Dancer and Choreographer Yuriko Kikuchi Passes Away at 102 | Playbill

Obituaries Dancer and Choreographer Yuriko Kikuchi Passes Away at 102

Ms. Kikuchi, who was the original Eliza in The King and I, directed the 1977 revival starring Yul Brynner and Constance Towers.

Yuriko Kikuchi

Yuriko Kikuchi, dancer, passed away March 8 at the age of 102. 

Ms. Kikuchi was one of the premiere dancers in mid-century Manhattan. The daughter of Japanese immigrants, Ms. Kikuchi was known professionally by her mononym, Yuriko, due to her frustration with consistent misspelling of her last name.

Following the death of her father and two sisters in the influenza pandemic of 1918, Yuriko was sent to live in Japan with relatives, where she studied with experimental dancer Konami Ishii. She was sent to the Gila River War Relocation Center in Arizona after the events of Pearl Harbor, where she channelled her frustration into art by teaching dance classes to her fellow detainees. Using table clothes and worn-out curtains for costumes, she gave a recital of The Nutcracker with her students as a declaration of their dignity.

Following the end of World War II, Yuriko moved to New York City to pursue a career as a dancer. Yuriko was heavily associated with the choreographer Martha Graham, with whom she worked for more than 50 years. Yuriko was the first non-white dancer to join the Martha Graham Dance Company in 1944, where she danced the premiere of the one-act ballet Appalachian Spring, with choreography by Graham and a score by Aaron Copeland.

Jack Soo and Yuriko Kikuchi in Flower Drum Song Friedman-Abeles / New York Public Library

In 1951, Yuriko was cast as in the original Broadway production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's The King and I, portraying Eliza in the "Small House of Uncle Thomas" ballet and reprising her role in the 1956 film. Her work on the heavily stylized sequence was invaluable, and she was regularly brought in to teach the steps to successive Elizas in later productions. In 1977, she directed the entirety of a revival starring Yul Brynner and Constance Towers; her daughter, Susan Kikuchi, danced the role of Eliza. The mother-daughter pair collaborated on the "Uncle Thomas" ballet a second time in 1989, for Jerome Robbins' Broadway.

Yuriko also danced in the original Broadway productions of Flower Drum Song and Sandhog, before transitioning to working as a choreographer in 1967. She received a Guggenheim fellowship to support her work as a choreographer, and she became the premiere instructor of Graham technique, staging revivals and teaching lessons across the country. 

Charles Kikuchi, her husband of more than 40 years, died in 1988 after being hospitalized for colon cancer in the midst of a peace march in Ukraine, which was then part of the Soviet Union. In addition to her daughter Susan, Yuriko is survived by her son, Lawrence Kikuchi, and three grandchildren.


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