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PHOTO COURTESY OF MARLA HIROKAWA
Marla Hirokawa's ballet "Nisei Project" educated East Coast audiences about the presence and valor of Japanese-American soldiers in World War II.




Ballet meets battlefield

A nisei soldier's daughter creates
a dance tribute to the WWII heroes


By Tim Ryan
tryan@starbulletin.com

"Nisei," a ballet about the struggles and triumphs of a second-generation Japanese-American veteran, technically was created some two years ago but really began when choreographer Marla Hirokawa was still a high school student.

A class project led her to talk with her father, Lawrence, about his experiences as a member of the 100th Battalion in World War II.

"My father was drafted, sent to Schofield Barracks for boot camp, then separated from the other soldiers because he was Japanese," said the 41-year-old Hirokawa, founder of the Covenant Dance Theatre in Brooklyn, N.Y.



'Nisei'

Covenant Dance Theatre's Dance Tribute to WWII Japanese American Veterans

Where: Leeward Community College Theatre

When: July 3 to 5

Tickets: Go on sale May 1 at $35; special group rates available to veterans, students and senior citizens

Call: 947-5702

Also: Kauai Community College Performing Arts Center, 6:30 p.m. July 8, $25; University of Hawaii at Hilo Theatre on the Big Island, 8 p.m. July 11 and 1:30 and 7 p.m. July 12, $25; Maui Arts & Cultural Center Castle Theater, 6:30 p.m. July 15 and 10 a.m. July 16, $35. Performance times vary. Opening night performances on Oahu and the Big Island will benefit the Library of Congress Veterans.



Lawrence was shipped to Italy where he lost an eye to shrapnel during battle and suffered a bullet wound to the back, for which he received a Purple Heart and Bronze Star. But like most nisei -- the American-born children of immigrants from Japan -- Hirokawa was humble about his war experience, never talking about it, his daughter remembers.

"It has something to do with, if you've done something good, you don't talk about it. You don't brag about it. You keep it to yourself," Hirokawa said. "The only time I was able to get him to talk was when I had that high school project. I was pretty stunned."

The revelation led to the creation of "Nisei," which Hirokawa will bring to Hawaii for several performances in July.

By the end of the war, the nisei of the 100th Battalion and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team -- men from Hawaii and the mainland -- suffered the highest casualty rate of any unit and became the most highly decorated unit in American military history.

LAWRENCE HIROKAWA died a decade ago, and his daughter, a Hilo native, set out in fall 2000 to choreograph a ballet about World War II veterans, including the 100th Battalion and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.

"The original story line was more generic, but when I was talking to my friends (on the East Coast), they had no idea Japanese Americans were in World War II," Marla Hirokawa said. "They pushed me to focus on that."

So Hirokawa, who's lived in New York for 18 years, simplified the story to feature a Japanese-American grandfather and granddaughter experiencing the war.

"We follow him and his family in prewar, his memories of his mother coming to the United States as a picture bride, enlistment, the family's incarceration during the war, boot camp, battle, the end of the war, his return home."

The final scene in "Nisei" features a Veterans Day parade and will have World War II veterans from Hawaii make a walk-on appearance. At the end of the performance, all veterans -- on stage and in the audience -- will be recognized.

The company plans to do special performances for public schools, visit schools for workshops about the nisei World War II experience, have students perform some of the choreography and possibly meet the vets.

WHEN "NISEI" premiered in Brooklyn in May 2001, Hirokawa's mother, who lives in Hilo, and sister Laurie, who lives in Honolulu, were in the audience.

"The show was barely over when they said, 'You have to bring this to Hawaii,'" Hirokawa said, laughing. "I said, 'Oh yes, a wonderful big dream and expensive!'"

The project is costing about $400,000, including in-kind services and donations.

But Hirokawa's mom, two sisters and Hawaii friends started contacting local vendors and financial institutions for sponsorships, and helped create neighbor island committees to coordinate performances there.

The traveling company includes 31 people -- 25 dancers and six crew -- and will arrive in Honolulu June 30 thanks to Continental Airlines. Once in Honolulu, Hirokawa will add two local musicians and 12 Ballet Hawaii dancers, including Roxanne Cassidy Namba, who plays the granddaughter.

Bank of Hawaii has donated $25,000; Central-Pacific Bank will pay for advertising; First Hawaiian has made a donation; Zippy's Restaurants is supplying meals. The company also will receive some grants, Hirokawa said. The company is still looking for a neighbor island air carrier as a sponsor.

"NISEI" is performed to original music by Keith Hall, Taki Rentaro, Johann Pachelbel's "Canon," and also features the U.S. Army's official song "The Caissons Go Rolling Along."

Hirokawa began taking ballet lessons at age 6. She was about to quit when she met her second ballet teacher, Emily Danford, of the Hilo School of Ballet. Hirokawa says that under Danford's guidance, she became a "hooked balletomane," pursuing her dream of becoming a professional dancer.



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