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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

Wednesday, Jul 17 2002
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Page 5 of 6

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.

"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.

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.

About The Author

Bernice Yeung

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