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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

Page 3 of 6

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.

About The Author

Bernice Yeung


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