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

"This is a cleansing exercise," she explains, pouring the slightly salted water into each cup. We stand in a row along the sidewalk, facing the street. "Your feet should kiss the ground," she says, demonstrating the method with which we should stand and distribute our weight.

"There is a wind in your body," she continues. "It swirls around. You gurgle from deep in your body, make a deep sound, and then spit."

She takes in a mouthful of water and gurgles noisily, a growl coming from her belly. Her eyes are closed, her face raised to the sky. Finally, she spits into the dirt in front of her, snorting snot from her nose.

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.

We do the same.

For 15 minutes, we gurgle, concentrating on different parts of the body: cleansing the nose, then the ears, and finally, the eyes. When the water is gone, we clean the space.

We walk into the street to do some stretching, our bare feet screaming against the hot, uneven pavement. We go from squatting positions to standing positions. "Push your stomach up, up," she cries. "Push your tail down, deep into the mud."

In the middle of stretches, she turns to look at the sun and says, "I want to go to the beach."

Suddenly, we are piled into her blue minivan and driving west, toward whichever beach we happen to encounter. We spot a small stretch of sand along the freeway, just before the Bay Bridge. She pulls over and we walk down to the water.

Inexplicably, she has decided she wants to teach us choreography, and we follow her lead, getting down on our hands and knees to roll our bodies like waves, or crawl around like jungle cats.

Then we crouch low, swaying from side to side, allowing our arms to catch the breeze until they are lifted higher and higher. When our arms swim in the air above our heads, she says, "Twirl the sky."

We wave our arms like the wind above our heads, then take a small step forward, one knee bent, and make our bodies concave like a sail in the breeze.

We look to her for instructions.

"What is next?" she asks herself.

Then she remembers, and she tells us to hold the universe with our outstretched arms. She reminds us of the way we would feel if we had such a great weight to bear. When the imaginary universe becomes too much, she tells us to pretend the universe has been sucked into our belly buttons. We shrivel, our knees bent and bodies collapsing.

Then we release the universe to the ocean in front of us. We stoop to gather up an imaginary Earth and place it on our shoulders, our bodies crooked from the burden. We lift the Earth to the sky and release it, and we feel a lightness, our bodies buoyed by the wind.

It is getting late, and Hiroko motions for us to lie down, arms and legs spread, cheeks in the sand. Hiroko's eyes are closed, her face serene. I relax into the earth as she has done, the wind blowing sand against our eyelids.

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