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

"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."

Hiroko Tamano (above) and her husband, Koichi, who 
were among the first to introduce butoh to the U.S., 
have become pioneers and legends at the same time.
Paolo Vescia
Hiroko Tamano (above) and her husband, Koichi, who were among the first to introduce butoh to the U.S., have become pioneers and legends at the same time.
Hiroko Tamano.
Paolo Vescia
Hiroko Tamano.

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."

She gets up suddenly, walks to the front of the restaurant, and returns with a menu. She plops it in front of me, pointing to the top. "Hope to be a joyful part of your life," it reads.

"There," she says, as if she had just bared her entire being to me. "How many good times will you have in your life? If you expect me to be too much, you will be disappointed. But they [customers] see Oriental, half-drunk woman, not young and pretty. What is going on? What is she doing? Or dancer has a nice morning warm-up -- it is more than they expect. When that happens, that is why they are impressed. If they come to me with expectation, they will be disappointed, and that is not my fault. It is their fault."

I sense the loneliness of a mother who has raised too many children to count, and then sent them out into the world.

She looks up to see Koga, an early student, at the sushi bar. He has come to eat dinner at Country Station after teaching his own dance classes that day.

"I wanted to come back here," he tells me. "She is like a mother figure to me."

Other students tell me similar things. "The Tamanos are my teachers and they have maintained a lineage and history through teaching and performing," says Barrons, a 10-year student. "I feel hyper-conscious of this legacy. When I start teaching later in life, it will be from this historical context. It's bodywork that has a lineage from Hijikata to the Tamanos to me."

I wonder if Hiroko knows how much she has taught. I wonder if she would think it was enough.

New customers have arrived. They are bundled up, wearing motorcycle helmets and goggles. "You came from Alaska!" she exclaims, suddenly jovial. "You swim across the bay with her on your back?" Hiroko laughs, a throaty and joyous emission.

The restaurant is getting crowded. Everything enlarges: the rhythm of movements, the intensity of heat from the stove, the strength of the light. Hiroko, too, works more rapidly. She steps in and out of the room, moving as if always in spotlight.


Hiroko says that butoh cannot be learned purely through dance. So for many Sundays of her life, she has held butoh lifestyle classes at her home, a white, crumbling building in Berkeley with rust-red trim. Sometimes several students will show up, sometimes it's only one. When they arrive, Hiroko might lead them in chanting the heart sutra, or they might chop wood, or sit in the sun in her wild, fertile garden.

For the past several months, she has held classes irregularly, and on a warm July Sunday, she meant to simply meet with a few people to talk about future performances. But when she emerges from her bedroom, she brings two polka-dot mugs, an empty yogurt container, and one beer stein. Carrying a plastic bucket of water, she leads us outside. We walk barefoot, our pants rolled up.

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