For Sharon Stern, a Joyous Life of Artistry and Dance Ended in Darkness and Death
Illustration by Jay Vollmar
On April 25, 2012, Sharon Stern took her own life.
The 33-year-old from North Miami Beach had spent part of the previous three years traveling the world with a Japanese dance master known as Katsura Kan, teaching workshops and performing. One video shows them on a black stage, side by side. They are barefoot and nude from the waist up, and their faces are grim. Twin spotlights illuminate them as they slowly pivot away from the audience and hunch their backs in unison, as if cowering. The stage is silent except for a few piano notes that reverberate and then fade. With their backs to the audience, the two extend their right hands above their heads. They close their fists to knock on a pair of invisible doors.
When they turn around again, they each hold a palm stiffly to their foreheads. Their fingers slide down their faces and into their mouths, and they each pretend to regurgitate a string.
They are performing butoh, a type of dance that debuted in Japan in 1959. Its inventor called his creation ankoku butoh, which translates to "dance of darkness." Kan, who is from Kyoto, has been dancing butoh since 1979. In 2007 and 2008, he spent 11 weeks teaching at Naropa University — a four-decade-old Buddhist-inspired school with beatnik roots — in Boulder, Colorado. Sharon was a student then, studying for a master's degree in fine arts so she could become a teacher. That's how they met.
After she graduated, in 2009, she put her teaching ambitions on hold to follow Kan. But her parents claim that by that point, she was no longer in control of her life. Kan had seduced and abused her, they say, and stripped her of her free will; under the guise of making her a better butoh dancer, he actually made her his slave. She turned on her family and divorced her husband, who had moved with her from Florida to Colorado so she could attend Naropa. When Sharon began to show signs of mental illness, her parents claim, Kan rejected her. They have filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against him, alleging his abandonment drove her to suicide.
Neither Kan nor his former lawyer responded to requests for comment for this story. (Kan is currently representing himself.)
Sharon's parents also blame Naropa. But the university denies any wrongdoing. President Chuck Lief says Kan was a respected dancer who had taught at other colleges before he came to Naropa. An internal investigation turned up no evidence that anything inappropriate had taken place when Sharon was a student.
"If we don't receive complaints or statements of concern from people — if we don't have reason to believe anything unprofessional is going on — then I don't feel that Naropa is responsible for the eventual tragic end of her life," Lief says.
Some of Sharon's classmates agree. Although Sharon seemed drawn to butoh and to Kan, they say they never suspected anything sinister. Her classmates were shocked when they learned of her death, but they don't fault Naropa for failing to predict it.
Her family does, however, as do some of her childhood friends. The way her parents see it, Naropa hired the man who took hold of their happy and loving daughter — the one they affectionately called Sharoni, who earned straight A's and was always singing — and didn't let go until it was too late.
"I sent a healthy girl to Naropa," her father says. "I got her back in a casket."
Sharon was "a spiritual, wonderful human being who had no drop of badness in her bones."
Photo courtesy of the Stern family
Sharon grew up in North Miami Beach with her parents and her older brother, Ron. Her parents are immigrants — her father, Tibor, spent his childhood in Czechoslovakia, and her mother, Hana, is from Israel — who became successful diamond dealers.
From the beginning, her mother says, they encouraged Sharon's artistic personality. When Sharon was 3 years old, her parents enrolled her in ballet classes. She went to a private Jewish school, where she earned national accolades for poems she wrote in Hebrew. She also wrote short stories and played piano and guitar. In high school, Sharon began singing and acting. Her mother remembers one play, I Never Saw Another Butterfly, in which Sharon played a child in a concentration camp. There wasn't a dry eye in the audience. Afterward, her mother says, a Holocaust survivor came up to Sharon and hugged and kissed her.
"Sharoni was a perfect child," Hana says. "She was very multitalented." And happy: "When she opened the door, she opened the door with singing. She was a spiritual, wonderful human being who had no drop of badness in her bones."
Childhood friend Thabatta Schwartz Mizrahi says Sharon was so bubbly that friends called her the Energizer Bunny. "Sharon was very much about the now," she says. "I think that's what drew people in to her. She was like, 'Forget about tomorrow. Let's have fun right now.'?"
Sharon was funny too. Friend Rachel Coxon, also a child of immigrants, recalls how Sharon would crack her up by talking in an Israeli accent. "If you had told me when she was in high school that she would commit suicide, I would have laughed," Coxon says.
Sharon's excellent grades helped get her a scholarship to the University of Florida. After her freshman year, she transferred to the University of Miami, where she earned a degree in fine art in 2001. She became a yoga instructor after college and took up swing and blues dancing.
She also acted in local productions. A 2004 New Times review of the romantic drama Stop Kiss, in which Sharon played one of the protagonists, Sara, hailed the play as "one of the best shows to hit South Florida in a long time." The play is about a first kiss between two women, Callie and Sara, that turns violent when they're attacked by a bystander and Sara falls into a coma. "Stern's finest scene is one in which Sara doesn't speak — or move at all," reviewer Ronald Mangravite wrote. "Yet the emotions raging underneath the surface — grief, despair, love, and frustration — all pour forth with real impact."
That Sharon was a hit didn't surprise her friends. "Anything she put her mind to, she really could have done it," says her friend Taly, who doesn't want to use her last name.
In 2007, Sharon and her family sat down to discuss her future. She wanted to go to graduate school, Tibor says, so she could teach at the university level and direct shows. She'd applied to several schools, including Naropa, and was trying to decide where to go. "I was the one to tell her that I heard a lot about Boulder and it's a nice, safe town," Tibor remembers. "I said, 'Go to the mountains. I'm planning to retire there.'?"
The Sterns had bought a vacation home in Snowmass, and Sharon had enjoyed hiking, biking, and skiing when she'd visited. Plus, Naropa seemed to fit with Sharon's spirituality and artiness. Founded in 1974 by a Buddhist monk, the school, home of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, concentrates on meditation and "contemplative education."
In May, Sharon married a computer programmer named Todd Siegel. Photos of her from that time show a lively brunette with brown eyes and a wide smile. Shortly after the wedding, the newlyweds moved to Boulder and rented a house. Sharon began classes at Naropa that fall.
"Then," her father says, "the evil walked through the door."
Kan and Sharon performed a butoh dance in which they were half-naked and pretended to vomit strings. Her parents believe that butoh is a cult and that Kan is a cult leader.
Photo by Sergio Barrientos Roman/Flickr
At Naropa, Sharon was one of 19 students in the MFA program in Theater: Contemporary Performance. Classmate Benjamin Stuber remembers her as a smart and ambitious woman who made friends easily. Sharon also stood out as an outstanding performer, the kind who was soft and accessible but also precise. "She had a very warm personality plus a fiery temper," Stuber says. "Everyone loved her."
Kan, whose real name is Teruyoshi Kotoura, spent six weeks as a guest artist at Naropa in November and December 2007. It was his first time teaching at the school, but he'd taught at other colleges before, including Denison University in Ohio. He was nearly 60 years old, about the same age as Sharon's father, but his fit physique and shaved head made him appear younger.
At the end of Sharon's first semester, Kan taught a short workshop for the first-year MFA students. Stuber had danced butoh before, but to his knowledge, Sharon had not.
That's not surprising, given that butoh is a fairly fringe art form. Most scholars track its origins to a single dance and a single dancer, Hijikata Tatsumi. In 1959, Hijikata performed a short piece with another male dancer called "Kinjiki," or "Forbidden Colors," based on a homoerotic novel of the same name. Accounts vary, but most butoh scholars agree that the dance included sexual themes, a soundtrack of moaning, and a live chicken that may or may not have been strangled to death between one of the dancer's thighs. The audience was horrified, but Hijikata kept making his ankoku butoh, telling an interviewer in 1968 that his unhappy childhood in frigid northern Japan and the things he saw there — icicles, his father beating his mother — influenced his art.
Butoh came to be known in the West for near-naked dancers covered in white body paint performing slow, grotesque movements. A 1984 New York Times story about an early U.S. butoh performance described the dance as "darkly erotic" and said the dancers used their bodies to form disturbing shapes that evoked pain and suffering. Butoh has been described in subsequent newspaper stories as eerie, risqué, intense, and obsessive.
But settling on a single definition is nearly impossible. Sondra Fraleigh, a retired State University of New York dance professor and author of several books about butoh, says she knows it when she sees it. "If I see something very slow and inner-directed, and that is paying attention to details of movement and is accounting for suffering somewhere and has meditative qualities, I would say I'm looking at butoh," she says.
Butoh, Fraleigh adds, is "dancing with the senses." Instead of dancing like the wind, butoh dancers aspire to "dance wind." Some people even see butoh as a type of therapy — a way of exorcising darkness, not reveling in it. "The darkness of butoh is not about evil," Fraleigh insists.
Sharon threw herself into butoh the way she did everything else, and she was good at it — so much so that Kan chose her as one of only six first-year students to dance in a performance he was directing with the second-year MFA students. Called "Beckett Butoh Notation," it was partly inspired by the work of avant-garde Irish writer Samuel Beckett. The first-years' part was a series of three duets, and Stuber was partnered with Sharon.
"It was a lyrical piece," Stuber recalls. "It was almost like male and female parts of a person — of a soul — being born. It was a lot of slow rolling on the floor, one body emerging out and another coming back in. I remember her husband, Todd, saying after, 'For a moment there, I wasn't sure which of you was my wife.' I took it as a compliment."
Todd did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Kan returned to Naropa for five weeks in September and October 2008, and Sharon's class worked with him again. But his teaching style wasn't for everyone, classmates say; he could be formal and blunt, the type of director who wouldn't hesitate to tell you that something sucked. His English was a bit rough too, which made communication difficult.
Kan also taught the new first-year students, including Dana Hart Lubeck. She and Sharon had met that fall and quickly bonded over their shared Jewish heritage. But Hart Lubeck didn't share Sharon's enthusiasm for butoh, or for Kan. "He picks his favorites," she says. "If you weren't his favorite, you didn't feel like you got a lot out of studying with him."
Sharon was a favorite. Her parents remember visiting her in Boulder in 2008 and driving her to a one-on-one session with Kan. When they asked why she was practicing with him alone, Sharon said that's what he wanted. "She told us: 'He said I'm talented and he wants to work with me,'?" Tibor recalls. But when he dropped her off, Tibor says, Sharon wasn't herself.
"She was very disturbed," he says. "She lost her smile."
At the time, the Sterns didn't know what Kan was teaching their daughter. But after her death, Tibor read her journals. (He has not shared them but says he expects that the contents will be revealed in court.) He says they show that Kan "brainwashed her against society." "My daughter wrote nine journals. I read them all," Tibor says. "His teaching was, 'Happiness, it's no good. Lose your ego. Lose your identity. Lose your authenticity. Lose your dreams.'?"
But Stuber says he never saw anything to suggest that Sharon had an unhealthy obsession with butoh or that it was causing her to unravel. Hart Lubeck didn't either, though she did sense that the relationship between Sharon and Kan had gone beyond teacher and pupil. That was in 2009; after graduating, Sharon had returned to Naropa to work as Kan's assistant. Hart Lubeck was still a student, and she says Sharon seemed different.
"She was still kind and sweet," Hart Lubeck says, "but she didn't seem as open. There was just a different energy around her, a different aura around her. It wasn't darkness and it wasn't depression. There was just a different feel."
Kan and Sharon performing a butoh dance.
Screenshot via YouTube
In early 2010, Sharon applied for a residency at the now-dissolved Packing House Center for the Arts (PHCA), an experimental performance laboratory in Denver. Executive director Patrick Mueller remembers wishing that all applicants were like Sharon. "She was the first person who approached me with a full proposal in hand," he says. "She was incredibly driven."
Over the course of several months, PHCA provided her with free practice space to develop an original dance performance. The final result was a show called "Aleh." It had three parts: a butoh-style group dance, a solo butoh performance by Sharon, and a duet with her blues dance partner. The tag line on the promotional materials read, "Solitude amidst motion, the fragility of the human spirit, and the creatures lurking within us..."
It was a success. "What stood out was the way that the group moved through the space," Mueller remembers. "A group would form out of individuals and dissolve back, leaving somebody behind or breaking away in any direction. You got the sense that the threads that tied the people together were real but they were tenuous."
Mueller says he never felt that Sharon was unhealthy: "I didn't see her love of butoh as a fixation with darkness. I would roundly defy the idea that this thing took ahold of her in a way that she was not eyes-wide-open in her desire to commit to it."
As for Kan, Mueller never met him. He says Sharon would mention him in the context of her work but never as anything more. He recalls being a bit jealous that she had such a willing mentor to give her a leg up in the dance world, where it's difficult to make a living.
In 2010, Kan returned to Colorado to teach at Naropa for four weeks. An email provided to New Times by the Stern family shows he requested that Sharon assist him once again.
"This seemed important to him, so I have said yes," Naropa MFA professor Wendell Beavers wrote to Sharon in late August 2010. "As we discussed, I have no money for this purpose — I wish I did. So you would be working for Kan and the Department in exchange for the educational value for yourself. Which I know is immense." He ended the note with a smiley emoticon.
Sharon seemed eager for the opportunity. "I am happy to work on this with Kan, in whatever capacity he needs or we decide," she wrote to Beavers. At that time, she was also organizing the inaugural Boulder Butoh Festival, at which Kan was scheduled to perform.
A month before the October 2010 festival, Sharon was home in South Florida for the Jewish holidays. She went to lunch with Taly and Coxon, who say she seemed distracted and preoccupied with the festival. Coxon, who lives in the Bay Area but was also home for the holidays, had seen Sharon perform butoh earlier that year in San Francisco. The performance had upset her so much that she'd left halfway through. She didn't understand why Sharon was half-naked, and she didn't like the weird way her friend was moving.
"It was very strange," Coxon says. "It made my skin crawl."
But Coxon thought it was just a phase. She figured Sharon would eventually move on — as she had with yoga and swing dancing — and settle down with her husband.
That didn't happen. Instead, Sharon put even more energy into butoh. She had been periodically meeting up with Kan and other dancers for performances and workshops, but she began to tour with the teacher more extensively in 2011. Sheri Brown, a butoh dancer from Seattle who toured with Kan in 2010, remembers symbolically passing the baton to Sharon.
"At that point, we had a conversation to be careful about different boundaries being crossed, and she seemed to understand," Brown says. Brown claims she never had a romantic relationship with Kan herself, but she recognized "there was a chemistry" between Sharon and Kan, though she says she doesn't know if they ever acted on it.
Emails attached to the Stern family's lawsuit suggest they did. In March 2011, Sharon sent an email to Kan — subject: "to be clear" — expressing anger that he had flirted with another woman. "I saw the way you looked directly into her eyes when you said, 'There is something dangerous about their wild and sexy and passionate way. It is very close to Butoh essence. I like it very much.' How do you think this makes me feel?" Sharon wrote. "Even if you have no interest in sex with [her], you know how much I am chasing this Butoh essence!
"You've flirted with me in the exact same way in the past, and it made me fall in love with you."
Sharon begged Kan not to punish her for being married and wrote that if he was interested in other women, maybe they should keep their relationship professional. She thanked him for believing in her ability. "I will love you until the day I die," she wrote.
Her parents began to suspect something was wrong. Like Sharon's friends, they had hoped their daughter would tire of butoh and Katsura Kan and begin her career as a teacher. But there seemed to be no end in sight. Whenever they'd ask, Sharon would tell them she had to continue to tour until Kan made her a butoh master. "That obviously never happened," Tibor says, "because he was enjoying a very sexy young lady."
In mid-2011, Sharon and Kan traveled to Brazil for a performance. Schwartz Mizrahi, her childhood friend, was living there and went to see it. "When I saw her, I was devastated, because I didn't see my friend," she says. "I saw a very broken person."
Sharon was frighteningly thin, her skin was dry, and her eyes were bloodshot. It seemed to Schwartz Mizrahi that Sharon, always a teetotaler, was on drugs. "She couldn't put her words together; she couldn't put her sentences together properly," Schwartz Mizrahi says. "She wasn't really making sense."
As they were talking, Kan approached and stood between them, Schwartz Mizrahi says. "Did you put the camera away?" he asked Sharon. Schwartz Mizrahi remembers that Sharon tried to introduce her but that Kan said he wasn't interested and walked off.
"You could tell it wasn't a healthy relationship," she says.
Sharon ended up staying with her friend for a few days, and Schwartz Mizrahi says she slowly began acting more like herself: She began eating and laughing. She talked about how being on the road had been difficult and how she was looking forward to going home to Todd.
But she didn't. Two weeks after Sharon left, Schwartz Mizrahi got a call from Todd. "He said, 'When did she leave you? She never came home,'?" Schwartz Mizrahi recalls. "He said, 'Last we heard, she was going to Copenhagen. We're trying to figure out where she is.'?"
They soon found out. In August, Sharon's brother heard from Kan while the family was vacationing in Colorado: Sharon had gone missing in Copenhagen. In a follow-up call from the Copenhagen police, the family learned that Sharon had been found on the street in Christiania — a communal neighborhood founded by artists and squatters and known for its open marijuana sales — where she and Kan had been staying. Her behavior prompted the police to take her to a mental hospital, where Todd and her parents found her, emaciated and having suffered a psychotic breakdown.
"I found bones in front of me," Hana recalls. "Skin and bones."
Tibor sent Kan the first of many emails telling him to stay away from Sharon. "You have had your last dance with my daughter!!!" he wrote. He ordered Kan to stop communicating with her and had his Colorado attorney send a letter demanding the same. "You must stay away from Boulder, Colorado, her hometown, where she will get psychiatric treatment," Tibor wrote.
Even though Kan stayed away, he didn't stop communicating, and neither did Sharon. In late August, she sent him an email asking if he loved her. According to a copy attached to the lawsuit, Kan wrote back that his love for her had "limitation" and that "my truth is that I love myself." He said it seemed as if her brain was "over flood and out of control."
But two weeks later, in mid-September, Kan wrote in an email that "we are long life partner for sure." He said he'd received several negative emails from her father, and though he didn't believe them, he was worried. He wrote that they should set up a Skype date soon.
The next day, Sharon wrote that she was flying to meet him in Thailand.
"Sorry," she wrote, "I can not just sit around anymore."
Sharon with her father, Tibor. He pleaded with Kan: "Bring her back to us."
Photos courtesy of the Stern family
That cycle continued, her family says: They'd get her home and on the path to treatment, and she'd run away to be with Kan. Todd sent emails to Kan, asking him to send her back. "If you are her friend, you will tell her to go back to the U.S. and to get help for her emotional instability," Todd wrote in one message. Her father says that in December 2011, he even flew to Boulder and petitioned a judge to have Sharon involuntarily committed to Boulder Community Hospital for two weeks. By that point, her family says, she'd attempted suicide twice.
At the hospital, Sharon was medicated and cut off from Kan, and Tibor says she started to improve. But he says a butoh friend began relaying messages between Sharon and Kan. When Tibor briefly returned to South Florida to take care of some business, Sharon persuaded one of the doctors to release her early. The next day, she flew to Hawaii to meet Kan. Tibor claims Sharon was stealing money to finance her trips at Kan's behest.
From Hawaii, Sharon called her friend Coxon in the Bay Area. Coxon didn't know about the breakdown in Copenhagen but nevertheless had become concerned; Sharon seemed to be traveling nonstop and had changed her relationship status on Facebook to "It's complicated."
Sharon told Coxon that she was flying to San Francisco the next day to find a job. Her stay was brief and strange. The day after she arrived — looking, Coxon says, like a "bag lady" — Sharon abruptly announced she was leaving again, this time for Japan. Kan was there for the Japanese New Year holiday. Emails attached to the lawsuit suggest Kan was upset she decided to come. "Without any plan, you are not welcome," he wrote to her December 31. "I am so sad your behavior this time, will SLAP you when I meet you."
Her father pleaded with Sharon to return home, and, like Todd, asked Kan for help. "Katsura, if you would be a man of integrity (which you are not), you would detox my daughter from your evil self-serving teaching and bring her back to us for much-needed medical attention," Tibor wrote in mid-January 2012. He threatened to contact the police and the U.S. Embassy if Sharon didn't assure him she was safe in Japan. Ten minutes after sending that email, Tibor says, he got a phone call from her. "Leave me the fuck alone," she said.
Emails suggest Sharon was trying to come up with the money to continue to follow Kan on tour. She asked her brother, but she wrote that he would give her only $250. "Need more to follow you to SF and later," Sharon wrote to Kan on January 25, referring to a trip to San Francisco planned for February. "I'm tired of life — no one helps me to help them.
"Need way to DIE. Really."
Taly, who still lived in South Florida, persuaded Sharon to go back there. Coxon drove her to the airport; on the way, she says, Sharon kept asking strange questions.
"She was saying, 'If you were going to die right now, what would you wish you could do?'?" Coxon recalls. "I said something like, 'I'd want to make sure everyone I know and love knows how important they've been to me.' And I said, 'You, Sharon?' And she said, 'I would hope to be having transcendent sex — mind-blowing sex.' It was so, like, 'What?'?"
Sharon seemed fixated on finding a way to get back to Kan, Taly says; she kept saying he made her a better person. "It was this manic need to get back to where this guy was: 'I have to get back to him; I have to get back to him or else I'm going to forget it all,'?" Taly says. "I was like, 'What do you mean?' She was like, 'My body is going to forget; it's going to forget.'?"
Her family members continued trying to get her help, and they finally persuaded her to see a psychologist in South Florida in late February. In a letter shared by her parents, the doctor wrote that Sharon seemed tired and pessimistic, "with a deep sense of failure and resignation." She admitted she had "recurrent thoughts of death," but she denied she was suicidal.
Her brother, Ron, says the change in her personality was extreme. "She'd say, 'This is real life. You've got to experience pain,'?" he says. "She felt like she needed to suffer."
Sharon talked to the psychologist about how she'd fallen in love with Kan and how she felt guilty for leaving her husband (they were divorced in the fall of 2011). She admitted she couldn't take care of herself but was resistant to taking medication because, her doctor wrote, she believed it would "push her away from her goal to appear more stable to Kan so she could continue her dance and be part of his life."
The psychologist concluded that Sharon suffered from major depression, borderline personality disorder, and PTSD. He opined that Kan had "hijacked" her, turned her against her family, and then abandoned her. "He put Sharon in a double bind," the doctor wrote. "Either way she was going to lose: Todd, her family, Kan. In her mind, there was no way out."
In early April, Sharon decided to travel back to Brazil for a butoh workshop. Her doctor told her that it was inappropriate, given her condition, but Sharon went anyway. She wrote to Kan that she hoped he could join her, but he wrote back saying his schedule was full.
Sharon wrote what was possibly her last email to Kan on April 23. She told him she loved him and thanked him for all of his lessons, "even when they were wrong."
"Wish I knew what else to do," she wrote. "You were my angel."
Two days later, in Plantation, she took her own life.
In 2013, Sharon's father sued Kan in Broward County civil court for the wrongful death of his daughter.
The family rejected an offer from Kan's attorney to settle the case for $1,000.
"This is the price they put on my daughter," Tibor says. "That made me even angrier."
Kan still appears to be traveling around the world, according to posts on his Facebook page, performing butoh and teaching workshops. An online notice about a class he was scheduled to teach last month in New York City notes it was sold out.
The Sterns believe that butoh is a cult and that Kan is a cult leader. They say they've heard from other former dancers who claim to have experienced similar downward spirals. But Sharon's former Naropa classmates don't agree. "I didn't connect with him, and I might not have liked him, but I wouldn't call him a cult leader," Hart Lubeck says. "I know many people who connected with the art form and Kan, like Sharoni did, and they didn't do what she did.
"Grief colors things in a certain way," she says.
Tibor and his wife started a nonprofit organization, Families Against Cult Teachings (FACT), after Sharon's death. The goal, he says, is to educate young people about the dangers of cults and help the families of people who've joined them. In March, FACT hosted a grand opening in Hollywood, Florida.
Tibor says he spends hours every day working with families that don't have the money or resources to fight back on their own. He doesn't want any other parents to go through what he and Hana have. "We lost a precious child," he says. "Needlessly, I have to say."
Get the Things to Do Newsletter
Find out about upcoming events and special offers happening in South Florida.