My Butoh friend

In the mid- to late eighties I worked at Moon Basket, a futon store in Berkeley. The owner was a Japanese ex-patriot named Fu who combined creative ingenuity with solid common sense, which guaranteed the success of her store. Besides customers, Moon Basket attracted an eclectic mix of talented actors, performance artists, dancers, singers, fashion designers and musicians who worked and played together. There was Reiko, bass guitarist and lead vocalist of a punk band. Ruthie (or Lucy, in Japanese), a flamboyant chanteuse and dancer from Canada. And adorable Sakura who usually had several guys swooning at her feet — to her chagrin, they never had any money. But my favorite co-worker was Hiroko. She turned ordinary activities such as cooking lunch or selling a futon into exquisite performance art. Her movements were graceful and funny, fluid and quirky, reminding me of Marcel Marceau. It made total sense when I learned that she was a professional dancer.

Hiroko and her husband Koichi Tamano had been disciples of Tatsumi Hijikata, the founder of a dance- and performance style that came to be known as Ankoku Butoh. Grotesque and dark, it attempts to capture the essence, the innermost truth of being through an almost shattering intensity. The focus and concentration of the dancer become so point-like, so red hot, that it feels like a piercing bolt of lightning. One almost forgets to breathe as one experiences the immense energy flowing from the performer.

The Tamanos studied for over ten years with Hijikata who eventually sent them to the United States to bring Butoh to the West. In the late seventies, they settled in the San Francisco/Bay Area where they founded their dance company Harupin Ha, a name that Hijikata chose for them. They bought a big old house in Berkeley that served as living space, studio, crash pad for transitory guests, meeting hall, and dance floor. They started teaching people, and gradually turned into living legends — Japan’s emperor declared Koichi a national treasure, and in 2005 Hiroko and Koichi received the Isadora Duncan Award. They have performed throughout Japan, France, Germany, Mexico and the United States. Their grandson must be around 15 by now, Koichi celebrated his 60th birthday a while ago, but their energy hasn’t diminished — they’re still performing and teaching. Gambatte, my friends.


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