Saeko Ichinohe Dance Company Celebrates 35th Anniversary

Celebrates 35th Anniversary To think that not too long ago, quite a few dance mavens were convinced that ethnic dance could not be modernized. In its 35th anniversary celebration at Hunter College's Kaye Playhouse, the Saeko Ichinohe Dance Company certainly proved that such a conviction no longer holds.

For one thing, Saeko Ichinohe, the company's founder and artistic director, in addition to her knowledge of Asian dance, has had extensive training in all forms of dance. Her mentors were Martha Graham in contemporary dance and Antony Tudor in ballet. She has also surrounded herself with dancers who have made extensive appearances with a variety of companies.

Although Ichinohe is the troupe's main choreographer, she also utilizes the services of Jeff Moen, the group's production arts director, as co-choreographer.

The program was structured in three sections: "Present," "Past," and "Future." The first featured dancer Haruno Yoshida in a section titled "Pearl," described as "a prayer for peace and harmony in honor of those who have lost their lives by terrorist attack and by natural disasters."

Yoshida was a high priestess of lyricism as she moved in prayer, mourning, and, finally, hope, so lithe that she barely seemed to skim the floor. Vivifying the dancer's artistry was the background curtain conceived by artist Cornelia Ruehlicke. According to the program, her "paintings are a meditation on the universal symbolism of the pearl. She is exploring the metaphor for light and transcendence of this mysterious object of nature."

"Past" consisted of five sections, beginning with "Fire-Eating Bird." Forget all previous interpretations of a firebird (the Stravinsky music has been choreographed in the past by such luminaries as Fokine and Balanchine) as half woman and half bird. Katie Higham-Kessler got so deeply into her interpretation of the creature that she created the whole bird. Most of her movements, accomplished from the floor, gave her the appearance of crouching, creating a poised bird, listening, preening, and about to take off in full flight. It was a short but utterly stunning solo.

A dance inspired by Japanese folk drum beats, "Variation for Taiko," featured Seiko Fujita-Maekawa, Haruno Yoshida, and Tetsuo Yoshida in vigorous movements, yet it also contained nearly imperceptible touches of humor.

When you see John Cage credited among those supplying the score for "Head," there is little difficulty in surmising that the piece—consisting of a solo performed by Shiho Miyazawa and a trio performed by Cho Ying Tsai, Katie Higham-Kessler, and Haruno Yoshida—will be "influenced by the Space Age," as stated in the program. The piece was distinguished mainly by Miyazawa's electrifying solo, which combined echoes of Japan with contemporary dynamics.

"Duet From Yuki (Snow)," described as "romance on a snowy evening," has a unique pas de deux—performed by Seiko Fujita-Maekawa and Terrence A. Poplar—that originates from the floor and alternates between the couple rising in conflicting moods and then falling back to the floor, suggesting that the two can't live with or without one another. Their profound performances struck home with the international force of the theme.

We couldn't help regretting that we had never read the classic Japanese novel "The Tale of Genji." An excerpt from the book, titled "Dew of Hagi," was presented with Yukie Okuyama as Lady Murasaki and Jeff Moen as Prince Genji. Actually, the utterly poetic love scene needed little explanation. The exquisite tenderness conveyed by the performers was extraordinary.

"Future" consisted of a premiere titled "Dreams wandering over a withered field." The new work, created by the American Moen, is inspired by the Japanese haiku poet Basho.

This marked the only appearance during the evening by Ichinohe, who played Autumn Moon. Despite the fact that this was mainly a walk-on role, she made an awesome showing in a lavish lavender costume designed by Yukie Okuyama (the company's dancers are clearly a versatile group).

Later on, Ichinohe stood quietly on the far side of the stage while her dancers performed. But our eyes kept wandering to her. Call it her magnetism. There is no pro like an old pro.

Katie Higham-Kessler portrayed Winter, Haruno Yoshida was Spring, Cho Ying Tsai inhabited Summer, and Yukie Okuyama took the role of the poet Basho. The supremely feminine Okuyama, performing as the elderly poet leading the others on a bout with nature, managed a most convincing portrayal.

Saeko Ichinohe has certainly succeeded in her mission: utilizing dance to inspire mutual understanding between diverse peoples and cultures.