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

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.

Ten-year student Molly Barrons started her own butoh 
dance company.
Paolo Vescia
Ten-year student Molly Barrons started her own butoh dance company.

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.

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.

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