Kazuko Hirabayashi, who arrived as a student at Juilliard in 1958 and served on the faculty from 1968 to 2011, died on March 25 at her home in Harrison, N.Y. Born on Oct. 18, 1933, in Nagoya, Japan, she received her undergraduate degree at Meiji University in Tokyo. She worked as a dancer and choreographer and formed the troupe Triad with Richard Kuch and Richard Gain and also the Kazuko Hirabayashi Dance Theater. At Juilliard she studied with, among others, Martha Graham (faculty 1951–77) and she would later become the director of Graham’s school and the Martha Graham Ensemble. She also taught Graham technique here and at what is now SUNY Purchase. One of her students there was dance faculty member Terese Capucilli, who would become one of the foremost dancers in Graham’s company from 1979 to 2005 and who here pays tribute to her mentor.
As I contemplate the loss of the incomparable teacher and choreographer Kazuko Hirabayashi, I think of the multitude of students around the globe who she touched deeply with her wisdom, raw honesty, endearing sense of humor, and absolutely inexhaustible energy. The word teacher becomes utterly illuminated when Kazuko’s students, impassioned by her devotion to them, describe the woman who changed their lives whether they have chosen to stay in the dance field or not.
Having grown up in a musical theater world, I met Kazuko as a student at Purchase College, where she gave me my first glimpse at the breadth and power within the beautiful language of Martha Graham. Kazuko planted a seed that began my physical journey into a richly fulfilling artistic life in Martha’s theater, and she remained a guiding force through every step of my career. I would not be where I am today without Kazuko in my life, and there are hundreds upon hundreds of individuals who will never forget the world she carried us through in order to find our own place inside of it.
As Jennifer Dunning wrote in The New York Times in 2008, Hirabayashi “likes to test her dancers in stormy crucibles.” And test she did. Private and mysterious in many ways, Kazuko was also high-powered, demanding, and straightforward, with a tongue so sharp-witted that it could tear at the layers of an individual in an extremely revealing way to get to the heart of the artist you could become. She challenged your physical capabilities with driving tempos that required you to be aware of space and articulation with lightning speed, technique, and endurance. She could also be tremendously lyrical and poetic, illuminating her Graham classes and choreography. Her teaching of composition was at once generous and fiercely uncompromising.
Getting under our skin—it is the wisdom of a teacher like Kazuko that brings the standard we live and work by to a level that the art form deserves. For years, Kazuko’s voice has resonated (along with her endearing Japanese accent) in her poetic saying, “Your foot spread on floor like starfish on rock.” Her feet have stood upon many a floor and her influence has left an imprint far and wide.
In 2012, A.L.S. changed the course of Kazuko’s life. As I watched the disease take away her ability to speak or move her body, I marveled at her immense will to live fully in spite of it as well as her sense of dignity in letting life take its course. She worked at dying as she worked at living, with extraordinary strength and perseverance, generosity and humility. Powerfully resonating, this was the final lesson from a woman who helped to carve a life journey for so many artists.
There is a depth of gratitude that remains unspoken because it is so profoundly felt, so much so that these feelings are not fully expressed except through the medium that they were born. So it is there, in dance, that we will continue and honor her memory.