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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 4 of 6

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."

About The Author

Bernice Yeung


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