Onoe Kikunobu-Sensei remembers the morning in September when she received the call from Hawai‘i Congressman Mark Takai, informing her that the National Endowment for the Arts had selected her as one of 11 Americans from across the United States — and the only one from Hawai‘i — to receive a National Heritage Fellowship for Japanese classical dance. A month later, she was on her way to Washington, D.C., to formally accept the prestigious fellowship at the Library of Congress, a ceremony that Takai also attended.
It was a whirlwind week — almost a blur — but definitely an honor she will
cherish for the rest of her life. She said Takai also invited her group to his office in the Cannon House Office Building and attended the recipients’ performance at the Lisner Auditorium on the George Washington University campus, all in spite of his busy congressional schedule. She said that when she turned around to thank him after the performance, he was already gone.
“Today I wanted to share the award with you,” she gratefully told a room full of relatives, friends and supporters at an Oct. 18 luncheon at the Willows Restaurant.
“We can’t be performers without everyone’s help,” she said, noting that so many hands have gone into performances by the Onoe Kikunobu Dance Company over the years, from helping to develop dance programs, to ticket sales and publicity, backstage help, even painting hands white for a performance. “It has been many years, but I haven’t forgotten about you,” she said.
In October, Kikunobu-Sensei and several of her students spent a busy five days in the nation’s capital, visiting with Takai, attending the presentation of the National Heritage Fellowship and preparing for the Lisner Auditorium performance. They managed to squeeze in a few hours of sightseeing while in D.C.
“I wish I were a little younger. I’m feeling it, but I can still dance,” said the retired public schoolteacher, whose 13 students still attend classes with their sensei in Honolulu. For the NEA concert, which featured an eight-minute presentation by each of the 11 fellowship recipients, Kikunobu-Sensei danced “Matsu no Hagoromo,” based on a Nöh play about a fisherman who finds an angel’s feather cloak. Besides Kikunobu-Sensei, the fellowship recipients included an oud player and composer from New Mexico, a Yiddish musician from New York, a circus aerialist from Florida, an ethnomusicologist/folklorist from Virginia, a blues artist from South Carolina, quilters from Alabama, a Cambodian ceramicist and a Slovak straw artist. The fellowship comes with a $25,000 grant for each artist.
Among the students who accompanied Kikunobu-Sensei to Washington were her top assistant, Howard Asao (Onoe Kikunobukazu), and her very first student, Jo-ann Toma (Onoe Kikunobuyuki), now in her 50s, who began taking classes at the age of 4.
Several Kikunobu-Sensei supporters from Hawai‘i’s arts community also met up with her in Washington, D.C., including retired University of Hawai‘i ethnomusicology professor Dr. Ricardo Trimillos, who attended both the fellowship presentation on Oct. 1 and the performance the following evening.
“It was quite impressive,” he said, noting the Kikunobu-Sensei was one of only
three awardees whose Congressman attended the presentation. “At the reception, she was up to the top of her head with lei,” Trimillos recalled. He added that Kikunobu-Sensei represented the genre of Japanese dance well and that her multiethnic and multicultural group of supporters in D.C., which included Japanese Americans, a Filipino American and several hapa, presented a good image of Hawai‘i’s diversity.
With the 2015 class, the NEA has now awarded 404 Americans National Heritage Fellowships.