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

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."

Hiroko Tamano has been a teacher to dancers like 
Shinichi Momo Koga.
Paolo Vescia
Hiroko Tamano has been a teacher to dancers like Shinichi Momo Koga.
Hiroko Tamano in performance.
Doug Slater
Hiroko Tamano in performance.

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.

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