Looking Back at The Kazuko Hirabayashi Memorial Celebration at Symphony Space

Looking Back at The Kazuko Hirabayashi Memorial Celebration at Symphony Space
Theo Boguszewski

By Theo Boguszewski
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Published on December 20, 2016
Photo: Stephanie Berger

Behind every great artist is a great instructor.

November 7, 2016 - 7:30pm

Kazuko Hirabayashi, Japanese-American modern dancer, choreographer, and, perhaps most importantly, teacher, passed away last March.  Called Kaz, she was the guiding hand behind hundreds of artists across generations around the world.

A few of these artists, many now world-renowned dancers and choreographers in their own right, paid tribute to Kaz at Symphony Space in an evening of dance that exemplified the spirited, vibrant life she lived.

Former Merce Cunningham dancer Daniel Madoff joined forces with Stephanie Tooman and Terese Capucilli (both of The Martha Graham Company) to organize a memorial show to celebrate their beloved teacher’s legacy.

The show chronicles Hirabayashi's life by her artistic impact. It features the choreography of such dance notables as Ohad Naharin, Robert Battle, Antony Tudor, and Kyle Abraham plus performances by the likes of Doug Varone, Takehiro Ueyama, Jennifer Goggans, and others.

Terese Capucilli and Doug Varone. Photo by Stephanie Berger Photography.

In 2012, after a forty-year-plus teaching career at Juilliard, Hirabayshi learned she had ALS, a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. It would eventually render her unable to initiate or control voluntary movement.

Madoff recalls when he learned that Kazuko was sick: “Kazuko came to the last show of the Cunningham company, and she brought me an orchid. I noticed that she was having difficulty speaking. I found out that she had ALS.”

Reconnecting with Hirabayashi coincided with the exacerbation of a long-time lower back injury. A professional dancer for his entire adult life, Madoff found himself unable to work. As he sought a transition in career, Madoff became Hirabayashi’s primary caretaker through the last few years of her life.

Madoff was specific when curating the memorial: He wanted a show completely about Kaz.  In lieu of speeches, Madoff produced films, which he adeptly wove between the dance pieces and his narration of her biography. Kaz comes back to life in quotes, stories, and fond details like when Anthony Tudor, a notorious pill, kicked her out of class. She picked up her bag, exited one door, and then reentered another as if nothing happened.  Ultimately, Tudor and Kaz became colleagues at Juilliard, and she looked up to him greatly.

Takehiro Ueyama in Kazuko Hirabayashi's Hibernation. Photo: Stephanie Berger Photography.

In one of the most striking performances of the evening, TAKE Dance’s Takehiro Ueyama performs the solo Kaz choreographed for his Juilliard audition in 1991. Ueyama was in Japan when he took a master class from Kaz that inspired him to pursue dance professionally. He moved to the United States to study with her. “Kazuko was like my dance mom in New York City. She would bring me bento boxes when I was studying at Juilliard. Without her, I wouldn’t be here.”

Ueyama remembers Hirabayashi’s words to him. “She said ‘don’t be a good dancer, be a good artist.’ It took me a long time to accomplish this. It wasn’t until three years out of school that Kazuko came to see me perform and finally said ‘very good.’ I never got nervous performing unless I knew that she was in the audience.”

Kaz was a private person, and many audience members were stunned to discover how little they knew about her. Like Ueyama, Hirabayashi came to America speaking little English, in pursuit of a dance career. She found herself in Montana in 1958, where she studied dance briefly before migrating to New York City that same year to study at Juilliard.

Kaz was tough and occasionally cryptic, but that was part of her charm and effectiveness as a teacher. She taught composition from a traditional, technical standpoint, challenging her students to discover freedom within structure.

Kyle Abraham's The Quiet Dance. Photo: Stephanie Berger Photography

Says choreographer Kyle Abraham, who presented the moving, reflective piece, The Quiet Dance (2011), “Although my time studying with Kazuko was very brief, it was a very personalized and intimate one of learning and laughter. She encouraged me, not by telling me about my technique or artistry, but instead by commenting on my character . . . helping me realize that being a good person is essential to being a good artist.”

One of the most memorable works of the evening is a duet performed by Terese Capucilli and Doug Varone. They move with a nuance and emotional complexity unveiled by many years of working inside of their bodies. Varone says, ‘Whenever Kaz gave feedback for our dances in comp class, it was done in such a supportive way, allowing her suggestions to propel our creativity and imagination further than we thought possible. This is something that I’ve carried with me forever and it fuels the way I see and teach today.”

In the final months of Kaz’s life, Madoff fought to let her voice be heard. Kaz was always an independent person, and he helped her in remaining self-sufficient. “I never assumed that I knew what she wanted. Here she was in the hospital, and she’s foreign and a woman and she can’t speak, and the nurses would look to me to direct them, and I said over and over ‘look at her! Let her communicate what she needs!’”

As the various dances and reminisces unspool, it proves difficult not to acknowledge how dance reveals the truth of life. Dance is, by nature, a transient art form, experienced in a single fleeting moment onstage, the energy and vitality of which is impossible to reproduce. These performances in Kazuko's honor point to the transience of dance, and the transience of human life. Yet so much beauty lives in the ephemeral. Just as a glorious moment of performance is eternalized in our memory, so is a remarkable human life.

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