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

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.

Ledoh, a Tamano student.
Paolo Vescia
Ledoh, a Tamano student.
Koichi Tamano in costume.
Doug Slater
Koichi Tamano in costume.

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.

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