When Doves Fly

Performer brings Japanese storytelling to the Juneau stage

Posted: Thursday, March 04, 2004

As a young girl in Osaka, Japan, in the early 1970s, Kuniko Yamamoto's original ambition was to be a dancer. As she grew older, her dreams shifted to the theater - a place where she could combine three of her passions: movement, music and magic.

"When I was young, I would go to the theater to see the plays," Yamamoto said, by phone from her home in North Port, Fla. "And the great performers had all of those elements, whether solo or part of a company."

Yamamoto, too, has all of those elements, as well as an irresistible charm, in "Japanese Storytelling with Magical Mask, Mime and Music," a solo 45-minute performance that includes fables, origami and song. She will be in town for two shows, 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. Friday, March 5, at the Juneau-Douglas High School auditorium, before traveling to Anchorage and Barrow. Tickets are $5 for community members and $1 for students with teachers.

This is Yamamoto's first trip to Alaska.

"Japanese try to show humbleness and respect as the most important themes, and all of my stories have those two aspects," she said. "Basically what I look for and try to tell are the truths that can connect you with life."

Yamamoto's stories include "The Little Funny Woman," also known as "The Funny Little Woman," a traditional tale about an old woman who chases a runaway dumpling and is imprisoned by goblins; "The Stonecutter," a fable about a man who becomes drunk with power; and selections from the "Kojiki," a chronicle that dates back to 712 and is considered the primary source of early Japanese mythology.

"These are stories my grandmother told me, or my mom told me, or some I just read myself," Yamamoto said.

"There's magic in most of the Japanese fables and myths," she said. "Japanese people love superstitions. I have one story about 1,000 paper cranes. If you make them, your wish will come true. Everyone in Japan knows this legend, and everyone seems to believe it."

Yamamoto began performing in Osaka almost 23 years ago. She earned a bachelor of psychology from Otani University in Kyoto in 1983.

In 1986, Yamamoto moved to the United States to study with the late actor and mime Tony Montanaro - a former student of Marcel Marceau and an award-winning writer and director for international television and film.

"Tony described mime as an eloquent body language, and he was eloquent in his body language," Yamamoto said. "I wanted to be like him. He was very spontaneous. He was a genius of improvisation, and that really inspired me. I came from stylized theater, which is all about expressing your feeling through styles and patterns. He taught me that a great deal should come from your heart. It was so fresh and organic in many ways."

Yamamoto studied mime, dance, music and mask-making with Montanaro. From 1989 to 1992, she toured with the Leland Faulkner Light Theater, a well-known company of mimes, illusionists and physical comedians. In 1992, she moved to Florida and married Minnesotan Jon LeClair, a nationally known magician and magic trick author.

"When I came to the United States I found I wanted to study more about the depth of theater," Yamamoto said. "I found that what I wanted to do was not something imitating a Western style, but something showing who I am."

"And then I met my husband, and I saw how he surprised the audience and what excitement there was. And then I thought, 'I'm going to do this too.'"

Yamamoto has learned a few tricks from her husband, though she does not consider herself an accomplished magician.

"He showed me some basic tricks," she said. "Magic is just like music. You learn how to say C, D, D major, and you build from that. Then originality comes in."

• Korry Keeker can be reached at korry.keeker@juneauempire.com.

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