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Dancing With the Butoh Masters 

From their odd sushi bar on a seedy corner of the Mission, world-famous dancers Hiroko and Koichi Tamano try to preserve a bizarre, mysterious art

Wednesday, Jul 17 2002
There's a dirty corner of Mission Street, where a sushi restaurant called Country Station shares space with hoodlums and homeless drunks, a restaurant so camouflaged by dark and filth that it easily escapes notice.

But when the restaurant is full and bustling, there is a kind of theater that happens inside, though I -- like most people who pass through -- used to think of it simply as colorful ambience.

Every weekday, just after 4 p.m., the employees -- all aspiring artists who grew up in Japan -- blast Japanese pop from the stereo as they prepare for the dinner rush.

It takes time to set the stage properly.

They arrange chopsticks and glasses with geometric precision and wipe down soy sauce bottles while joking in Japanese. Or, they sneak back to the rear storage area to take long drags from cigarettes.

But the second they hear Hiroko Tamano, the restaurant matron, enter, they straighten their aprons and put on earnest faces.

Hiroko is something of a benevolent whirlwind, an unpredictable force that can torment, inspire, and surprise. I remember the first time I met her. She seemed half drunk, her hair in pigtails worn on the sides of her head, just above her ears. She kept taking more sake, grinning and guffawing, showing a mouth full of missing teeth, shouting everything she said.

Today she is sober and greets her employees cheerily, her arms laden with groceries. She dons an apron and moves to scrutinize a large marinating salmon in the prep area. In less than an hour, Hiroko will ensure that the tables have been set accurately, that the music is appropriate for the evening's mood, and that the pots of miso are bubbling at the proper rhythms. It is important that things are just right, Hiroko tells me, so the customers will keep coming back.

Before Hiroko and her husband, Koichi, took over the restaurant seven years ago, Country Station was known for its country music jukebox and the grinning Japanese servers who wore cowboy hats. But the Tamanos transformed the restaurant into something very different.

Koichi, silent and brilliant, took over the sushi duties, while the flamboyant and charming Hiroko took over almost everything else. They dumped the jukebox and started playing Led Zeppelin and Metallica, rocking out while sipping sake. They hung Polaroids and fliers and maps and postcards on the walls until it looked like some teenager's bedroom.

But the transformation goes much deeper.

Unknown to most customers, Hiroko and Koichi are world-famous dancers in an avant-garde Japanese form called butoh. They have won acclaim and intrigued international audiences with their highly stylized, esoteric modern dance, in which performers use their bodies to convey the world in all its beauty and ugliness.

Simply by their presence, the Tamanos have transformed this quirky sushi restaurant on a squalid corner of the Mission into an international center for butoh. And every day this improbable place becomes a stage on which the Tamanos practice their art.

They do not perform, of course, in Country Station -- there's certainly not enough room between mismatched chairs and aging tables. But then, butoh is not only a dance form.

"It's a very real philosophy," explains Molly Barrons, a dance student and former Country Station waitress. "Their technique of movement, their repertoire of choreography, and their philosophy on art and life -- it's clear in their everyday actions. It doesn't switch on when they walk onto a stage. It's not a persona or a theory. It's the same with other butoh masters; it's in their daily interactions with the world."

The Tamanos, after all, come from a heralded line of butoh. They are considered "the second generation," or those who studied directly under Tatsumi Hijikata, one of two founders of the dance form. Hijikata died in the '80s, and the Tamanos and others who studied under him are what remain of an incredible moment in modern dance history; the Tamanos have become pioneers and legends at the same time.

And so they try to honor their teacher by preserving the form. While they run their restaurant, the Tamanos also put together performances and train young dancers in the language of Hijikata's butoh, planting seeds, tending to the buds, raising a new generation of artists who will hopefully yield another generation.

Through the years, it has been the more outgoing Hiroko who has nurtured the emerging dancers. But in the past year, as the wrinkles on Hiroko's face have deepened, as her concern has grown for the health of Koichi -- who recently suffered a stroke -- and as group after group of students has left to follow their own paths, the Tamanos have trained less. Hiroko, however, remains a mother figure, a sensei, and a mentor -- a fact she is reluctant to admit.

"Art is not teaching stuff," Hiroko says almost indignantly, in broken English. "I'm not a good teacher. We need bodies for performance so that is why we train. A painter needs paint. A sculptor needs to use mud. We use body. It's not teaching."

"The Tamanos have a holistic approach to the art of butoh," explains Brechin Flournoy, the director of the San Francisco Butoh Festival. "Which is the way they were trained. [Americans] have a different learning style. We sign up for a class, pay our money, dance for two hours, and go home. The Tamano style presents a challenge for people here, and they either stick with it or they don't."

Some students have been faithful, and some less so, but Hiroko has never been able to teach in the way that she was taught, rarely able, perhaps, to offer the depth of her knowledge. Despite all this, Hiroko gives her wisdom away unselfishly. It is as if butoh -- its spirit and legacy -- chose her, and she has never been able to resist it.

About The Author

Bernice Yeung


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