Story by Liza Simon
Photos by Olivier Koning
A generous pension would be awaiting Keiko Fujii now had she stayed the course as a primary school teacher in her native city of Osaka. But it was not meant to be, she says, explaining how fate intervened during her first spring break vacation in 1981. Off the 21-year-old went to lie on a Waikiki beach, but by her second day in Hawai‘i, she’d had enough sun and surf; she wanted to dance. Keiko had been studying dance since the age of three, first with her mother, an instructor of traditional Japanese dance. The daily routine of sitting upright on the knees for an hour, though, made her fidget. “And so,” she laughs, “my mother fired me.” She was more successful at ballet and modern dance—lessons in which, the hotel concierge told her, were available in Honolulu. Keiko took a bus to the Golden Duck Restaurant on King Street and ran up the stairs to the top-floor studio.
“The first thing I remember is that I really liked the very big naked floor,” she says. “So different from our many tiny rooms in Japan. It made me feel limitless.” She got the same feeling from the instructors. Betty Jones and Fritz Ludin were original members in modern dance pioneer José Limón’s company and taught his technique—which Keiko could not find in Japan back then.
“It was about expressing sadness, ugliness, beauty … everything that we all share right in here,” Keiko says, tapping her chest. Limón saw the human torso as a powerhouse that could unleash emotion by letting go of contrived movement. “Stop trying to be pretty and you will be beautiful,” he counseled his protégés, including the Honolulu duo who both recognized Keiko’s potential.
“When it was time to leave, Betty and Fritz offered me to return as a foreign exchange student,” says Keiko. “I went home and quit my job and made a U-turn to Honolulu. My mother was asking if I’d lost my mind, but I’d found just what I needed to start my dance career.”
Today the one-time primary school teacher has been transformed into the director of an illustrious self-named dance company and founder of a popular dance school in Osaka, Studio K. Keiko is a prolific choreographer who has created some 425 pieces, blending modern dance, social commentary and traditional Japanese themes of myth, magic, philosophy and history. She has twice accepted invitations from Japan’s emperor to perform for the royal family, yet she’s brazen enough to use her art to satirize contemporary Japanese life. In some of the world’s most prestigious concert halls, she has moved audiences to their feet to shout “Bravo!” and she has staged eleven major concerts in New York City alone. But between Osaka and Manhattan, Keiko is often in Honolulu to perform, teach and bask in the special place that ignited her creativity.