By ELISE TAKAHAMA
It’s a small room at the end of the hallway on the fourth floor of the JACCC building. But once inside, it’s clear that it could not be more different from a simple office space.
A small bamboo shrine decorates the entrance, and students respectfully bow as they enter the room. Once they take their shoes off, they step up off the cold concrete onto the warmly hued wooden floor. A huge mirror takes up an entire wall. Colorful birds, flowers, and symmetrical patterns on the ladies’ yukatas brighten the room.
Outsiders could easily overlook this space. Many have. But those who have not, those who have discovered the ancient beauty of Japanese odori behind this generic white door, hold an unwavering passion for the art.
In this hidden haven of rich culture, the very talented Miyako Tachibana — professionally known as Madame Fujima Kansuzu — has been hard at work as the 2014 Nisei Week’s choreographer. For months, she has created the choreography and trained dancers for two dances, “Hinode Ondo” and “Fuyumi no Soran,” which will be performed at the Nisei Week Grand Parade Aug. 10.
In the upbeat “Hinode Ondo” (Rising Sun), Tachibana came up with a creative blend of traditional Japanese dance and modern American moves, using a few steps inspired by a hip-hop dance her daughter’s Columbia University basketball team performed at their annual Basketball Mania banquet. Tachibana also received help from her mother, Madame Fujima Kansuma, and Chris Obi in the choice of the songs used for the dances, both of which hold inspirational messages.
The dance master said she connected instantly with the J-pop song used as backdrop to “Hinode Ondo” – “Rising Sun” by Exile. The 14-member boy band released the single shortly after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, singing of hope in the midst of darkness and a constant “rising sun,” in order to inspire those suffering and raise relief funds for them. This upbeat, pop number is much different from the traditional ondo, but Tachibana and her mother fell in love with the story behind it.
“During the process of making the ondo dances, I came up with many interpretations and it did take many weeks of discussion and tweaking with Kansuma Sensei before we came to a final decision and presentation,” Tachibana explained.
She and her dancers have been practicing the two ondos for the past four months, a group made up of performers as young as middle school students. They come from all over — Pasadena, Thousand Oaks, and even Hong Kong — to gather at the JACCC building every Thursday and Saturday evening.
Tachibana had been choreographing for a long time, and has gained the majority of her knowledge from her mother.
“[Madame Kansuma] knows her dancers’ strengths and she knows her dancers’ weaknesses. She plays to their strengths. You always want to present your dancer in the best light possible. So you have to choreograph things that make them look better,” she said.
But, the long years have not made Tachibana a harsh teacher. She gently guides her students through the steps, patiently reminding them to tilt their heads at a softer angle or pick their feet up higher. Her cheerful reminders, however, are often contrasted by her mother’s sharper tone in the background.
“Charming!” Madame Kansuma instructed loudly, switching between English and Japanese. “Soft! The more you stretch, the more beautiful you are!”
Though their teaching styles may differ, it’s clear that both mother and daughter have an extensive knowledge of the dance.
Tachibana has studied Japanese classical dance since she was just three years old. Madame Kansuma taught her daughter all the fundamentals and helped build her foundation. Tachibana continued to pursue dancing as she grew older, practicing nearly every Saturday for as long as she can remember.
She made her debut performance as Fujima Kansuzu at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, performing “Kagami Jishi,” the same dance her mother performed 76 years ago.
“I continue to dance to honor my mother, and it is wonderful to have something we can do together even as we both get older,” Tachibana said with a smile.
She took a semester off during her second year at USC to travel to Japan and study at the two-century-old Sokei Fujima School. The school had invited her to dance at the Grand Kabuki Theater as part of its bicentennial anniversary.
“It was a time to study culture and learning the art of dance and learning the whole history of dance. It was very educational for me,” she said.
Tachibana’s time in Japan not only served as an important learning experience, but also gave her insight into a contrast of cultures. Japanese dance has found its way to the heart of Los Angeles, but is not the same practice as on the other side of the ocean.
“In L.A., Japanese dancing is more of an extracurricular activity. But in Japan, it’s an art. They’re more disciplined. It’s treated much more seriously,” Tachibana explained.
But the Japanese training was vital to Tachibana’s growth in dancing. After returning from a semester in Japan, she blossomed.
Tachibana lectured on kabuki dance and make-up at Pepperdine University, and performed in movies, television, and commercials.
To Tachibana and her students, dancing is a unique art but also a way to connect generations and bring back warm memories. Many of Tachibana’s students have been dancing since they were five or six years old, and have grown to love it more and more as the years fly by.
“I don’t think everyone realizes the countless hours that go behind ondo. The hair, the makeup, the kimonos… it’s a lot of work,” Tachibana said.
Hunting down kimonos, for instance, was a “huge process,” she said. They had to collect more than 30 of them, each about $200.
The makeup is no easy task either. It takes about three hours to put on the makeup, wigs and costumes – an ordeal endured as a “labor of love,” she said.
But in the end, she said, it’s all worth it. “When the girls talk about it later, it’s clear they have a lot of fond memories,” Tachibana said.
Unfortunately, she said, the traditional ondo has grown out of style lately, and a much simpler dance has taken its place. Japanese folk dancing has become much more popular over the years, and though the moves are easier, the beauty of the traditional dances is often lost in this more “Americanized” version.
Madame Kansuma is concerned that the classical ondo will eventually fade completely, as Little Tokyo diversifies and the Japanese American presence dwindles. But, the culture shift doesn’t worry Tachibana.
“Traditional dancing won’t ever die. It’ll always come back,” she said.
And as long as Nisei Week continues, she added, odori will always have a public platform to be shared, enjoyed and appreciated.
“I think Nisei Week is a huge endeavor and I’m so impressed by everyone’s voluntary dedication,” she said. “It’s a wonderful collaborative effort to celebrate community and culture.”