Martha Nishitani, a champion of modern dance in Seattle, died at 94 on June 5. For decades her University District studio, the Martha Nishitani Modern Dance School, was a home for aspiring dancers of every age. Her own dance troupe, Martha Nishitani Dance Company, toured the region extensively and was the only modern-dance company in Seattle in the early 1950s.
Some of her students went on to professional careers, including James Howell (Joffrey Ballet), Sandra Neels (Merce Cunningham Dance Company) and Jennifer Thienes (Mark Morris Dance Group). Touring dance troupes, including the Joffrey and Cunningham companies, made use of her studio, as did Pacific Northwest Ballet in its earliest days.
“A chance to enlighten people about modern dance is the most satisfying thing that I’ve experienced,” she told Sara Yamasaki in a 1998 interview for Densho: The Japanese American Legacy Project.
Ms. Nishitani was born Feb. 27, 1920, the ninth of 10 children, and grew up in Lake City, where her family operated Oriental Gardens, a nursery and florist. The five-acre property was stump land, which her father had to clear before he could start cultivating it.
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“At night, you could hear the cougars crying,” Ms. Nishitani later recalled. “The stream that went through the place had these large salmon that would come up to spawn.”
Ms. Nishitani caught the dance bug at age 6, when she saw a vaudeville dance act. World War II and Executive Order 9066 interrupted her education at the University of Washington, when she and her family were interned at Camp Minidoka in Idaho.
“It seemed like it was no man’s land,” she later said. “It was just all sagebrush and a couple of water towers.”
She returned to Seattle in 1946 and established her own dance troupe in 1951. By 1959, she was being described in this newspaper as “Seattle’s foremost exponent of modern dance.” From 1954 to 2002, she ran her dance school on University Way Northeast (now home to Open Flight Studio). She also taught in local public schools, Helen Bush School and for the Seattle Parks Department.
The first dance she choreographed, “Credo in Conflict,” addressed her feelings of being torn “between my desire to dance and my obligations to my home and my mother.” She joined University of Washington Opera Theater in 1955, choreographing all its productions for the next 10 years. Her family, she noted, knew that she danced. “But they weren’t sure what it was all about.”
Ms. Nishitani, who never married, always kept a cat for company. “I do have a fondness for all animals,” she told Yamasaki.
Her niece, Sally Sekijima, explains that women of her generation felt they had to make a choice between career and family: “She certainly had her regrets, but felt that she had to do it. … Dance was truly the center of her soul.”
Yamasaki’s most vivid memory from her 1998 interview was of Ms. Nishitani, then 78, demonstrating a solo dance for her: “It was really wonderful to see this old woman turn on the lights of this dusty studio and be animated and just light up with movement and choreography.”
Ms. Nishitani was honored as a Woman of Achievement by the Seattle chapter of Theta Sigma Phi in 1968 and as an Asian American Living Treasure by the Northwest Asian American Theatre in 1984.
A memorial will be at 11 a.m. Saturday, July 5, at Blaine United Methodist Church, 3001 24th Ave. S., Seattle. Remembrances may be sent to Progressive Animal Welfare Society, PO Box 1037, Lynnwood, WA 98046, or go to www.paws.org for online donations.
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org