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Susan Kikuchi, 74, Dies; Staged Martha Graham Dances and ‘King and I’

Susan Kikuchi, a former dancer in Martha Graham’s company who was acclaimed in the United States and abroad for her outstanding stagings of Graham’s dances and for her revivals of the Jerome Robbins musical “The King and I,” died on Nov. 14 in Manhattan. She was 74.

Eric Kivnick, her husband, said she died suddenly of natural causes but gave no other details.

When asked how she became involved in dance, Ms. Kikuchi would reply, “I fell into it.” It was a shorthand way of explaining that her mother was Yuriko, one of the Graham company’s leading dancers and teachers. (Yuriko died in March at 102.)

Ms. Kikuchi had watched her mother’s performances, classes and rehearsals with Graham dancers since her childhood. And she was still a child when she began to observe rehearsals of “The King and I” after Robbins cast Yuriko in 1951 as the star of the dance sequences in the musical’s original production.

For Janet Eilber, the Martha Graham Dance Company’s current artistic director, Ms. Kikuchi represented “the scaffolding” of the Graham heritage — one who had special preparation for staging Graham’s choreography. “She grew up literally in the company,” Ms. Eilber said in a phone interview.

“She knew every move, from the elbow on,” she added. “She had such a depth of information. And she had the brain to show dancers how the physicality of the movement and its message came together.”

In recent years Ms. Kikuchi was the prime stager of “Panorama,” a dynamic social-protest work that Graham created for her students in the 1930s. Today it is performed by nonprofessional students in schools “from Arizona to Long Island,” Ms. Eilber said.

Over the decades, Ms. Kikuchi also staged, directed or choreographed 15 productions of “The King And I” in the United States and abroad, including one production in the round at the Royal Albert Hall in London.

In the original staging of “The King and I,” Robbins had cast Yuriko to play the role of the runaway slave Eliza in the “The Small House of Uncle Thomas,” a faux-naïf dance retelling of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” that, in the course of the musical, is presented to King Mongkut of Siam (originally played by Yul Brynner). As children, Ms. Kikuchi and her brother, Lawrence, both appeared in the musical. As an adult, she took on the part of Eliza and other roles.

In addition to her husband, she is survived by her brother and her daughter, Cassey Kikuchi Kivnick.

Ms. Kikuchi speaking at a public event in Manhattan on Oct. 27 this year. Credit…Joseph Sinnott/92nd Street Y

Susan Lynn Kikuchi was born in Brooklyn on Oct. 4, 1948, to Charles and Yuriko (Amemiya) Kikuchi. Her parents had met in New York City after both were released from separate federal internment camps in which Americans of Japanese ancestry were detained during World War II.

Mr. Kikuchi, a psychiatric social worker, wrote of his experiences in a memoir, “The Kikuchi Diary: Chronicle From an American Concentration Camp.” Yuriko, already schooled in modern dance, joined Graham’s company in 1944. (Graham died in 1991.)

Her daughter studied dance at the Graham school and later at the Alvin Ailey school, both in New York. She taught at both as well and joined the Graham troupe as a dancer in 1981. She was director of the Martha Graham Ensemble, the junior touring troupe founded by Yuriko.

Ms. Kikuchi also graduated from the University of Rochester.

Introduced to musicals through “The King and I,” Ms. Kikuchi went on to perform in other Asia-themed shows, including “Pacific Overtures” “Flower Drum Song” and “South Pacific,” as well as in “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway,” a hit revue that opened in 1989.

For all her dedication to the art of Martha Graham, Ms. Kikuchi told of another deep influence, the musical “Peter Pan,” which Robbins took her to see when she was a child. As she told the Robbins biographer Greg Lawrence in his book “Dance With Demons,” “Those early memories of seeing Broadway shows had a big effect on me.”

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