For Ex-Naropa Dancer Sharon Stern, a Life of Artistry Ended in Darkness

For Ex-Naropa Dancer Sharon Stern, a Life of Artistry Ended in Darkness
Jay Vollmar

On April 25, 2012, Sharon Stern took her own life.

The 33-year-old 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 both pretend to regurgitate strings.

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 eleven weeks teaching at Naropa University in Boulder. Sharon was a student then, studying for a Master of Fine Arts degree so that 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 that 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 that 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 Buddhist-influenced 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. And while her classmates were shocked when they learned of her death, they don’t fault Naropa for failing to predict it.

But her family does, as do some of her childhood friends. The way her parents see it, it was Naropa that 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 Stern was artistic from a young age, studying both ballet and piano.
Sharon Stern was artistic from a young age, studying both ballet and piano.

Sharon grew up in North Miami Beach, Florida, 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 three 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 called 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 multi-talented.” 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 Miami 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 artsiness. Founded in 1974 by a Buddhist monk, the school, home to the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, puts a focus on meditation and “contemplative education.”

That 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 started at Naropa that fall.

“Then,” her father says, “the evil walked through the door.”

Sharon's father, Tibor, is suing Kan.
Sharon's father, Tibor, is suing Kan.

At Naropa, Sharon was one of nineteen 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,” says Stuber. “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 sixty 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 the thighs of one of the dancers. 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 on 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 came back 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 going to visit 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 that’s what he wanted. “She told us, ‘He said I’m talented and he wants to work with me,’” Tibor says. 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 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 that of 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.”

Katsura Kan, a native of Japan, travels the world performing butoh and teaching workshops.
Katsura Kan, a native of Japan, travels the world performing butoh and teaching workshops.
per egevad/flickr.com

In early 2010, Sharon applied for a residency at the now-dissolved Packing House Center for the Arts, 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 where she could 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 tagline 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 a mentor who was so willing to give her a leg up in the dance world, where it’s difficult to make a living.

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In 2010, Kan returned to Colorado to teach at Naropa for four weeks. An e-mail provided to Westword by the Stern family shows that 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 first-ever Boulder Butoh Festival, at which Kan was scheduled to perform.

A month before the October 2010 festival, Sharon was home in 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 that she never had a romantic relationship with Kan herself, but she recognized that “there was a chemistry” between Sharon and Kan, though she says she doesn’t know if they ever acted on it.

E-mails attached to the Stern family’s lawsuit suggest that they did. In March 2011, Sharon wrote an e-mail 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, then 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. “That night of the performance, when I stopped to talk to her after, I looked into her eyes and there was nothing staring back at me,” Schwartz Mizrahi says. It seemed to her that Sharon, always a teetotaler, was on drugs. “She couldn’t put her words together; she couldn’t put her sentences together properly. She wasn’t really making sense.”

As they were talking, Kan came over 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 Kan said he wasn’t interested and walked off.

“You could tell it wasn’t a healthy relationship,” she says.

Sharon stayed with her friend for a few days, and Schwartz Mizrahi says that she slowly began acting more like herself: She started 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 e-mails telling him to stay away from Sharon. “This mail is sent to you from Copenhagen where unfortunately I found my daughter in a mental institution as a result of your total manipulation,” he wrote. “You have had your last dance with my daughter!!!” 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 wrote him an e-mail 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 e-mail that “we are long life partner for sure.” He said he’d received several negative e-mails from her father, and while 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 Stern was artistic from a young age, studying both ballet and piano.
Sharon Stern was artistic from a young age, studying both ballet and piano.

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 e-mails 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. In December 2011, her father even flew to Boulder, where, he says, he 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 started relaying messages between Sharon and Kan. When Tibor briefly went back to Florida to take care of some business, Sharon convinced 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, Coxon says. The day after she arrived — looking, Coxon says, like a “bag lady” — Sharon abruptly announced that she was leaving again, this time for Japan. Kan was there for the Japanese New Year holiday. E-mails attached to the lawsuit suggest that Kan was upset that she decided to come. “Without any plan, you are not welcome,” he wrote to her on December 31. “I am so sad your behavior this time, will SLAP you when I meet you.”

Sharon wrote back, but her language had changed. Instead of coherent full sentences, her writing was now choppy, as if English was her second language, too. She began referring to herself in the third person.

“Dear Kan,” she wrote, “So like this: I am only trying to find out the ‘way’ for Sharoni and to help others 2012. I don’t like what I see in the world around me. Lots of garbage, lots of war and volcano and disease. Homeless and no jobs. Makes me want to cry and scream! Also, don’t know if continue to dance because of everything that is happening in the world.”

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 e-mail, Tibor says, he got a phone call from her. “Leave me the fuck alone,” she said.

E-mails suggest that 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 only give her $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.”

Sharon did manage to make it to San Francisco in February. Coxon didn’t know she was there until she got a phone call in the middle of the night from Sharon’s mother. Hana was panicked and asked Coxon to find Sharon. She gave Coxon the phone number of a woman with whom Sharon had stayed in the past, and Coxon called it.

The woman wouldn’t give her any information, Coxon says. She asked to talk to Kan, but the woman insisted that he didn’t speak English. “It was like she was protecting him,” Coxon says. Later, the woman called back and told Coxon to come get Sharon. She was being disruptive, the woman said, and Kan didn’t want her there anymore.

“That was the craziest hour and a half of my life,” Coxon says. Sharon was speaking, but as Schwartz Mizrahi had experienced in Brazil, she wasn’t making any sense. “It was not even a shadow of my friend,” Coxon says. “It was my friend’s vessel, but not even my friend.”

Taly, who still lived in Florida, convinced 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 says. “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 that 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.’”

E-mails show that by then, Kan recognized that Sharon was sick. But he denied any culpability and instead blamed her family for failing to get her help. “If you are just sit down in Florida and only ask to me or someone, she runs away,” Kan wrote. “I have tons of explanation and suggestion for you, but without respect we have no chance to communicate.”

Her family members kept trying to get her help, and they finally convinced her to see a psychologist in 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 that she had “recurrent thoughts of death,” but she denied that 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 that she couldn’t take care of herself but was resistant to taking medication because, her doctor wrote, she felt 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.

From Brazil, she wrote to him again: “I am writing with a question for you. Yesterday came up the idea that butoh is about deconstructing body/ego etc. So the question arises what happens AFTER the deconstruction of your body/mind/ego? I didn’t know this answer...”

Sharon wrote what was possibly her last e-mail 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 Florida, she took her own life.

Sharon’s family says that before she attended Naropa, she was a happy, healthy woman.
Sharon’s family says that before she attended Naropa, she was a happy, healthy woman.
Courtesy of the Stern Family

In 2013, Sharon’s father sued Kan in Broward County civil court for the wrongful death of his daughter. Kan tried to argue that he couldn’t be sued in Florida because he’d never been there. But a judge decided in February that he could. Because Kan had communicated with Sharon while she was in Broward County, where she died, the judge ruled that the jurisdiction was proper. Kan is now appealing that ruling.

Last month, the Sterns won another legal victory when the same judge denied Kan’s request to halt proceedings in the wrongful-death suit while the appeals court makes its decision. Kan now has until the end of May to file an answer to the Sterns’ original lawsuit. They previously 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 that 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,” says Hart Lubeck. “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.

The Sterns have not sued Naropa, but Tibor hints that that might change. “I haven’t had my last word with Naropa,” he says. “I believe Naropa has a fair share of the blame for hiring Katsura Kan and having a curriculum that teaches darkness and death.”

But Lief says that Kan had good references and that “he didn’t come in here unknown to our faculty.” Lief wasn’t president in 2007, when Naropa first hired Kan, so he says he doesn’t know if the school did a criminal-background check. He guesses it didn’t; background checks weren’t as easy to do back then, he explains. “But I’m not suggesting that if the available databases had been available eight years ago, we would have found anything.”

Kan hasn’t been back to Naropa since 2010. After that year, Lief says, there wasn’t much demand for butoh. “Students have different interests at different times,” he notes.

When Kan left, so did Sharon, and Lief says there was little her former professors could do when her parents reached out for help. “It wasn’t a question of being willing to help,” he says. “The people did the best they could, but it was limited.”

In 2013, Naropa received a letter from the Sterns’ lawyer that prompted school officials to open an internal investigation. But Lief says the family refused to participate; they claimed to have e-mails showing that Kan had acted inappropriately, but they didn’t share them. The Sterns also asked for $10 million.

Tibor says the money wouldn’t go into his own bank account. “Not a dollar of her blood money is going to be spent for us,” he says. Rather, he says, it would be used to further the work of Families Against Cult Teachings (FACT), a nonprofit that he and his wife founded after Sharon’s death. The goal of the organization, 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 who 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.”


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