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Miki Orihara Brings Female Dance Masters to the Fore in “Resonance III”

Theatre of Yugen

Date: Fri May 10, 2019 12:30pm

Dance is interpersonal, according to Miki Orihara, the Bessie Award-winning artist whose 27 years and rise to principal dancer in the Martha Graham Dance Company distinguish her accomplishments as a performer, choreographer and master teacher. “Person to person, that’s how I like to learn and present my work,” she says in an interview from her East Coast home.

Orihara has in her background traditional Japanese Fujima dance, studied at Takata/Yamada Dance Studio in Tokyo, and American ballet, jazz, and modern dance training at Joffrey Ballet School, Alvin Ailey American Dance Center, and the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance. In addition to her work with the Graham company, Orihara has appeared with the companies of Twyla Tharp, Stephen Pier, Martha Clarke, and others. She has performed in works by Robert Wilson, on Broadway, and in films. A primary mentor during her career has been Yuriko Kikuchi, former director of the Graham Company.

Presented by Theatre of Yugen on May 15 and 16, “Resonance III” features Orihara performing a solo concert of five pivotal works choreographed by female dance masters: Graham’s Lamentation (1930), Doris Humphrey’s Two Ecstatic Themes (1931), Seiko Takata’s Mother (1938), Konami Ishii’s Moon Desert (early 1930’s), and Yuriko’s Cry (1963).

“Yuriko is so widely known, everyone uses just her first name,” says Orihara. “I met her in 1981 and ever since, she’s been my New York mother, my guide.” With early training in Japan, pre-professional study in the United States, and long, highly respected careers as performers, choreographers, regisseurs, and coaches of Graham repertoire, Yuriko and Orihara traveled parallel paths. “Also, in the Graham company, the roles I got cast in were mostly Yuriko’s. I learned the roles from her and other dancers, not from video.”

That is how dance at its most fundamental level became inter- and intra-personal to Orihara. The inspiration and purpose of “Resonance III” is to pay tribute to the tradition of works passed body-to-body through generations and across geographic divides. “I kept contact with my Japanese teachers (while later dancing in America). The oldest pioneers, I realized, are leaving this earth. All the connections, the background — if I don’t do something with this, no one else will do this. Japanese blood is what Yuriko, I and these pioneers have in common. I am here because of coming to dance with American modern dance masters, but without the Japanese artists and training, I and Yuriko wouldn’t be here. It is our lineage.”

The performance will showcase Orihara and include pianist Nora Izumi Bartosik in four of the five dances. “Nora is half Japanese, half American. I heard her playing before I knew that about her — and liked her playing. I want her to explore the themes of the work as I am. The piano will be onstage, upstage right. I can’t actually look at her and she doesn’t need to look at or play for me, but we must perform together.”

Addressing the commonalties and contrasts between Japanese and American dance, Orihara says the styles differ, but dance connected to emotional energy and feeling forms the core of the selections. “The dance comes from the inside. It’s not about shape. The Japanese pieces are more directly emotion-related than the American. Graham is more the abstract part of emotional expression, as is Humphrey.”

In rehearsal, Orihara uses video to learn the choreography; preferring to use the earliest versions. “I like to get as close to the original source as possible,” she says. But to truly embody, invest in, or “know” a dance, Orihara, like most dancers, relies on other dancers who have performed the role or on trusted coaches. If a coach cannot work with Orihara in person, she uses Skype or sends videos for review and notes.

In each work, there are goals far beyond simply rendering the choreography. Lamentations is familiar and instinctive; most vital is to follow coaches’ advice she has received to “not think it, just dance it.” Sometimes, while performing the work, she says, “I see Martha. I see my mother. I feel them around me.” Takata’s Mother, she aims to deliver with strong, linear physicality and humid or “wet” expression, like summer heat. “The subtitle of “mother’s love and kindness and prayer to the future” gives me information too.” Ishii’s dance, based on a children’s song, casts her into the role of an Indian princess crossing the desert in moonlight; Humphrey’s work offers freedom for exploration; and Yuriko’s Cry is a universal cry. “It’s not sobbing,” she says, “it’s how the cry goes through your body and is released. It’s a process.”

Extending the connections drawn through Orihara’s performance of the decades-spanning works, Nanako Yamada will teach a Dalcroze Gesture Master Class that includes learning the 20 basic gestures of modern dance that originated in Japan. Dance scholar, historian, professor, and choreographer Yasuko Kataoka will present a preperformance lecture on early 20th-century Japanese dance history.

Lou Fancher is a San Francisco Bay Area writer. Her work has been published by, Diablo Magazine, Oakland Tribune, Contra Costa Times, InDance, East Bay Express, Oakland Magazine, SF Weekly, and others.  She is a children's book author, designer and illustrator, with over 50 books in print. Also a choreographer, ballet master and teacher, she coaches professional ballet and contemporary dance companies in the U. S. and Canada.  Visit her website online at

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