Martha Nishitani was a Seattle modern dance teacher and choreographer, and one of the leading proponents of modern dance in the Pacific Northwest. Her University District studio was a fixture of Seattle's performance dance community for the entire second half of the twentieth century. As a leader in the field of creative movement for children, Nishitani helped generations of Seattle children discover the joy of moving to music. As a virtual missionary of modern dance, she helped educate Washingtonians of all ages about the art form.
Martha Nishitani was born on February 27, 1920, in Seattle. She was the ninth of 10 children born to Japanese immigrants Denjiro (1877-1926) and Jin Aoto (1879-1961) Nishitani.
Denjiro Nishitani left his wife and four children in Tottori Prefecture in Japan, arriving in Victoria, British Columbia, on March 25, 1906. One month later, Denjiro Nishitani crossed the border into the United States, listing his occupation as farm laborer.
Denjiro Nishitani was soon hired as groundskeeper on the estate of Seattle businessman James D. Trenholme (1865-1919), near the intersection of what is now Roosevelt Way NE and NE 75th Street, and was able to send for his wife. On May 13, 1909, Jin Nishitani arrived at the Port of Seattle aboard the Tango Maru, which had set sail from Kobe, Japan. Her four children remained behind with relatives. This was common practice at the time: families immigrated in ones or pairs as circumstances and finances allowed.
In 1912, with Trenholme's encouragement, Denjiro Nishitani established a greenhouse, plant nursery, cut flower, and landscaping business, Oriental Gardens, at 98th Street N (now NE) and Ravenna Avenue NE, near Bothell Way NE. The rural site was 13 blocks north of Seattle's (then) city limit in unincorporated King County. The Nishitanis initially leased the property, since people born in Japan were prohibited from owning land at the time. They were one of the first Japanese families in the Northeast Seattle area roughly bordered by the University District and what is now Lake City, an area that would become home to approximately 50 families of Japanese origin by 1930.
In 1919, the Nishitani family purchased the Oriental Gardens land in the name of their first American-born son, George, who was born on the Trenholme estate in 1912. By the time the Nishitanis purchased the property, all four of the children left behind in Japan had joined them in Washington. After Denjiro Nishitani died in 1926, his family operated Oriental Gardens.
Martha Nishitani grew up on the Oriental Gardens property, surrounded by nature, sensitive to the impact the changing seasons had on the environment. A small creek, now called Willow Creek, ran through the gently sloping property. Nishitani told a neighborhood historian more than six decades later about the trees she loved best at her idyllic childhood home: a graceful weeping willow near the creek, and a grove of vine maples that turned dramatically crimson every fall ("Meadowbrook History Book"). Martha would later draw inspiration from this early immersion in the natural world when creating dances and describing physical impulse to her dance students.
Maple Leaf School
The Nishitani children attended Maple Leaf School, some in a ca. 1910 wood-frame building and some in its replacement, an eight-room brick-veneer building located on the corner of NE 100th Street and 32nd Avenue NE. This building was brand new when Martha started school, and was an important focus of neighborhood life. Martha's parents donated many of the trees and shrubs that were used to landscape the new school. Nishitani family members later remembered how diligently Maple Leaf's teachers worked to help the four older children -- recently emigrated from Japan -- learn English.
Maple Leaf School was operated by the Maple Leaf School District No. 164 during the years Martha and her siblings attended school there. In 1944, it was among the schools that formed the new Shoreline School District. In 1953, Maple Leaf School was annexed into the Seattle Public School District. The building was demolished in 1990.
Nishitani first became interested in dance as an art form when she was 6 years old. Taken to see the 1926 silent film version of Victor Hugo's novel Les Miserables as a treat after visiting the dentist, she became smitten by the dancers in the live vaudeville show that preceded the film. The beauty of the performance, Nishitani remembered more than 70 years later, inspired her.
In an unpublished autobiographical essay written in 1992, Nishitani recalled that the dancers in the vaudeville performance wore "long, beautiful blue gowns. I fell back into my seat. From that moment on, I knew I wanted to be a dancer. However, I kept it a secret and always answered I wanted to be a school teacher when I grew up. To my joy and satisfaction, I became both a teacher and a dancer" ("Martha Nishitani Modern Dance Teacher-Choreographer," Martha Nishitani modern dance history).
Young Martha was apparently the only member of her large family who responded so intensely to creative movement. "I used to try to get my younger sister Connie to dance with me when we were children, but she was always busy collecting bugs or something," she told The Seattle Times in 1952 ("Nisei Girl Champions Modern Dance").
Martha Nishitani's interest in dance; her dance education; and her subsequent long career as a dancer, choreographer, and teacher spanned the decades during which modern dance was conceived by its earliest proponents, took root, and flourished. Modern dance is usually performed barefooted, and employs natural movements and rhythms as the substance of the dance and the dancer's body as the instrument.
During the 1910s, 1920s and 1930s, modern dance technique was actively developed by those who pioneered the art form. These included Isadora Duncan (1877-1927), Ruth St. Denis (1879-1968), Ted Shawn (1891-1972), Doris Humphrey (1895-1958), Charles Weidman (1901-1975), Helen Tamiris (1905-1966), Martha Graham (1894-1991), Mary Wigman (1886-1973), and Hanya Holm (1893-1992). During the 1940s and 1950s, these dancers' students and company members were beginning to disseminate, teach, and promote modern dance across the United States.
By the 1960s and 1970s, modern dance classes were commonly available in high schools and colleges. By the 1980s and 1990s, choreographers increasingly pushed the boundaries between modern dance and classical ballet. By the early twenty-first century, the term "modern dance" has fallen out of common usage in favor of "contemporary dance," a response to the art form's broader vernacular. In general, the term "modern dance" now applies to the historical period between the late 1910s and mid-1970s.
Lincoln High School
In 1935, Nishitani entered Lincoln High School. Her physical education teacher at Lincoln was Katharine Wolfe (1904-1990). Wolfe taught interpretive dancing as part of her curriculum in some of her classes, which was unusual for the time -- among Seattle high schools, only Lincoln and Garfield placed emphasis on interpretive dance during this period. Under Wolfe's direction, Lincoln students participated in Dance Drama, a performance ensemble.
Katharine Wolfe became a formative influence on Martha. Wolfe encouraged Nishitani to attend as many dance performances as she was able to, and sometimes accompanied her to these performances. "Katharine helped me with the devotion of a second mother," Nishitani remembered decades later ("Martha Nishitani Modern Dance Teacher ...).
The Lincoln Totem from 1939 -- Martha Nishitani's graduation year -- makes it clear that even in high school, Martha and her fellow dancers were already modern dance missionaries: "Some of the abstract dance compositions of the Dance Drama classes are pretty abstract, but since its infancy the Dance Drama has made noticeable strides. We as an audience have progressed through the sideshow or freak attitude, too ... . Of course the costumes are as abstract as the dances -- wonderful what you can do with a bolt of cheesecloth and a bushel of raffia -- and all the performers have dirty feet, but even so we think they've got something" ("Artful Feet").
University of Washington
After graduation, Martha spent about a year working as a live-in housemaid for a family with two young children. She then enrolled at the University of Washington, becoming a Textile, Clothing, and Arts major, a course of study within the Home Economics department. Had she completed her degree in this field, she could have pursued a merchandising and design career, or become a Home Economics teacher.
Nishitani studied modern dance through the physical education department under instructor Mary Aid de Vries (d. 1963). De Vries taught at UW from 1927 to 1963, and directed UW's Dance Drama performance ensemble. The University of Washington did not offer a dance major at the time, nor did most colleges or universities in the country. During the 1920s through 1940s, modern dance as an art form was developing rapidly, and was only beginning to be codified within an academic framework. Cornish College, for example, taught Aesthetic and Greek Dancing in the 1920s, and in the 1930s offered modern creative dancing classes.
Nishitani had been at UW for about year and a half when President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) issued Executive Order 9066, which resulted in the internment of all Issei (Japanese immigrants) and Nisei (Japanese first generation born in America) living on the West Coast. Executive Order 9066 yanked Martha Nishitani from her educational pursuits and -- along with her family -- from her home and city.
Ordered to Minidoka
In 1942, Executive Order 9066 led to the relocation of 117,000 people of Japanese ancestry living near the West Coast of the United States into internment camps away from the coast. As was the case with almost all of Seattle's first generation Japanese Americans (known as Nisei) and Japanese-born residents (known as Issei), Martha Nishitani was incarcerated first at the so-called Camp Harmony assembly center at the Puyallup Fairground, then at Minidoka Relocation Camp in Hunt, Idaho. Also interned were her younger sister Connie (b. 1921); eldest brother Hiromu (Kelly) (1899-1969); mother Jin; older sister Misao Nishitani Sakamoto (1906-1999) and her family, older sister May Nishitai Gomes (1910-2006) and her husband, and older sister Sadako Nishitani Abe (b. 1902) and her family.
In 1920, Nishitani's eldest brother Kelly had married Pearl Dubry (b. 1902), who was Caucasian. Pearl remained in Seattle overseeing Oriental Gardens, ensuring the business was waiting for the family upon their release from Minidoka. This put the family in a small but very fortunate minority: only internees with non-Japanese family members -- or those with friends or neighbors willing to oversee their property while they were interned -- had something to come back to upon their release. Another factor in the Nishitani family's ability to resume business operations after the war was the fact that they owned their land.
Martha Nishitani was 23 when she was sent to Minidoka, where she worked as a filing clerk. Although she later recalled that her mother wept at the desolation of the sagebrush-covered Idaho terrain surrounding Minidoka, Nishitani put a positive spin on her imprisonment: "I was young and kind of pretty, so I didn't lack for boyfriends. We had dances every Saturday night in our mess halls. We would push back the tables and dance. (My mother and I) used to walk down to the edge of the camp where there was a barbed wire fence. There was a fence there and a soldier on guard with a rifle. He was very nice, we talked with him. They never pointed rifles at us or anything. ... I don't have any bitterness. I always knew that I was an American citizen, and that it was martial law. That's why I went" ("WWII Japanese Internment").
By mid-1943, the War Relocation Board (the federal organization in charge of implementing Japanese internment) had begun allowing internees who could secure both paid employment and a place to live, and whose loyalty had been cleared by the FBI, to leave the camps. Those who left were still barred from coastal areas, so they could not return home. Among those granted early release under these restrictions were May Gomes and her husband (released March 23, 1943), Connie Nishitani (May 24, 1943), and Martha and Jin Nishitani (November 6, 1943). All were bound for Caldwell, Idaho, about 140 miles from Minidoka. Caldwell was home to Martha's brother George Nishitani (1912-2006), who in the late 1930s had married Martha Uyematsu (b. ca. 1915), whose widowed mother had a farm in Caldwell. When his mother, brother, and sisters were interned, George was living in Caldwell and farming. When family members petitioned for release, they could state that they had housing and employment on the farm.
Another factor in the Nishitani family's favor must have been the fact that two Nishitani brothers were on active duty in the United States Army at the time Executive Order 9066 went into effect. Tom Nishitani (1914-1990) had enlisted in 1941 and would reenlist in 1944, serving through February 1946. Woodrow Nishitani (1918-2004) had enlisted January 21, 1942 (less than a month before Executive Order 9066), and would serve through January 1946.
When World War II was over, Martha Nishitani returned to Seattle. She joined her high school teacher Katharine Wolfe's Intercultural Dance Workshop, which was sponsored by the YWCA, also working as a saleswoman at Oriental Gardens. Seattle arts critic Maxine Cushing Gray (1909-1987) introduced Nishitani to modern dance choreographer Eleanor King (1906-1991). A student and dancer with legendary modern dance pioneers Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman during the early 1940s, and an original member of the Humphrey-Weidman company, King moved to Seattle in 1943 to teach at Cornish Institute (now Cornish College of the Arts). After one year, she resigned from Cornish to form her own modern dance company and -- with Katharine Wolfe and Maxine Cushing Gray -- created the One World Dance Series, which became Northwest Friends of the Dance.
In 1946, Martha Nishitani began studying with Eleanor King and also performed in King's modern dance company, touring through the Pacific Northwest. In 1951, King left Seattle to take a post as assistant professor in the Fine Arts Department at the University of Arkansas. King did not immediately decide that her move would be permanent, initially traveling between Fayetteville and Seattle regularly.
When King was away from Seattle, her dancers operated her studio as a collective, with Nishitani as manager. Dance was Martha's passion, but managing King's studio was by no means her only responsibility. She worked at Oriental Gardens and kept house for her mother, brother, and two nephews (her brother Kelly and his wife Pearl had separated after the war), in addition to her work for King.
Eleanor King's curriculum was based on what she had learned from Doris Humphrey, including emphasis -- even for beginning dancers -- on composition. Doris Humphrey had impressed upon Eleanor King the belief that the modern dancer's task is to create rituals for her own times. King passed this received wisdom on to Nishitani. King's impact on her was inspirational, Nishitani later remembered: "From her I learned the principals of modern dance and a technique for expressive dance movement. I studied and performed in her dance company for six years and was devastated when she decided to leave Seattle. I had to continue dancing somehow" ("Martha Nishitani Modern Dance Teacher ..."). Nishitani accomplished this by assuming the lease on King's studio at 908 Madison Street where, in December 1951, she founded her own modern dance school and company, Martha Nishitani Modern Dance Group.
In 1954, Doris Humphrey personally selected Nishitani to participate in Humphrey's repertory class at Connecticut College in New London, Connecticut. Nishitani performed a 1930 Humphrey work, "Water Study," under the choreographer's direction. Nishitani described this experience in a 1959 article for Puget Soundings: "The rhythm of our breathing and faint patter of bare feet were enough to keep the unison pull of rising movements, sudden falls, slow recoveries, fast runs, and diminishing sways. We felt the power and calm of ocean waters and experienced a thrill of rhythmic movements divorced from the metric rhythm of music" ("Dance Dance Dance!").
Studio on The Ave
When Nishitani returned to Seattle, she discovered that in her absence the landlord had rented the studio to someone else. She was able to find studio space in Seattle's University District, and moved her school and company in October 1954. The studio occupied the upper floor the 1907 Nichols Block building at 4203-4205 University Way. The space featured a large open wood-floored room with ballet barres bolted to the wall and tall windows that looked down on the busy street -- "The Ave" -- below. This remained Nishitani's base of operations for nearly 50 years, until her retirement in 2002.
Nishitani described the modern creative dance program offered at her studio to The Northwest Times: "It is related to modern art and modern music as it is a form of expression with the human body in motion as the medium of expression. It is especially fine for children, as it offers them a highway for their imaginations and the development of strong well coordinated bodies" ("Martha Nishitani to Continue ...").
Nishitani's school specialized in modern dance classes and in creative dance classes for children, and eventually also offered ballet and jazz classes. By the time she reached her 70s, Nishitani had become interested in providing creative movement classes to senior citizens as well.
Several of Nishitani's students went on to careers in internationally known dance companies. These include James Howell (1936-1982), who danced with the Robert Joffrey Company; Sandra Neels, who danced with Merce Cunningham Dance Company; and Jennifer Thienes, who danced with the Mark Morris company.
Creative dance for children utilizes the children's own creativity. Children studying with Nishitani created dance themselves from their earliest classes, gaining a physical understanding of the joy of movement and real ownership over the experience of dancing.
Nishitani's advice to parents wishing to enroll their children in dance classes was specific. In a 1966 article for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, she wrote: "Select a teacher as if you were selecting a physician. In reality you are entrusting the welfare of your child's body to the dance teacher who can make it beautiful and efficient or physically injure it. Look for a small class, not a factory. There is a limit to the number of small feet a teacher can watch, with or without an assistant. If the child is happy and satisfied studying creative dance he or she can continue through the age of twelve and then move into modern dance which is the adult equivalent of creative dance" ("Youth and the Dance Belong Together").
Nishitani's work was frequently collaborative, and often that work's aim was to spark a love of movement and music in children. This was accomplished not only by presenting performances children could enjoy as audience members, but also by creating works in which the children themselves experienced the thrill of performing. In 1966, for example, Nishitani choreographed King Midas, an original musical dance play for children written by Seattle Public Schools music teacher David Lamb (b. 1935). Lamb told The Seattle Times that he believed all children "can perform in successful, intelligent musical productions that are not the Little Bo Peep namby stuff" ("Seattle Area Youngsters ..."). Fifty-five young people were involved in the production.
Nishitani developed her adult performance group hand in hand with developing the school. One of her earliest concerts featured a humorous piece for which the sole prop was the Sunday edition of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Using creative movement, Nishitani enacted stories from the headlines, utilizing the physical newspaper as prop and costume: draped around her shoulders for "High Fashion," covering her body like a shield for "Masked Bandit," wadded into the crook of her arm as she ran for "Carrying The Ball," fluttering from her shoulders like a cape for "Flash Gordon."
Practicing an art form that was unfamiliar to so many people meant that Nishitani had to repeatedly explain modern dance before she could hope to draw an audience. She developed an educational event called "Making Modern Dance with Martha Nishitani and Dance Group." After a short introduction touching on the original philosophy of modern dance, and its aims, dancers from the Nishitani company demonstrated technique for the Instrument (the body), technique for the medium (rhythm, space, and dynamics), and technique for expression (communicating through movement). The company then performed an original work, followed by a screening of films documenting new trends in modern dance, then a question and answer period.
Nishitani's 10-member company performed in Seattle and throughout the region, in many cases introducing modern dance as an art form to audiences who had never before experienced it. It was missionary work: "The modern dance came to Tri-Cities Sunday for the first time and -- judging from the reactions of the children, to say nothing of the adults at the Pasco High School, where the Martha Nishitani Co. performed -- it can't come too soon again. While the auditorium was sparsely filled, mostly by adults, the balcony was packed, mostly by the popcorn crowd, who sat stilled and thrilled while cold winter, in the form of the lithe and graceful Martha Nishitani succeeded in putting the leaves away for winter ... in tribute to the cast, and to the imagery, it is certain that most in the audience hardly noticed there were no props and practically no stage furnishings" ("Nishitani Company Praised").
Nishitani was fully aware that the esoteric nature of modern dance left some first-time audience members scratching their heads. She wrote, "Of the various art languages, the kinesthetic language of the dance is one of the most difficult to understand. Consequently it is often misunderstood and, as a result, is unsatisfying to the viewer. An objective judgment and repeated viewings are needed to develop one's appreciation and understanding of modern dance" ("The Joy of Moving To Music").
Developing Her Instrument
Even as she taught, Nishitani continued to learn from others and refine her art. Her training was by no means limited to modern dance. From 1949 to 1958, she studied ballet with noted Seattle ballet teacher Mary Ann Wells. Nishitani also studied with ballet teachers Marion and Illaria Obidenna Ladre, who had danced with Serge Diaghilev's Ballet Russe touring company before settling in Seattle in 1948. She also studied at Cornish School with ballet teacher Karen Irvin.
From 1950 to 1951, she studied classical Japanese dance with Madam Fuku Nakatani. In 1962-1963, Nishitani studied Kyogen Ko Mai (Noh-comic interlude) with the Nomura Brothers. In 1964, she studied ballet and modern dance at the acclaimed Perry Mansfield School in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. In 1969, she studied Spanish dance with Alma Diaz.
Martha Nishitani summed up the ephemeral nature of her art form in an article for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 1966: "Dance is not a lasting art. It is preserved in the recollection of the beholder and exists only during the moment of performance. Therefore, the artist-dancer strives to execute a thing of beauty worthy of a memorable moment in dance. Movement patterns of visual beauty are shaped from the dancer's deepest wishes and strongest beliefs" (January 16, 1966).
Accomplishments and Honors
In 1955, Nishitani joined the staff of the University of Washington Opera Theatre, choreographing all of the company's productions for the following decade. Among the operas Nishitani choreographed were Orpheus; Dido and Aeneas; Hansel and Gretel; Amahl and the Night Visitors; The Beggar's Opera; Babar The Elephant; The Magic Flute; and The Unicorn, The Gorgon, and the Manticore.
During the 1950s and 1960s, Northwest newspapers routinely referred to Nishitani as Seattle's leading modern dancer and teacher. She was an artist in residence for the University of Washington, teaching and creating dance pieces, and also taught in many area schools, including the Seattle Public Schools at the Helen Bush School, YWCA, Shoreline Special Education program, and for the Seattle Parks and Recreations Department.
In 1968, Martha Nishitani was honored at the annual Matrix Table Banquet sponsored by the Seattle professional and University of Washington chapters of Theta Sigma Phi, the women's national journalism society. Named a Woman of Achievement, Nishitani was cited as "choreographer, dancer, exponent of modern dance, creator of beauty, and an inspiration to dancers" ("Nine Women Honored ...").
She was honored as an Asian American Living Treasure by the Northwest Asian American Theatre. She was a member of the American Dance Guild and the Congress on Dance Research. Nishitani was included in the 1976-1977 Bicentennial Edition of Who's Who In America.
Nishitani also occasionally produced written work about the art form. She was a member of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer Northwest Forum (a panel of artists who advised the paper), writing several features for that newspaper during her service on the forum. She also published occasionally in the journal Northwest Arts, and in the Junior League of Seattle publication Puget Soundings.
End of an Era
Writing in 1959 about the rigorous life demanded of dancers, Nishitani showed prescience of her own next four decades: "The life of a dancer is not always as beautiful as it appears and is advisable only to the very gifted. This profession calls for great physical endurance and physical technique and knowledge of its related arts. It leaves very little time for other activities; often times including a college education. However, if at one time in one's life the joy of the dance has been experienced, it is difficult to forget this love" (Dance Dance Dance!). Although Nishitani did succeed in earning her college diploma, graduating from the University of Washington with a BA in Comparative Arts in 1958, her life was dedicated to dance.
Over her 48 years in the University District studio, Martha Nishitani hung photographs of her many dance pieces in the narrow hallway outside the studio. Students brushed past these images as they entered and exited the studio, some pausing to examine what amounted to a testament to the history of modern dance in Seattle during the latter half of the twentieth century. Nishitani's small office was crammed with press clippings and the ephemera of her long career. In 1992, Martha Nishitani personally selected photographs, articles, and ephemera from her collection, compiling two volumes documenting her life in modern dance. This valuable historical resource was donated to the New York Public Library's Library for the Performing Arts, with photocopies donated to University of Washington Libraries Special Collections.
In 2002, Martha Nishitani retired and closed her studio. Justifiably concerned that the space would cease to function as a place where dance could be created, nurtured, and fostered, members of the Seattle dance community rallied to find another dance tenant. In 2003, the former Nishitani studio became Open Flight Studio, an affordable space for performance-based artists to research, experiment, develop, teach, dialog, and perform. Nishitani attended Open Flight's inaugural celebration.
Martha Nishitani died on June 5, 2014, at the age of 94.