Yuriko, Keeper of Martha Graham’s Flame, Is Dead at 102

Yuriko Kikuchi, who under the single name Yuriko was a leading dancer in Martha Graham’s company from the 1940s to 1967 and then a keeper of Graham’s flame through her demanding teaching and outstanding revivals of early Graham works, died on Tuesday in Manhattan. She was 102.

Her death was confirmed by her daughter, Susan Kikuchi Kivnick, a former dancer who has held several positions with the Graham organization.

An ultimate multitasker, Yuriko was associated with the Graham fold for more than 50 years. she founded a student company, the Martha Graham Ensemble, in 1983 and ran it until 1993. (Ms. Graham died in 1991.)

She also carved out a career as an independent modern dance choreographer whose themes were sometimes related to her Japanese heritage. She was imbued with a powerful clarity in her dancing, which could turn into delicate fluidity in her own choreography.

Yuriko developed another career after she performed in the original cast of the 1951 Broadway musical “The King and I.” She starred in a dancing role as the runaway slave Eliza in “The Small House of Uncle Thomas,” a faux-naïf ballet based on “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” The choreography was by Jerome Robbins, who asked her to reproduce it in later productions of the musical, which she did for over 20 years. Yul Brynner, the show’s original male star, asked her to direct the entire musical in London. She then directed a production in Japan.

She also appeared in the 1955 film version of “The King and I.” When she directed several other productions of the musical, which is set in Siam (now Thailand), she cast Asian Americans as most of the Siamese characters; earlier productions had primarily used white actors for those roles.

Yuriko Amemiya was born on Feb. 2, 1920, in San Jose, Calif., to Japanese immigrants from middle-class families. Her mother, Chiyo (Furuya) Amemiya, was a certified midwife who opened her own clinic; her husband, Morishige Amemiya, who had imported ostrich feathers for women’s hats. became the clinic’s manager.

Tragedy struck with the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. By 1923, Yuriko’s father had died of the disease, as had her two sisters, at ages 1 and 5. Resolved to save her remaining child, her mother sent Yuriko, at 3, to live with relatives in Japan. It was the beginning of a lonely childhood that improved only when Yuriko was 6 and returned to California to live with her mother and her new stepfather, Shoji Kinoshita.

Yuriko’s mother enrolled her in a local dance studio, where she learned everything from tap to ballet. It was Mr. Kinoshita who suggested that on a forthcoming visit to Japan Yuriko look up the Japanese experimental dancer Konami Ishii, who had visited the family in California.

Yuriko was imbued with a powerful clarity in her dancing, which could turn into delicate fluidity in her own choreography.Credit…Martha Graham Resources

During that trip, in 1929, Yuriko’s mother and her husband decided to end their marriage, but Yuriko’s mother left her in Japan, where she attended a high school for genteel girls. There she learned to sew, a skill that later aided her in helping Martha Graham and her designer, Edythe Gilfond, make costumes.

Yuriko also studied dance with Ms. Ishii and performed with her well-known troupe of young dancers. Japan was hardly devoid of experimental dance, as its choreographers were heavily influenced by visiting German Expressionist dancers. Those Japanese dancers then became mentors to practitioners of Butoh, which would become the new Japanese avant-garde in the 1980s.

Yuriko, however, found her true path in dance when she returned to California in 1937. According to Emiko Tokunaga, her biographer, Yuriko never forgot that she was an American. Her mother now lived in Los Angeles, which was awash in commercial dance studios where young women trained to perform in movie musicals.

But Douglas Mitsuhashi, her mother’s new husband, introduced her to more artistic friends, including the modern dancer Myra Kinch, who later appeared often at the Jacob’s Pillow festival in Massachusetts.

Through Ms. Kinch, Yuriko met a kind and brilliant teacher, Dorothy Lyndall, who taught ballet and modern dance. Yuriko became a member of her company and was encouraged to choreograph. Tired of having her surname misspelled, she began using Yuriko as her professional name.

During World War II, she, along with many others of Japanese ancestry, was detained in a federal internment camp. While at the Gila River Relocation Camp on the Pima Indian reservation in the Arizona desert, she obtained permission to run a dance school. When she was released in 1943, Clara Clayman, a relief counselor, advised her to go to New York City to study modern dance.

Yuriko agreed, and when she arrived in New York she knocked on Ms. Graham’s studio door. When Ms. Graham asked where she came from, according to her biographer, and she replied, “My name is Yuriko and I come from an Arizona concentration camp, where I spent almost 18 months.”

While in New York, Yuriko met Charles Kikuchi, who had been interned in a different relocation camp and later wrote an account of his life there, “The Kikuchi Diary: Chronicle From an American Concentration Camp,” which was published in 1973. They married in 1946.

Mr. Kikuchi, who became a psychiatric social worker, died in 1988. In addition to her daughter, Yuriko is survived by her son, Lawrence Kikuchi, and three grandchildren.

Ms. Clayman found Yuriko a job as a seamstress adjusting clothes for women who shopped at Jay Thorpe, an elegant department store in Manhattan. She trained with Jane Dudley and Sophie Maslow, two veteran Graham dancers. The Graham dance vocabulary was difficult to master, but by 1944 Yuriko had become a regular member of the Graham company. She danced in the premiere of “Appalachian Spring,” a Graham signature piece set to Aaron Copland’s score.

In 2000, when Yuriko restaged “Appalachian Spring” for the Joffrey Ballet, she softened the tone by emphasizing new details about the young frontier couple onstage. The new bride and her husband were more tenderly in love, with blown kisses and caresses. She also downplayed the bride’s usually agitated solo. Visibly tempering the bride’s qualms about the future, Yuriko defined the “sense of place” that Ms. Graham said she had sought to convey.

In 1992, Yuriko reconstructed “Panorama,” a long-lost Graham social protest piece from 1935. Her version sent a phalanx of young dancers rushing onstage as if answering a call to action. The dynamism of the Martha Graham Ensemble dancers caused a sensation when the work was performed at the City Center.

“She worked them hard,” Alice Helpern, a dance historian who has written about the development of the Graham technique, said in an interview. “She squeezed the essence of the dance out of them. She made it clear it’s not about the steps.”

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