Wednesday, September 20, 2000

UC grad finds niche with Dayton dancers

By Carol Norris
Enquirer contributor

        The desire to dance hits hard and almost always early. It's more like a calling than a career. Dancers can tell you instantly when it happened; explaining why takes more time.

Aoi Funakoshi
        “I always knew it as soon as I started at 7 years old,” says Aoi (OW-ee) Funakoshi. A graduate of the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, she makes her Cincinnati dance debut as a professional on Friday. “I don't know why except that I remember that I knew this is something very, very special. I want to find better words, but basically movement is very spiritual to me.”

        The search for words is understandable. She began developing her English and love for American dance as a 16-year-old high school exchange student in Sidney, Ohio. Born in Chiba, Japan, a small town near Tokyo, she was in the United States for a year before returning to Japan. An audition at UC before she left resulted in an invitation to enroll.

        Mostly, words and thoughts come spilling out in a rush. Ms. Funakoshi doesn't hide the excitement she feels about performing in Cincinnati.

        As one of the newest members of the powerful Dayton Contemporary Dance Company (DCDC), she already has one performance with them under her belt, but this one is special. The last time she performed here she was a student with UC's Dance Ensemble. She's nervously anticipating spotting her former professors front and center when she steps onstage.

        Ms. Funakoshi is grateful to teachers who were generous as she struggled with the unfamiliar language and culture, mentioning Oleg Sabline, Carol Iwasaki, Yi-Qi Cheng and especially Shellie Cash.

        “She helped me so much — a true friend. I just felt a very special connection with her, like a sister,” Ms. Funakoshi says about Ms. Cash. “And Janet Light (a local dance historian and writer) who talked to me about life and helped me to go on.”

"Just wanted to dance'


        If left to herself, Ms. Funakoshi would have skipped college. Many dancers pass on academics to go straight to the stage. She felt that same urgency. “No matter what, my parents wanted me to be college educated. That was a big fight I had with my parents. I just wanted to dance,” she says.

        Now she admits that decision made a career more plausible. “I was really still a baby. If I didn't have that four years at CCM, I wouldn't be the person I am. It was such a life experience for me. All my friends are in different fields at CCM — not just dancers. I needed that. The four years were an important time for me in finding myself.”

        Calling herself a “former bunhead” (a reference to ballet dancers' hair styles), she auditioned for Cincinnati Ballet originally. “A disaster,” she says.

        Most recently she turned down a job with the Asian dance group Chen & Dancers, a New York company seen here last February at the Aronoff. She chose to work with Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, a primarily African-American group.

        “What I really liked originally was classical ballet because of its very refined beauty, but to me DCDC's style of modern is a more direct translation of human emotion. I never had the opportunity to feel movement like that. It felt like I was alive,” she says.

International reputation


        DCDC was founded in 1968 by the late Jeraldyne Blunden — 10 years before Ms. Funakoshi was born. Its reputation has expanded over the years into an international one, attracting some of the best choreographers working in modern dance.

        Ms. Funakoshi learned about the company at the end of her junior year, a dark period in her young life and the only time she ever considered not dancing.

        “My mother got very sick at the end of my sophomore year,” she says. “I felt like I couldn't get hold of myself at all. I wanted to go home. I was only visiting my parents once a year for two weeks at a time. I wondered what is the meaning of life if it hurts this much. I knew creating something in dance was not working for me at this time.”

        It was DCDC's energy that brought her back. “I decided that summer I had to choose whether to go home or keep dancing,” she says. (In Japan, dance is not considered a career.) She decided to try to stay through the summer and enrolled in a workshop at DCDC.

        Commuting between Cincinnati and Dayton, she kept up with her degree work, too. “DCDC's summer program was like lightning hitting me. Something struck me and I felt like I couldn't ignore it. I was a fish back in the water — movement was again happening for me,” she says.

        Her dad is an engineer and teaches flying for Japan Airlines. Her mom is a homemaker and two brothers are in medicine. She doesn't know where the artistic bent comes from — she also draws, paints and plays the piano and says she could have gone to college to follow any of these other interests. “My urge is to create something — pottery, music, but mostly dance. I love it so much I cannot imagine not having the chance,” she says.

        She gets an important chance this weekend, appearing in New York choreographer Dwight Rhoden's premiere of “Sky Garden.” The rehearsals have been hard and long and sweaty — and she couldn't be happier. “I wouldn't have it any other way and everyday I realize I can grow. To grow in this career is not just giving your best, it's more like 110%. You don't even know you have that strength, but that's the everyday process.”

        If you go

What: Contemporary Dance Theater presents Dayton Contemporary Dance Company

        When: 8:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday

        Where: Jarson-Kaplan Theater, Aronoff Center

        Tickets: $17-$20; $12 students and seniors, 241-7469


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