I met Hannah Sim and Mark Steger through mutual artist friends David Baal and Nao Bustamante, all neighbors in twin storefront apartments on 14th Street in the Mission District. This was back at the cusp of the ’80s and ’90s when rents were already rising above the $300/month average. This was one of the key factors that made San Francisco a mecca for experimenters: performance artists and punk musicians; topless Lusty Lady lesbians and Gay Lib custodians; Cockettes on Food Stamps and anti-Reagan activists; Panthers both Black and Grey. Hannah and Mark as otherworldly dancers fit in imperfectly.
Here is an article based on one of their performances at Theater Artaud, followed by an interview from the same year in tsubushi: Butoh Journal. A brief note on the loss of Hannah Sim can be found at the end of this scroll.
CONCENTRATED DECONSTRUCTION: Butoh Dancers Mark Steger and Hannah Sim Explore in Osseus Labyrint’s “liquor Contunnii”
By Mark Freeman, Bay Area Reporter Arts & Entertainment, August 22, 1991
If you like looking at nude bodies, and if gender deconstruction does not offend you, liquor cotunnii, Osseus Labyrint’s new production may be just your cup of tea. After witnessing this intense mid-length work, friends and I kept wondering about the two performers: were they even trying to be humans? And, what is it they were doing? All I knew for sure was that it kept me in a state of unalloyed, fascinated concentration for 70 minutes.
In the dark we are first washed in sounds, created live over a track of computed effects and recorded animal cries, like slow peals of thunder and the rush of water in rapid crescendos. Such noises are ambient in some unknown environment, or maybe soundtracks to movies projected from inside a middle ear. (ask soundmen Storey and Todd Herman, listed in the program as “Cacophonists.”) Now there are strobes of light (the two “Luminaries” Sean Forrester and Larry Springer are responsible) timed to painfully sharp sounds.
These occasional flashes illuminate what must be two bodies, distinct contorted masses barely touching at two wrists. These “Random Mutations” Hannah Sim and Mark Steger begin to move slowly, more slowly than you imagine, and in unison. Their bodies are unclothed, both heads and pubes shaved completely, and in the side-lighting and non-sidereal time created by their prolonged and deliberate progression, we notice their bodies’ gaunt parts. Such as their arms, incredibly veined and gangly, the flat of abdomens and the curves of backs above muscley buttocks.
Aside from a few anatomical differences—the fullness of genitalia, the slightly more pointiness of a breast—one is struck by the fact that the bodies of our species’ two genders are quite similar. Their arms extend toward us as they slowly spasm forward, the lights dying just as they reach where we are.
When they return, within soft pin spots of MR16 lights, it is to the sound of sleigh bells. Each is now encased in black gauze, stretched by the jerkiness of enclosed gestures into abstract forms; they look like furtive priests or maybe cubist thunderclouds. Their tortured relationships may be caught in the dark mesh of one’s own fears.
Now one appears alone, squatting on one knee, naked except for a nipple ring that is catching the gleam of light; both eyebrows straining upward but with eyes closed, like a blind child reaching to the sky. The intensity of posture, plus the cello music and hypnotic lights, is exhausting yet exhilarating, like edging on the verge of orgasm.
A scene opens to the two of them leaning symmetrically against each others’ backs, like in a cartoon of mutual siesta. Here there is no movement, only some sort of stressed rubber sound. During this protracted inaction all attention is riveted, even mores than it was before. The section ends with their bodies still in non-movement (which is very different from nothing happening) except for their breathing, and ours—a shared body meditation.
Next, the other enters alone; knock-kneed, arms held tight behind and wrung together, eyes rolled up to their whites, an idiot grin that turns into a grimace. Like a work by Egon Schiele, this body is so taut and twisted that it denies any erotic suggestion.
That seems confirmed now that the two of them are illuminated in an orange light, spooned together. His arm cradles her head, and the music builds until, like suction giving way rapidly, their hips separate and slam—or are pulled—back together. The slap again and then again of buttock onto lap is the measured content of this episode of bodily abstracts.
We arrive at a climax of sorts. Then the sounds of choked-off screams and guttural responses, the two flesh-creatures rise, their heads too far back or tucked forward, but never at normal levels. They go up higher now, onto arm-thick rope vines, to hang upside down like live prosciutti, then drop together. Down on all fours but on fingertips, limned in the backlight, we see the outlines of their knobby spines and butt curves as they fall fully down onto sides, then undulating on their backs, their groins tilted slightly up off the floor, their wrists almost touching once again.
What does it mean? Censors would find only nudity. Humanists might consider it to be about people, but neither hetero nor homo. More like two grunting, straining Kafkaesque creatures, trying to get off their carapace backs. It is choreographed, but is far too slow to be about the reciprocity of usual dance dynamics. It is sufficiently self-absorbed to be called Performance Art, and almost outside of theatricality. Unless we are thinking of archetypal Theatre—tenuous tableaux allowed us in the caves of stick-drawings or of oracles.
Instead of its “performers” taking their bows, there is one final scene. Both walk toward us, very slowly of course, as we have become accustomed . Arms above heads hold buckets tilted forward to pour out sand, creating a rain of soft sound, in cloak-like descent as sand fountains from bald heads, sheeting down arms and torsos as they finish together. The audience sighs almost in unison at this very welcome ending catharsis, a gentle blessing in sand as a curtain.
Following is a section from an English-language article I wrote for the journal tsubushi’s issue #3, in the Summer of 1991. It consisted of interviews with Hannah Sim plus two other (Kinji Hayashi and Gordon Long) students of Butoh icons Koichi and Hiroko Tamano, who built their company Harupin-Ha in Japan, and then moved it to California. They taught and performed in the U.S. and abroad when not running restaurants Sushi-Ko in Berkeley and later Country Station in San Francisco (a spot which The Sycamore now occupies on Mission Street and in Noe Valley).
“If an individual is unable to modulte their expression in some way, that’s proof of insanity—or so the world thinks. But she can release it in a new form and still maintain, with people [the credibility] that she’s not a lunatic.”
One other bald member of the touring company of Harupin-Ha is Hannah Sim, a sinewy woman whose eyes show all 29 years of her experience. Born in Michigan, Hannah joined her family’s cross-country excursion in a VW microbus to live for a year in California, “while dad taught Sociology at Stanford. My parents weren’t hippies, but bohemians, anti-Vietnam War intellectuals. Then we drove east to Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, a conservative little town founded by a descendant of Christopher Columbus.
“I was almost totally solitary there, staying home and reading the books my mom left around the house: Brave New World and C.S. Lewis. Or rooting around outdoors like a feral child, barefoot, playing Robin Hood.
“I was estranged by everything. I thought when I grew up to be a teenager it would be better, because everyone would stop being so ridiculous, but they didn’t. Things only intensified. In school I was practically non-verbal, but got straight A’s. I wrote poetry and drew pictures that I wouldn’t show to anyone. I didn’t dare share with people how serious I was about it. Then in the 9th grade I basically had a teenage nervous breakdown, manifested as mononucleosis and two months in bed.
“After attending an alternative public school for wierdos—both the impaired and geniuses—I did a lot of backpacking with school friends, or volunteered to help with geological studies in the Grand Canyon, or hiked by myself in Arizona. I was allowed to join athletic teams at the regular school, and was very rugged and butchy. I had crushes on girls but they weren’t lebians, I wouldn’t be caught dead in anything but jeans and a big baggy sweater, although I did have really long hair—one of my trademarks—hair below my ass, so long I could sit on it.
“When I was 19 years old my father was diagnosed with cancer, had an operation, and went into remission for two years. I thought all I wanted to do forever was to travel, so I was in San Francisco at age 21 when I got the news that my parents had separated, and my dad found that the tumor was back and had metastasized to his whole body. I was the eldest, and my boyfriend at that time was an ex-high school teacher of mine, and a friend of my dad’s, so then we all lived together to take care of him. I knew it was the last I’d see of my father.
“He’s built like me, made of iron, especially his heart. So, at the end he just wanted to die, but couldn’t. We had to save enough drugs over a period of time, without being obvious about it, because it was very illegal to help him like that. And for me, still a child of 23 when he died, it was the worst nightmare I could imagine. I had always been experimental, now I became much druggier myself, becoming mildly addicted to his pills to help with my own pain. Within a month of his dying I moved back to San Francisco and met a bunch of interesting people right away. One boyfriend was a dealer: pot, acid and Ecstacy.
“Then I went to Asia for a year. In Japan I taught English during the day for Berlitz. Afternoons, I was a runway and television model, with my shoulder length hair. And by 8 or 9 at night I worked in a hostess club called ‘English Conversation Lounge’. I earned $15 an hour plus commissions on drinks. If you drink five glasses of wine per hour from eight until 2AM you get pretty fucked up. So did the clients. They’d fall down and throw up, but still take care of each other. Japan is a really rigorous social order, but when you are drunk anything is permitted. You can say things, get away with things, and everyone will humor you and no one will blame you for anything. It’s their one release.
“Anyway, I came back from Japan having saved $10,000 –which can buy a lot of drugs. My boyfriend had gone back to Japan and I was using needles now, barely making it—so many chemicals and no ballast. Relations with my family got very strained ‘cause they knew I was being really degenerate. So there I was, walking down the street, at the point of saying to myself, ‘Fuck it. I’ll do drugs until I wind up living on the street. See if any ethereal guardian angel sweeps down and takes care of me.’
“So I was walking down the street, wasted on something I can’t even remember, or hung over; it all seemed so hollow. I thought, calmly, that I should just step out onto the street and see if a truck ran me over. And tha’t just what I did, when a piece of paper blew up against my leg. I grabbed it to throw it away, but the picture was interesting. It was a xerox of Harupin-Ha’s first workshop in Butoh.
“You know, I’d never seen Butoh all the time I was in Japan, but I was aware of Sankai Juku. And I looked up just in time to see a truck too close, and I stepped out of its way, thinking I didn’t want to miss this workshop. The leaflet shook in my hand with the ruxh of the passing truck.
“I went, and began to do the kata, calisthenics, and the imagery: standing still; then walking with images; in the desert, feeling our skins falling off; then finding the greenest place possible. The first day I was there they asked me if I wanted to join their company. That was in 1988.”
In June of 1989 they went to Japan for the first time. Hannah had dreadlocks down her back then. “Hair monster!” Hiroko and Koichi would tease. “The next time we went there I was hairless; they told me I looked like an Ethiopian. In Japan, schoolgirls would gawk and giggle, though most people would walk right by and act like you don’t exist. In an artsy crowd there though, it is a draw, and helped me get modeling jobs.
“Until I began dancing, I feel like I was only going through the motions of living. This sounds totally corny, but the way I live my life is a dance. I’m not interested in living an easy, unrhythmic life where I don’t sweat—physically and emotionally. I’m an extremist and I’m not interested in being anything else.”
But now the strongest substance she takes is coffee, “with a little bit of sugar. No cigarettes. No drugs. Only occasional alcohol.” The boyfriend she travelled with died of a drug overdose just six months ago. “I don’t regret having been a drug addict or torturing myself and reaching ecstacy in various ways that I won’t ever do again. Abandoning drugs leaves a certain vacuum, but now I have other priorities.” Such as performing with her own ensemble, Osseus Labyrint (the bony inner ear, place of both sound vibration and body balance). And as a dancer in Harupin-Ha.
At a warehouse before departure for Japan, she is one of six who emerges on stage ever so slowly, dressed only in yellow fundoshi, a g-string, and white body paint. Here and there a piece of white tissue paper is attached to an ear, an eyebrow, a pierced nipple. The piece’s title: Wolves at the Gate.
Hiroko howls. Now Hannah howls. Giulietta Octavio and Leigh Evans join the howling. Gordon Long and Mark Stomper rise in unison to stand and howl. The tissue paper turns normal skin into flesh flayed off in a nuclear flash. The paint changes each body into a straining white envelope for muscles and souls. Each performer’s body becomes a signifier, arched in tension without relief. But only their teacher Hiroko seems to do this without trying, especially with her face: as prehistoric fetus or animal; puerile or senile. Now wry and inquisitive, now sour and shriveled. A true artist, she regresses and progresses for each of us.
Hannah Sim was born in Lansing, Michigan in 1962. She died in her sleep in San Francisco at the Hotel Isabel near Mission and 7th Sts., where she had lived for several years. After “a dreadful accident” she spent her last year mostly in a wheelchair with the help of Tim Whallon, her partner of four years, according to Hannah’s friend and photographer Richard Downing.
Even in the hardest neighborhood, you never know what genius you may be passing by on the street. SF, 11-24-2020