced was Appalachian Spring, which forms the center of Ballet San Jose Silicon Valley's season-opening program Oct. 16-19. In fact, the Ballet San Jose company watched a video of that 1944 Library of Congress performance as an early learning aid.

Back at Okida Hall, the three octogenarians remembering Yuriko's San Jose childhood are a little stage shy. One friend, Hatsuye Minato, simply sees Yuriko as a very long-lost pal who has returned home. Hatsuye had no inkling that in the intervening years, Yuriko had toured with the great Martha Graham Company, danced the lead role of Eliza in The King and I with Yul Brynner, then directed major theatrical productions of the play in Britain, Japan, Australia and the United States, formed her own Yuriko Dance Company, been a guest artist in Mexico City, Cologne and Zurich, directed a dance company tour through India, choreographed original pieces for Warsaw's Weilki Classic Ballet Company--in fact, the path of Yuriko's life and accomplishments reads like a geography lesson.

"In my career, the most important thing was that I met Martha Graham in New York," Yuriko claims modestly. The years have only increased Yuriko's admiration for Graham and her approach to dance. "Her idea is that her pieces were born from within her, within her experience," Yuriko explains. "She never choreographed from the outside position."

Forget Technique

Ballet San Jose Silicon Valley dancer Tiffany Glenn, who will be dancing the role of the pioneer woman in Appalachian Spring, explains her dismay when Yuriko told her to forget about technique, knowledge or experience. "That's a lot to lose in one sentence," Glenn says.

"They're not used to working this way," Yuriko says of most contemporary dancers. "You see, this is another thing I want to leave to the younger generation--it's giving them the experience of Martha's work, which digs very deeply inside. And you can't just produce that by doing steps and positions."

Yuriko cites the dancer who will be dancing the role of the preacher, Daniel Gwatkin. "He's very tall and very excellent to begin with. But then I gave him a lot of things that a preacher should have from within, the soul of the preacher. I want him to become his soul of the preacher--and Martha Graham's 'preacher.' So he was sweating it. He never worked like this. So he will carry on with this; he will learn something from it, and if he's smart, he will become something."

Yuriko's work with San Jose Silicon Valley Ballet is part of her "Arigato Project." She maintains a relentless rehearsal schedule and takes only travel and living expenses--no fee--for carrying forth Graham's work to modern dance companies.

"It's my way of saying thank you to Martha Graham personally and to the dance world in America that gave me such a wonderful life," Yuriko explains. "And thank you especially to San Jose, because I was born here."


Ballet San Jose Silicon Valley presents Appalachian Spring, Stravinsky Piano Pieces (choreography by Michael Smuin) and US (choreography by Dennis Nahat and Ian Horvath) Thursday (Oct. 16) at 7:30pm, Fri (Oct. 17) at 8pm, Saturday (Oct. 18) at 8pm and Sunday (Oct. 19) at 1:30 and 7:30pm. at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts, 255 Almaden Blvd., San Jose. Tickets $22-$68. (408.288.2800)


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From the October 9-15, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.




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