Is the San Francisco Butoh Festival successful because the Bay Area butoh scene is thriving, or is the scene thriving because of the festival's success? This eerie post-World War II (and, importantly, post-atom bomb) Japanese form of dance theater has been taking root in cities across Europe and the United States since the early 1980s, but in few places besides Hiroshima itself has it been as fully embraced as in San Francisco. Each summer for the past six years, the Butoh Festival has imported top-flight performers from far and wide. In fact the S.F. Butoh Festival, which this year presents six world-renowned butoh companies, has become the largest of its kind in the country.
That fact can be at least partly explained by the local presence of Koichi and Hiroko Tamano, who settled in the Bay Area and began teaching their often horrifying but always imaginatively driven art here 25 years ago. With the growing global popularity of butoh have come serious questions of authenticity, and the Tamanos, who -- with their Harupin-Ha Butoh Dance Company -- will perform a new evening-length work this Friday and Sunday, are nothing if not authentic. The couple apprenticed directly under one of butoh's three founders, the late Tatsumi Hijikata, and they have carefully preserved his style and technique. This lineage continues through Tamanos students Shinichi Momo Koga (who leads the butoh collective Inkboat) and Leigh Evans, who will perform Friday and Sunday nights, respectively.
But, happily, the organizers behind the Butoh Festival aren't sticklers for purity. "There is a lot of discussion in the butoh community about what is real and not real," says festival founder and butoh practitioner Brechin Flournoy. "And to me I look at it and it's all butoh, because I see the root of it. Frankly it's easy for me to do that because I'm an American and we're used to assimilating."
This year, the festival -- which in the past has shouldered such fruitful themes as "Women in Butoh" and "Butoh and German Expressionism" -- has selected the concept of ensemble for its unifying idea, and to that end has engaged groups from Canada (Kokoro Dance) and Germany (Anzu Furukawa's Verwandlungsamt), as well as solo artist Setsuko Yamada from Japan. All bring distinct influences to the floor, and all find their inspiration in everything from the paintings of Francisco de Goya to cockroaches. In the past, ensembles have been too costly for the festival to bring over, which makes this year's lineup a first. (Yamada and Evans do not perform in ensembles, but again, faithfulness to form is not the overriding factor). Also for the first time in the festival's history, all will perform evening-length works that should give the bay's hordes of butoh lovers and practitioners something to sink their teeth into.