Half a century of Butoh

31 August 2012

Half a Century of Butoh – an interview with Koichi Tamano

Reproduced with the kind permission of  TH serie No49 of Atelier-Third magazine >>   www.a-third.com

Interview with Koichi Tamano, by Nobuo Shiga

English translation: Dominique Baron-Bonarjee       

Photos: Nobuo Shiga


Koichi Tamano in Tokyo 2012

Koichi Tamano

He was the first student of Tatsumi Hijikata and very well known in the seventies. But now in Japan, he is less known, this is because from 1979 until this year, 2012, he lived in the United States. He is memorable for his performance in ‘The Palace Soars in the Sky’, a show which Kazuo Ohno created in 1993. He also danced in the show at Ise Shrine with musician Kitaro (see it on Youtube >>)

Into Butoh

The point at which I entered into the world of Butoh, was when Tatsumi Hijikata danced in a duet at the Show Club (a cabaret) where I was working when I was eighteen years old. Backstage, Hijikata told me to come to his studio. So I went to the Asbestos Kan (the name of the studio) where there were many beautiful women, so I’d go there everyday!

The style of the class at that time was barre exercises, a technique from ballet, also jazz dance, cha-cha and mambo. Mr Hijikata had a very good physical discipline and he was very skilled at jazz. After a few days I went to dance in a cabaret in Asakusa with Akira Kasai and Akiko Motofuji. Mr Kasai was a student at Meiji Gakuin University near Meguro. Mrs Motofuji, Hijikata’s wife, was a judge in modelling shows so there were always many beautiful women around her. There were a great deal of large-scale cabarets with a capacity of a thousand people (or more) and many artists who are famous today, began their careers in these cabarets.

Why did Hijikata start doing cabaret? Because somebody who had seen one of his Butoh shows invited him to create a “Love Butoh” with a slightly erotic style, for a cabaret in Ueno. It was very well paid. So I went on a tour of the whole of Japan with Tomiko Takai as well as other troupes that were dancing with Ishii Mitsutaka. Mr Hijikata had three or four troupes…and before entering into the dance world, Yoshito Ohno was a conga player in the cabaret.

The costume was always in the style of jazz dance with black trousers or a short skirt and high heels for the women. Mr Kasai, however, was always dressed as a woman in these shows. I would always bring the music score to the musicians: one tune was the national anthem of Malaysia, but I wasn’t aware of this fact. Later, I went to Malaysia and I was going to dance with this music but the producer said no, and eventually I realized.

Later, the dancers began to cover themselves in gold powder, and moving in the style of Nijinsky, and the female dancers were naked in the ‘show-dances’: it became more and more like Butoh.

Rose-Coloured Dance (Barairo Dansu)

My first show was ‘Barairo Dance’ in 1965, and Natsuyuki Nakanishi was the artist who painted female genitalia on my back: my head was shaved in order to create the shape of a penis. At the premier there were many artists from the Neo-Dada movement who were also in the show: Sho Kazakura was shaved, Genpei Akasegawa had created a scenographic painting showing specific pointsof the body, Yasunao Tone, a musician (and later a member of Fluxus) created the music with the sound of drops of water. Mr Kasai and Mr Ishii danced like the embryo in the womb. After that, Kazuo Ohno and Hijikata danced a homosexual duet. Mr Yoshito was beating his stomach and his body was becoming pinker and pinker, perhaps that was the rose-coloured dance (he laughs).

It was also the space for a ‘ceremony for the dead’, and Mr Akasegawa had used a white piece of cloth to hide other students who were also on stage. There was also a dog figurine by Nakanishi.

My second show was ‘Tomato’: I was upside down, feet in the air with women’s panties on my head. I was also in Mitsutaka Ishii’s ‘Butoh Genet’ as well as Tomiko Takai’s ‘Keiji-Jogaku’ (Pata-Physics). My costume was a pair of diving goggles placed in between my thighs. In another performance I was a waiter on roller skates. I have a memory that Mr Yukio Mishima, the famous author, saw these shows.

The majority of the audience of Barairo Dansu (‘Rose-Coloured Dance’) were foreigners (from the embassies). Hijikata’s strategy was to invite foreigners. But he himself never left Japan.

Then Hijikata found Yoko Ashikawa. She and Saga Kobayashi came to the Asbestos Kan. All the dancers danced in the night-time cabaret. After that, at 1am they would train until dawn. The training was very strict. Hijikata choreographed Yoko Ashikawa and then she began to dance. I would really like Ms Ashikawa to come back to the stage now to show here Butoh in public again.

In 1972 Hijikata choreographed me in the piece ‘Nagasukujira’ (‘Balaenoptera Physalus’) and then I created the group Harupin Ha so as not to depend on Hijikata anymore.

In the United States

Masanobu Yoshimura, an artist (founder of Japanese Neo-Dada), organised a union of artists in the Matogrosso Gallery in Shinjuku. It wasn’t really a union but rather a network of artists, so we did exhibitions together throughout the whole of Japan and I would participate as a dancer. The San Francisco Arts Council invited us to do an exhibition. So in 1976 I went to America. I danced in music clubs as an opening act for punk-rock bands. I also went into the gay community and taught workshops: more and more men would invite me to dance.

At the San Francisco Contemporary Arts Museum I danced at the opening of sculptor, Isamu Noguchi’s exhibition. It was an installation with a large shoji (a door made of paper), which was about the size of four and a half large tatami mats, in other words very big. There was also a wall of bamboos and a mosquito net. But the floor was marble so I had a wooden pathway built. Some old guy told me ‘no’, that  I couldn’t do this: it was in fact Isamu Noguchi!

He frustrated me with many demands, so I had to say to him “This is my dance”. When he saw my show though, we became friends. So I went to see him in New York and also in Japan. One day he wrote me a letter saying, “I would like to see you”, but a week later he died.

The first time I danced with the musician Kitaro was only a few minutes during one of his concerts. After that we did a tour of the United States and in Japan we collaborated in the show at the Ise Shrine (the great shrine of Wakayama the largest of the Japanese Emperor).

In the US I met many people: the poet, Allen Ginsberg; Bill Graham (the rock producer) who organized an AIDS benefit charity concert where there were 8000 people; Laurie Anderson; Philip Glass, etc. When Bill Graham died, 100000 people attended the concert.

The translator Slava Ranko helped me a lot with translation: he had lived in Japan for a long time and translated the oldest Japanese literature (kojiki) as well as ‘Yukar Aino’ (the legends of the Ainu, an ancient Japanese civilization of Hokkaido). Mr Ranko played the biwa, a Japanese instrument. At the time of his death, he was the president of the Translation Association of the United States.

Mr (Francis Ford) Coppola also asked me to act in one of his films, etc. There were many opportunities.

At the Sushi restaurant

When I arrived in the US, at first I did part-time work as a carpenter or painter-decorator. But there was a visa problem; in order to obtain a work visa it was a good idea to work in Japanese restaurant. So I worked in a Japanese restaurant in Canada and then in San Francisco. In 1995 I opened my own sushi restaurant in San Francisco in the black area of Mission. I stayed in Mission two years before opening a restaurant in the middle-class area, which I ran for three years. At the same time I would teach workshops in Japan. Now it’s nearly thirty years since I left Japan and as concerns Butoh, it’s been nearly fifty years that I’ve been dancing Butoh. Now I’ve closed my restaurant and I‘m returning to Japan.

Koichi & Hiroko Tamano
Koichi & Hiroko Tamano

The future of Butoh

In the US, in Seattle, Colorado, New York, Arizona, there are Butoh festivals. There are also some in Latin America in Mexico and in Chile, as well as in Europe, (in France) in Paris, in Germany. But in Japan there is only the Kazuo Ohno Festival. I am going to create a festival to Hijikata based around the day of his death, dedicated to his memory, and in this way, I can create a meeting space for international dancers. It is my ambition.

Internationally, Noh, Kyogen, Kabuki and Butoh, are known as the arts that represent Japan, but the first three are traditional performing arts. In other words, in contemporary times there is only really Butoh. The origin of Butoh is in Japan but there is no theatre festival for letting international dancers come in, and it’s a real pity. Little by little I want to create a more international direction for Butoh. I would like to teach young people and to train Butoh dancers.

Tamano Koichi facebook link >>

Koichi Tamano’s collaboration with musician, Kitaro


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