June Watanabe


June Watanabe (then June Tsukida) and Sylverline Edgerton rehearsing Orders of the Air. Featured as part of an article on Arts at Univerity of California, Los Angeles in Life magazine, 1957. Photograph by J.R. Everman


June Yoshiko Watanabe (née Tsukida) was born on June 7, 1939 in Los Angeles, California. From 1942-1945, June and her family were incarcerated at the Heart Mountain concentration camp in Wyoming as part of the Japanese American displacement and imprisonment during World War II. After returning to Los Angeles (LA) in 1945, Watanabe studied dance at the West Coast School of Music and Dance with Elizabeth Gilman in 1948. After a few years, she transferred to the LA Conservatory of Music and Arts to begin studies with Patricia O’Kane, with whom she studied for most of her ballet training. June also attended the Eugene Loring School of American Dance, and most critical, studied with and was most influenced by Gloria Newman and Dr. Alma Hawkins & Carol Scothorn at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). In 1955, at age 16, she auditioned for and was chosen by Jerome Robbins to dance in the film version of The King and I. In 1956, Watanabe enrolled at UCLA, graduating in 1960 with a BS degree, focusing on dance. Watanabe then served on the faculty at El Camino College (1960-1962) in Los Angeles, then at UC Berkeley (1973-1975) and Mills College full-time from 1975-1979, returning in 1986 years at part-time until retiring as Professor Emerita 24 years later.

In 1979, Watanabe began her dance career at the age of 40, driven by her need to dance and speak out about the internment experiences and heritage she had shunned as a child because she wanted to be "so American". In 1980, she became the director of her own company, June Watanabe Dance Company/June Watanabe in Company (JWIC). The company initially performed annually in Marin, where she received support from the Marin Community Foundation throughout the company's existence. Her company also performed heavily in the San Francisco Bay Area with East and West Coast tours from 1982 to 2006.

According to Watanabe, "life informs [her] dance and [her] dance informs [her] life", dealing with issues of bondage in womanhood, reclaiming one’s cultural heritage and the survival of the human spirit. This has led to the creation of seven versions of her internment works regarding "the unjust, unconstitutional betrayal of the Japanese American culture because of racism".  She felt a responsibility and commitment to teach students and audiences about the incarceration because many did not know of or understand the shame that was placed upon innocent people, being imprisoned unconstitutionally. 

Watanabe is recognized for her starkly focused contemporary works which incorporate artistic, cultural, and historic elements through a one- of-a-kind, interdisciplinary approach. Her Japanese-American heritage illuminates and informs her contemporary modern dance works, as she captures the human condition within an Eastern temporal and spatial framework with elements which characterize her works. These include the energy of the Noh Theatre, the architectural use of space, emptiness, all with an inner strength of concentration. She has created dance theater works and collaborated with distinguished artists from diverse disciplines such as Noh Master Anshin Uchida, Intangible Cultural Asset of Japan, Taiko Master Seiichi Tanaka; musicians such as Pauline Oliveros, Denny Zeitlin, David Rosenbloom, Kronos Quartet, Bun-Ching Lam, Kirsten Vogelsang, Alvin Curran, Carl Stone, George Yoshida; visual artists Ruth Asawa, Jose Maria Francos, Douglas Rosenberg, Kerry Vander Meer, and Sandra Woodall; writers/poets, such as Leslie Scalapino and John Woodall; and dancers/choreographers such as Ed Mock, Alonzo King, Remy Charlip, Daniel Nagrin, Livia Blankman, Karen Attix, Sharon Kinney, Frank Shawl, Helen Dannenberg, and all the company dancers, among others. 

In the clip below, Watanabe discusses her experiences regarding art, work, and personal transformation in conversation with Bettina Gray as part of The Creative Mind series produced for public televsion and broadcast on KQED from 1991-1992.

The clip also includes excerpts from Watanabe's choreographic work, Heian. 

Footage courtesy of KQED, ©1991. Click HERE to view the full interview.

Click Images Below for full view

The images and video excerpts below were curated with the help of June Watanabe and are only a sample of the rich materials found in her collection.


Watanabe's images, memories, and abstract emotional feelings, initially suppressed, when she was incarcerated with her family at the Heart Mountain internment camp in Wyoming from ages three to six informed what became her Internment works. In 1979, Watanabe created the first solo, ... silently, to a David Behrman score, followed by the first group work, Herding (1982), as in the herding of animals, set to Terry Riley’s In C. Both works were purely abstract, along with Cantabile, a musically based movement work to Bach. All three were premiered in 1983, and all surfaced from an internal, intuitive source and process.

The wartime images and cultural characteristics of the Japanese Americans are reflected in Watanabe's seven seminal works: Internments (1983), E.O. 9066 (1984, 1985, 1989, 1998), Cradle Will Fall (1988), from her second American Dance Festival’s Young Choreographer and Composer commission, and 5/15/45 – the last dance (2001); the 1992 Video Work of E.O. 9066 (1989) was funded by the NEA. The title, E.O. 9066  comes from then President Franklin Roosevelt's unconstitutional Executive Order which declared the West Coast as "military zones", and cleared a path to the incarceration of over 120,000 men, women, and children of Japanese descent,  who were stripped of their civil rights by forced relocation and displacement. Most of them were US citizens, and not a single person was accused with treason.

Watanabe created seven internment works each with its own perspective, style, and approach. The images featured here are from her work, 5/15/45 - The Last Dance (2001), the final internment work, was performed as a work in progress (titled The Last Dance) in 1999 at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California in San Francisco and at the Headlands Center for the Arts, with the completed version performed at YBCA Forum and at U.C. Davis, Sacramento, and several high schools in Marin County.


Watanabe's work has never existed in a monolith. Throughout her career, she collaborated with artists from varying disciplines, which led to most of her works in the following years.

Some examples of Watanabe working with multidisciplinary/dance artists include the following works below:


Photo by Marty Sohl

Watanabe with guest performer Livia Blankman for the West Coast premiere of Suitable for Framing (1987). This work premiered at the American Dance Festival's Young Choreographers and Composers in Residence in July 1987 as Watanabe's commissioned work. The title comes from an album by David Rosenbloom. Music was composed by Kirsten Vogelsang with costumes by Sandra Woodall, multi-channel video design by Douglas Rosenberg, and design/execution by Cheryl Koehler. See below for excerpt of this performance.

Other renowned collaborators include Leslie Scalapino, Pauline Oliveros, and Anshin Uchida, Intangible Noh Master of Japan. Watanabe worked with them multiple times

Following Watanabe’s fellowship in Japan in the summer of 1993 when she joined a Foreigner’s Seminar of Japanese Art Forms for a month at a shrine north of Kyoto, she was exposed to all the main forms including Noh Drama. In Tokyo, she continued her studies with Anshin Uchida and a collaboration was planned for the future.

Watanabe and Uchida collaborated in California in 1996 on Noh Project I: Deai. The work featured commissioned music by Carl Stone, a hand crafted stage created by John Woodall, costume design by Sandra Woodall, with Don Bondi & Rei Kasama as consultants. For Watanabe, it was critical to maintain the authenticity of the Noh art form while working in a contemporary context of a Western art work, even when integrating the two forms. 

Footage from the presentation of The Noh Project in 1996, which includes the following excerpts: Hagoromo (circa XIV century), Falling Man (1993), and Deai (work in progress). 


The June Watanabe Papers contain documentation highlighting Watanabe's extensive career in dance and the history of her company, June Watanabe Dance Company (1980-1985)/June Watanabe in Company (1985-2006). The papers include administrative documents related to the operation of her company, including but not limited to Board of Directors related documents, grant applications, letters of support, and contracts. There is also extensive information regarding her choreographic works from 1979-2004, including photographs, programs, press materials, and production information. Also included in the collection are a set of notebooks, featuring her thoughts and choreographic notes regarding specific productions. The photographic materials include a rich set of prints, slides, and negatives from noted dance photographers such as Bonnie Kamin, Arne Folkedal, John Murkowski, Gary Sinick, and Marty Sohl, among others.

The collection also contains several original audiovisuals recordings. These include audio tracks used in performances, featuring artists like Douglas Rosenberg and Kirsten Vogelsang. There are also video recordings of multiple June Watanabe Dance Company/June Watanabe in Company performances. The collection also includes a hard drive with preservation master files of several original videos.  

The collection also includes original costumes and costume pieces, from visual artists and collaborators such as Ruth Asawa and Sandra Woodall, among others.

To access the finding aid, please click here.

Through California Revealed, a California State Library initiative that helps public libraries, archives, museums, historical societies, and other heritage groups digitize, preserve, and provide online access to materials documenting the state’s history, art, and cultures, MP+D has been able to digitize and share online selected original recordings featuring some of Watanabe's California-based performances and her oral history, which was recorded as part of the Mills College Faculty Oral History Project in 2006. These recordings are linked in the finding aid and can also be viewed by clicking here.

June Watanabe