What My Teacher Taught Me: Former Graham Principal Miki Orihara on Susan Kikuchi
May 30, 2023

I came to New York after I finished high school in Tokyo, in 1979. I didn’t know much about New York or the dance scene there. I got my student visa through the Joffrey Ballet School, and I started to take modern class at The Ailey School. After auditioning, I got a scholarship to Ailey and had to meet with Pearl Lang, who was the director of the program. She looked at me and gave me 14 Graham classes a week and one exercise class. I had no idea what this technique was!

After the scholarship was over, I went to the Martha Graham School. I took [legendary Japanese Graham muse] Yuriko’s class. I think it happened quite early on that Yuriko invited me over to dinner, and that’s when I met Suzy. I became like a family friend: In the beginning, like a cousin, but later on we were like sisters. Suzy was 12 years older than me—we both are rats, born in the year of the rat. Her daughter, Cassey Kikuchi Kivnick, was born in the year of the rat too.

[As Yuriko’s daughter], Suzy was born into dance. Yuriko was doing Graham and The King and I on Broadway. Suzy was in King and I as a child. There’s a picture of her, too, somewhere, sitting on Martha Graham’s lap, watching company rehearsal. She was on Broadway, then she was in the Graham Company—she was going back and forth. I think that was one of the beauties of Suzy.

Susan and Miki sit on  a dance studio floor surrounded by papers and notebooks as Miki demonstrates the Graham pretzel exercise.
Susan Kikuchi and Miki Orihara, demonstrating Graham's pretzel exercise. Courtesy Dance Spotlight.

We always danced together; were friends, sisters. Whenever Yuriko would work with me, Suzy would come give notes. Suzy’s passion was very different from Yuriko’s. She had this Broadway side—her energy was uplifted, always. She always could laugh. She would never get upset, but she would start laughing.

I danced with the Graham Ensemble from 1984 to 1987, and then with the Graham Company from 1987 to 2015. When Janet Eilber took over as artistic director in 2005, Suzy came in as a kind of rehearsal director. Janet could really rely on Suzy because Suzy knew the pieces inside and out.

I also worked with King and I, and Suzy was the dance captain. I was playing Eliza, Yuriko’s role in the film, and Topsy, where you have to make the audience laugh. Sometimes they don’t laugh, and sometimes they do. Suzy was saying to me “Try this” and “Try that.” She knew what to push, what to pull from people.

In 2010, I talked to Janet Eilber about making a Graham-technique video, so we could capture some of the beautiful, organic way that I understand the technique, learning from Yuriko. I had Suzy come in for it.

Miki and Susan have their arms around each other. We see them from the back, as they face two dancers in unitards on a stage.
Miki Orihara and Susan Kikuchi with Martha Graham Dance Company members Lloyd Knight and Lloyd Mayor. Courtesy Dance Spotlight.

In the filming, I’m really looking at the technique, but Suzy would say, “I like the energy!” She had more of the artistic side. Like in this one [floor] exercise, “the pretzel,” the knee is supposed to be perpendicular to the floor, and the video we took didn’t really show that. So, I was telling Suzy this, wanting to edit it, but she said, “Look: In this video, they’re dancing together. Dancing together is more interesting than technique,” which is true. So, I gave up—and we took that video of them dancing together.

Especially with the DVD project, sometimes we’d have little discrepancies, but instead of saying “You’re not right,” she was always willing to hear what you thought. She was strong, but she always had a laughter in that voice. When Yuriko would say no it meant no; when Suzy said no, it was with a little laughter inside.

Suzy didn’t want to do anything sobbing or sad for Yuriko’s memorial [at the 92NY in 2022]. Suzy didn’t like anything sad or angry; she always wanted to be happier.

She was not technically my teacher—I never took her class—but she was a great partner, and a partnership could be a student–teacher relationship, too. I didn’t study with her in class, but I remember seeing her in class. She encouraged the dancers, individually. She would find something good from each one of them. She wouldn’t even need to give anything good, but she would. You can pull students in that way.

Suzy had a director’s eye, but she was very personable, very human. You have to get dancers on your side so they’ll work for you, and Suzy had that gift. 

Beloved dancer, director, and educator Susan Kikuchi passed away unexpectedly in November 2022 at age 74. Her death closely followed that of her mother, Yuriko, in March of the same year at 102.

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