Story by Liza Simon
Photos by Olivier Koning
“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.
Keiko expresses an ever-abiding affection for the people of Hawai‘i. “They swim a lot, eat a lot, work a lot, sleep a lot, laugh a lot—all my favorite things!” she says. She hosts get-togethers when she’s in town, serving up her own Japanese cooking and throwing around the occasional pidgin expression. After socializing, she confesses, “I like a hot bath and solitude.” These days she is up early, Skyping with a colleague in Manhattan who is running auditions for Keiko’s next guest-artist stint. Late at night she will check in with her Osaka staff, who are running rehearsals to mark Studio K’s already sold-out twenty-eighth-anniversary concert. The once fidgety child has become an enterprising pro who says she never wants to copy others. “To me the modern dance that is my creation has no boundary lines,” she says. She likes to joke that her creations make jaded New York City dancers go, “No, no, no,” while Japanese dancers, always eager to please their sensei, say, “Yes, yes, yes.” And in Honolulu? Is the response, “Whatevahs”?
Keiko laughs at the thought. But, she says, make no mistake: The Jones/Ludin training that catapulted her into the professional dance world was anything but an Island breeze. It was physically and spiritually rigorous, even grueling. Betty Jones was in the habit of grabbing Keiko’s toes and pulling them into line to prove that the natural alignment of the body allows for freer range of movement—but only if you learn your own anatomy and use that knowledge. “All you have to do is listen to exactly what Betty says, and you will never get an injury,” says Keiko, pointing out that her influential mentor, who does not divulge her age but was onstage with Limón in the 1940s, continues to teach dance and move like a teenager.
During her time with Jones/Ludin, Keiko remembers being prodded to shed her previous lifetime of everyday unnatural postures as well as the bodily distortions that can result from classical ballet. Keiko also had to let go of the traditional dancer’s approach, which can be diametrically opposed to its modern counterpart: In traditional dance you move to preserve an established form; in modern you move to innovate.
After one year of intensive study with Jones/Ludin, Keiko was more than ready to innovate. In fact, she confesses, she’d been making up dances since she was eight years old, her first being about an angel. She held auditions locally and founded the Superdancers, who soon found themselves performing Keiko’s routines at Honolulu’s largest arena. It was the early ’80s, a decade ushered in by Flashdance, but Keiko had her own ideas about how to make choreography exciting, and they did not include, as she puts it, “using your two minutes onstage to shake a thousand times.” Jones/Ludin had trained her to “dance from inside,” and through that she found her way back to her Japanese roots. “In Japanese dance,” she says, “you take one hundred kilograms of feeling, put it into your soul, but you show only 30 percent, maybe in a small gesture, as small as the movement of the eyes. This brings out the essence and it is very powerful.”
Working with Superdancers, Keiko began putting together Yamato, a choreographic exploration of her nation’s heritage. After a Honolulu premiere, she found herself in talks with Japanese officials who hailed her as an avatar of contemporary Japanese art and eased the way for her to return to Osaka and establish her studio and troupe. As Keiko poured herself into Yamato, the piece evolved into the story of Japan’s history from 300 BC to the present day. It grew into a nearly three-hour epic of twelve dramas, each centered on a Japanese woman who embodies something of her era. After two years of prep at the new Studio K, Keiko, twenty-three dancers and four musicians took Yamato to the stage of Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center.
In Yamato, Keiko evoked inner and outer Japanese realities, drawing not only on history, but also on Shinto beliefs in nature’s magical sprites and Buddhist devotion to daily meditation. Yamato was a hit on both sides of the dateline for its sensuality and singularity. There is no doubt that Keiko uses the robust dynamics of modern dance to get into Western hearts; once there, she ably makes the esoterica of Japanese arts more visible to outsiders. Ambitious as she is, Keiko looks to the small things in her immediate environment to get inspired—another reason she values the simple pleasures of Hawai‘i. “There are those times when I am not having a good day and then I go to the beach and see a wave, and suddenly I feel joy,” she says. “You can say I have prayed to the wave. I feel change and it is good.”
Keiko works at getting the members of her company to stretch both body and mind, to break away from Japan’s prized conformity and show their souls onstage. This process begins when she brings a provocative concept to the corps and sits dancers down for a candid discussion. “Now go home and think about it,” she tells them. “Live the concept, make it a subject in your life.”
Keiko recently worked with University of Hawai‘i dance students on a number titled “Entangled Roots and Offshoots,” which examined modern-day angst through a Buddhist lens. Workaholic characters wake up in a hallucinatory hell, realizing too late that they’ve neglected to pay their karmic debts. For the piece to work, the dancers had to transform themselves from “men in suits” into the disembodied souls of a hell described in a Buddhist sutra. Keiko insisted that the dancers execute the slow-mo shuffle of Japanese noh known as suriashi. “Concentrate, transfer weight invisibly but grind the floor,” she scolded dancers daily. She worked overtime, convinced as she was that each dancer—Japanese or not, advanced or beginner—could align the body and make the scene riveting. “The students came to me and said, ‘You’re killing us with this death world stuff!’” she laughs. But in the end, she says excitedly, “They were proud of their noh step.” In fact, with Keiko’s blessings and counsel, four principals in the production are now in New York City pursuing dance careers.
How provocative can the Keiko Fujii Dance Company be? One answer lies in Monophobia, a production that arose from the despair gripping Keiko’s nation after the 1995 Kobe earthquake. A gulf of gas fires was spreading through Osaka, requiring Keiko to circumnavigate decimated roads for nine hours to reach Studio K. “I saw that people felt so isolated that they gave up. There were many suicides,” she recalls. Out of this grew her crafting of a piece that summoned pathologies of loneliness: It included phalanxes of dancers caught in an emotionless Japanese business machine plus a danse macabre that featured Keiko struggling inside the walls of a glassed-in cage.
The March 2011 earthquake and tsunami north of Tokyo prompted Keiko to put together a benefit fundraiser for survivors. Fifteen residents from the affected region of Tohoku made a ten-hour trek on disaster-torn roads to reach the performance in Ashiya City near Osaka. Keiko stood in the wings and listened as audience members wept and laughed. “In front of the greatness of nature, we can do nothing except to support the damaged minds of survivors and show them that they are not alone,” says Keiko.
In late 2012 she staged another benefit concert for Japan’s tsunami survivors, this time in Honolulu, gathering local artists and her company members for a concert at Hawaii Theatre. At the reception after the benefit were many local Japanese residents, students from Keiko’s community classes, representatives of the Japanese Consulate, dance faculty from the university. Keiko was turning on a dime, bowing one moment, trading shakas the next. “I talk to the soul of each person from inside my soul, so that is why I have to talk so many ways,” she says. “That’s communication, and that is what dance is all about.”