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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.

Koichi and Hiroko Tamano were among the very first to perform ankoku butoh, which translates literally to "the dance of darkness."

The genre emerged in the late 1950s in post-atomic bomb Japan. It was created by two dancers, Kazuo Ohno and Tatsumi Hijikata, who sought to create a new, uniquely Japanese form of expression that completely rebelled against the Establishment, and both Eastern tradition and Western styles.

What emerged from Hijikata and Ohno's political imaginations was butoh, a dance form that incorporates elements of drama and self-expression. In the most stereotypical sense, butoh is a type of dance-theater that involves slow movement, white body paint, and strange, contorted choreography.

But butoh is much greater than that. It is a dance form that plays on many contradictions, eludes definition, and, in many ways, allows anything to be dance. Butoh is also a form that constantly mutates, so much so that ankoku has been dropped from its name because it is no longer a dance defined by darkness.

Though every butoh dancer has his own interpretation of what the genre is, there is a consensus that the form involves the art of inner transformation. The dancers must confront all aspects of themselves -- even the ugly, dark parts -- to give an honest representation of this process onstage.

"Butoh is a tool to rip away or peer into what we do in our everyday lives and peer even deeper," says Jerry Gardner, a dance professor at the University of Utah. "It is a highly evolved, intellectual, spiritual, and psychological endeavor. A butoh dancer must wallow in the darkness of their own demons and then come back, unlock their own inner essence until it finds a language of movement."

There is a subtle form to butoh, though mostly choreography comes from images. Teachers ask their dancers to respond to phrases like, "You are a flower, growing. Feel the air, feel the insects buzzing around you. Now you are a picked flower, and they have put you in a vase. What is the feeling like, being stuck in a strange place? What is the feeling of light and dark?"

It is these layers of detail that separate butoh from other forms of modern dance. "What I have heard so many times from the Tamanos is, "Details, details, details,'" says Barrons, the student. "It's not just sitting under a tree. It is also knowing what the ground under you feels like. What the tree tastes like. It must be exact, down to the eyelash, down to the smell you are thinking about in the side of your nose."

Hijikata and Ohno would develop very different styles of butoh. Ohno, with his penchant for improvisation and his firm faith in God, is often considered the soul of the dance form. Hijikata, who is associated with exploring darkness and the grotesque, is said to be the architect, designing specific movements and forms that continue to influence butoh artists and modern dancers today.

But butoh was not always accepted as an art form. In the beginning, Hijikata's dance was considered obscene, and he could only perform at underground venues and strip clubs. In one of his first performances in 1959, Hijikata dressed like a woman and held a chicken between his legs, dancing as if he were masturbating with it. He was expelled from the Japanese Modern Dance Association.

A year later, Koichi Tamano, who was 18 at the time, met Hijikata at a nightclub that Hijikata owned. Soon after, Koichi began training under the obsessive and temperamental Hijikata, working in the nightclub until it closed at midnight and then training until 6 a.m. at Asbestos Kan, Hijikata's dance studio. To be a student of butoh then meant that the dancers lived together, worked together, and trained together.

Koichi, with his lithe and thick-muscled body, quickly became Hijikata's disciple. The teacher had no end of praise for his protégé, and even dubbed Koichi the "bow-legged Nijinsky."

Hiroko joined Hijikata's dance company several years later, after Hijikata began working with women. "The first time I visited Asbestos Kan was 1970," she recalls. "It was a beautiful dance studio! The silence, it was really, really ..."

She pauses, groping, thinking. "The silence is like the outside of a house after it is snowing," she continues. "Have you seen a house when it snows overnight? Its silence is that kind. It was a very, very sweet silence."

It was there that Hiroko met Koichi. "He looks good, my kinda type," she says. "That's it. We were not talking. We were dancing."

The Tamanos became ambassadors of butoh to the West after Koichi's first visit to the United States in 1976. He had come to perform in Los Angeles, but also hoped to find his grandfather, who had immigrated to California. During that trip, Koichi drove up to San Francisco, where he performed for an enthusiastic audience that included Allen Ginsberg and other Beat poets. Koichi went back to Japan and told Hiroko that there were nice people in San Francisco and it would be a good place to live. They made the move soon after.

Hijikata encouraged the Tamanos to introduce butoh to the United States, though many Americans were initially puzzled by this bizarre and intense dance form, and the people who brought it.

Ledoh, a Tamano student who has trained with other butoh masters, drove cross-country with the couple in 1992 and experienced this confusion. "Everyone thought we were a family in this VW Westfalia bus," Ledoh says. "Hiroko had a bowl cut, and Koichi had this long, blond ponytail. And I guess I was their son with no hair and no eyebrows.

"In Wyoming, the state trooper stopped us and said he needed to see our IDs. It seemed like he couldn't help it -- he was mainly curious to see which planet we were from."

I do not speak with Hiroko Tamano; I have encounters with her. She invites me to the rear corner table at her restaurant, a sacred spot where she devises work schedules, or where her staff sits for a dinner before the evening rush. I sit there and wait as she dashes from one corner of the restaurant to the other, greeting people with menus, rushing to the kitchen to give cooking instructions in Japanese. Pots bubble noisily on the stove, the Carpenters or B.B. King blasts on the stereo, and there is a cheery din of chatter. As the evening wears on, the front windows darken, and the restaurant dims. Hiroko, though, remains a brightness.

She serves plates of edamame as if she were landing a plane, complete with sound effects, before moving swiftly to the next table.

"Your hair is like a weed," Hiroko tells a customer after taking her order.

The customer laughs, but Hiroko wants to elaborate. She twists her arms around each other to represent the gnarled stems of the weed, explains the spikiness of the dandelion tops with her fingertips. She lifts her legs high, as if she were walking through a field and the burrs were sticking to her bare skin.

"They are so powerful," Hiroko concludes.

And it is like a picture coming into focus: This, as in every other moment, is butoh.

Then there are times when Hiroko feels she should address me, the statue in the corner, and she approaches with two glasses of sake. Her speech is a rush of Japanese, followed by simple English phrases. She can seem cryptic, her words like lessons from a bright-eyed, toothless sage in fluorescent pink overalls.

Sometimes she speaks to me in Japanese and doesn't offer a translation. In these moments, she makes me wonder what she thinks of me; makes me wonder, actually, what I think of myself.

I ask her a question and receive a riddle for an answer. Are you afraid that Hijikata's butoh will disappear? "I am not fearing anything," she responds. "The Earth could disappear at any time."

And so I wait, watching her from my perch. Until she notices me again, suddenly, and digs through the books on a shelf near the front of the restaurant. My first few visits, she brought me books on butoh and Hijikata filled with dark, eerie pictures. The images were grotesque: crooked limbs, clawlike fingers, naked bodies, expressions of horror and insanity.

This time, though, she hands me a book about Bhutan. She continues working around the restaurant as I thumb through it, gazing at colorful images of people as they live, farm, and eat.

I have the page opened to a banal picture of men holding small blue flags when Hiroko rushes up.

"Kirei, ne!" she says. "So beautiful. Like birds. Look, how beautiful."

I stare at the picture again, searching for its majesty. It is no more beautiful than before, though somehow it is no longer ordinary.

Her dance students tell me that the books are an introduction to things that inspire her; she also has books on places like China and Ireland. They say that she is teaching me to find grace where I would least expect it.

"She picks up objects, something she sees on the street, to make me see its beauty," says John Doyle, another student. "I might have thought it was ugly. We would walk around her neighborhood, looking at little things on the street. And she would say, 'Oh, isn't that interesting?' And it would be a torn milk carton lying in the gutter. And in that moment I would think, 'Wow, it does look interesting.' She appreciates the suchness of things."

The restaurant's pace is quickening, and I get up to leave. Hiroko asks me what my favorite picture is as she fills pitchers with water. I show her a photo of a small schoolboy drawing clouds with chalk on slate.

"Ah," she nods approvingly. "Those clouds are like freedom. You know, all the men become monks in Bhutan. Isn't that wonderful? They learn to draw clouds before they learn the alphabet."

"Tama -- go now and take the field," Tatsumi Hijikata wrote in 1972 to Koichi Tamano. And with Hijikata's blessings, Koichi Tamano's Harupin-Ha Dance Theater Company arose. A few years later, the company landed in uncharted territories -- the San Francisco Bay Area.

In the years since, the Tamanos have mounted productions that have intrigued audiences. Early newspaper clippings describe the performances as "straight out of a nightmare" or having "lulled the audience into a trance."

As the much-lauded protégé of Hijikata, Koichi and his company garnered international notoriety, and Harupin-Ha has been invited to perform all over the world.

During a 1996 trip to Japan, Harupin-Ha performed at a private benefit in Nigita at a public park with musician Kitaro. While the music transitioned from eerie, swirling melodies to pulsing, spacey compositions, the dancers performed on stages built just above a pond, giving the illusion of a magical water dance.

The company of a half-dozen dancers entered the stages on a slender wooden boat, wearing dramatic white petticoat dresses and body paint. At times, Hiroko, wearing red drapings and an overturned basket on her head, broke from the chorus of dancers to perform a series of graceful and gentle undulations and soulful movements. For his solo, Koichi performed an intense and desperate dance wearing only a gold G-string, all while encapsulated in a gigantic plastic bubble that looked as if it were floating on the water.

The performance was not a casual affair. Tickets cost about $150, and the country's national television station recorded the event for posterity.

Performances like those at Nigita are the result of months of training. In preparation, the Tamanos recruit a pickup company of dancers from around the Bay Area and train at an old aikido dojo, the Tamanos' home, or a park. And they train intensely.

Practice sessions usually last between three and six hours, starting with an abbreviated version of a three-hour, 95-step warm-up consisting of stretching, specific poses, and a one-minute meditation.

After the warm-up, the Tamanos teach choreography for the upcoming performance, though they often reuse certain sequences and images. There is "swamp," for example, in which the dancer becomes half man and half woman. And a pose in which the dancer imagines that there is a volcano on his head, spewing lava down his face.

At the beginning of each training session, the dancers clean the floor with specific motions, using rags that have been wrung out to certain degrees of dampness and folded in a specific manner.

"It's all part of their philosophy of dance," says Barrons. "They're not habits; they're methods."

With Harupin-Ha, Koichi remains the leader and artistic director, though it is often Hiroko who holds additional classes or offers the images to guide a dancer's movements during training.

"We both need both," Hiroko says of her partnership with Koichi. "We are human beings. I will motivate him bigger. When you are on that scale, you need a partner. You cannot have a unicycle. To go as far as you could, to make it happen, you need a bigger cycle."

Hiroko, though, is also being humble. "Koichi is considered Hijikata's protégé," explains Shinichi Momo Koga, a student who now performs internationally. "He's quite famous. All Harupin-Ha performances, he is the one who is the leader. But Hiroko spends more time with the dancers. She is the most interactive. Hiroko has been a teacher to me, whether she thinks of herself as one or not."

In the early years, I've been told, the Tamanos had a more regular dance company that was reminiscent of what they knew in Japan. Rehearsals occurred more frequently, and for hours at a time. Sometimes, the Tamanos would yell and scream if dancers weren't up to snuff, and their dancers had to push themselves beyond their physical limits. But after a long rehearsal, everyone gathered at the Tamanos' home to eat noodles, chat, and drink through the night.

But as with butoh itself, things changed with time. The Tamanos bought the restaurant when their grandson -- named after Hijikata -- was born, and they had less time for training, though some dancers supplemented their butoh education with jobs at Country Station. Also, the rehearsals became less volatile.

"Then, they had a very strong sense of Japanese-style teaching," says Kinji Hayashi, a student who started dancing with the Tamanos in 1988. "Over 20 years, they've learned how to teach Americans. I'm sure they have a vision to continue that tradition, but now it doesn't show in obvious ways."

Nowadays, with Koichi still recovering from a stroke, performance trainings have been fewer. And over the years, some students who have studied under the Tamanos have disappeared into other genres of dance. Even the most faithful students are busy with their own dance companies now -- Molly Barrons started Metropolitan Butoh, Kinji Hayashi dances with Human Sewing Machine, and Shinichi Momo Koga created inkBoat and spends half his time in Germany.

The Tamanos' troupe of dedicated students say that even as Koichi and Hiroko remain committed to maintaining the Hijikata line of butoh, the couple has supported them in defining their own dance. And therein lies, as with many aspects of butoh, the contradiction: How can the Tamanos preserve a dance form that cannot, by definition, remain static? How are they supposed to hold this legacy?

I watch Hiroko in the near-empty restaurant early on a summer night; some say things would have been different if they had remained in Japan.

"If they had Japanese students, and Hiroko and Koichi were in Japan, they would demand that butoh be the priority in their students' life," says Yuki Goto, a San Francisco State Asian-theater professor. "It would be a lifetime dedication. But here they are dealing with American students, artists with a diversity of interests.

"The good aspect to that is they can bring in new apprentices, expose more people. The negative part is that they don't remain with the Tamanos and they can't achieve the level that their butoh demands."

"Some people take off after three months and do something else," adds former student Hayashi. "They think they understand everything and get tired and move on. Some people stayed, but basically, that's what happened. But they [the Tamanos] are open to people interested in butoh. They would take them in like children."

After tending to her customers, Hiroko moves to the storage area for a cigarette and I follow her out.

"Are you proud of your students?" I ask her.

"They are doing things their own way, and this is just fine," she says, shrugging.

"But people say you have influenced them," I tell her.

"Then it is their business, not my business," she says fervently. "If I need 20 dancers, then I will find 20 people. There is no point in people waiting around saying, 'OK, what do I do?' And I say, 'One, two, three, four,' and then, 'Oh [she pretends to look at a watch], I have to go.' That is not teaching and that is not learning. They [students] came to my studio, and when we needed them, they were available. They took something home with them and started their own butoh. We are artists, everyone has their own butoh."

Without warning, she gets up and moves to the front of the restaurant. I return to the corner table, and after some time she comes to sit down with me again.

"People expect that something special should happen to them -- I'm a service," Hiroko says, her tongue warmed by several sips of sake. "Because it's their life and they want a nice, amazing, unexpected thing to happen to them. Why not? People pay money, spend time, they expect something. But if you expect too much, people are disappointed. When you are not expecting, that is when people have an impression. That is entertainment."

She gets up suddenly, walks to the front of the restaurant, and returns with a menu. She plops it in front of me, pointing to the top. "Hope to be a joyful part of your life," it reads.

"There," she says, as if she had just bared her entire being to me. "How many good times will you have in your life? If you expect me to be too much, you will be disappointed. But they [customers] see Oriental, half-drunk woman, not young and pretty. What is going on? What is she doing? Or dancer has a nice morning warm-up -- it is more than they expect. When that happens, that is why they are impressed. If they come to me with expectation, they will be disappointed, and that is not my fault. It is their fault."

I sense the loneliness of a mother who has raised too many children to count, and then sent them out into the world.

She looks up to see Koga, an early student, at the sushi bar. He has come to eat dinner at Country Station after teaching his own dance classes that day.

"I wanted to come back here," he tells me. "She is like a mother figure to me."

Other students tell me similar things. "The Tamanos are my teachers and they have maintained a lineage and history through teaching and performing," says Barrons, a 10-year student. "I feel hyper-conscious of this legacy. When I start teaching later in life, it will be from this historical context. It's bodywork that has a lineage from Hijikata to the Tamanos to me."

I wonder if Hiroko knows how much she has taught. I wonder if she would think it was enough.

New customers have arrived. They are bundled up, wearing motorcycle helmets and goggles. "You came from Alaska!" she exclaims, suddenly jovial. "You swim across the bay with her on your back?" Hiroko laughs, a throaty and joyous emission.

The restaurant is getting crowded. Everything enlarges: the rhythm of movements, the intensity of heat from the stove, the strength of the light. Hiroko, too, works more rapidly. She steps in and out of the room, moving as if always in spotlight.

Hiroko says that butoh cannot be learned purely through dance. So for many Sundays of her life, she has held butoh lifestyle classes at her home, a white, crumbling building in Berkeley with rust-red trim. Sometimes several students will show up, sometimes it's only one. When they arrive, Hiroko might lead them in chanting the heart sutra, or they might chop wood, or sit in the sun in her wild, fertile garden.

For the past several months, she has held classes irregularly, and on a warm July Sunday, she meant to simply meet with a few people to talk about future performances. But when she emerges from her bedroom, she brings two polka-dot mugs, an empty yogurt container, and one beer stein. Carrying a plastic bucket of water, she leads us outside. We walk barefoot, our pants rolled up.

"This is a cleansing exercise," she explains, pouring the slightly salted water into each cup. We stand in a row along the sidewalk, facing the street. "Your feet should kiss the ground," she says, demonstrating the method with which we should stand and distribute our weight.

"There is a wind in your body," she continues. "It swirls around. You gurgle from deep in your body, make a deep sound, and then spit."

She takes in a mouthful of water and gurgles noisily, a growl coming from her belly. Her eyes are closed, her face raised to the sky. Finally, she spits into the dirt in front of her, snorting snot from her nose.

We do the same.

For 15 minutes, we gurgle, concentrating on different parts of the body: cleansing the nose, then the ears, and finally, the eyes. When the water is gone, we clean the space.

We walk into the street to do some stretching, our bare feet screaming against the hot, uneven pavement. We go from squatting positions to standing positions. "Push your stomach up, up," she cries. "Push your tail down, deep into the mud."

In the middle of stretches, she turns to look at the sun and says, "I want to go to the beach."

Suddenly, we are piled into her blue minivan and driving west, toward whichever beach we happen to encounter. We spot a small stretch of sand along the freeway, just before the Bay Bridge. She pulls over and we walk down to the water.

Inexplicably, she has decided she wants to teach us choreography, and we follow her lead, getting down on our hands and knees to roll our bodies like waves, or crawl around like jungle cats.

Then we crouch low, swaying from side to side, allowing our arms to catch the breeze until they are lifted higher and higher. When our arms swim in the air above our heads, she says, "Twirl the sky."

We wave our arms like the wind above our heads, then take a small step forward, one knee bent, and make our bodies concave like a sail in the breeze.

We look to her for instructions.

"What is next?" she asks herself.

Then she remembers, and she tells us to hold the universe with our outstretched arms. She reminds us of the way we would feel if we had such a great weight to bear. When the imaginary universe becomes too much, she tells us to pretend the universe has been sucked into our belly buttons. We shrivel, our knees bent and bodies collapsing.

Then we release the universe to the ocean in front of us. We stoop to gather up an imaginary Earth and place it on our shoulders, our bodies crooked from the burden. We lift the Earth to the sky and release it, and we feel a lightness, our bodies buoyed by the wind.

It is getting late, and Hiroko motions for us to lie down, arms and legs spread, cheeks in the sand. Hiroko's eyes are closed, her face serene. I relax into the earth as she has done, the wind blowing sand against our eyelids.

About The Author

Bernice Yeung


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