political dance

Mizu Desierto explains American ME

The Portland choreographer gives us some context for her forthcoming butoh/mallrat mashup.

Man. Just when you think you know your local butoh master, she posts a picture that announces her latest source of artistic inspiration: America’s pop culture. Think strip malls, beauty pageants, music videos and wall bangs. Beers, babes, and bravado. But most importantly, think America’s unique brand of INDIVIDUALISM, with all of its incumbent advantages and drawbacks.

This is the theme of Mizu Desierto’s American ME, which opens on Friday, Dec. 6, at the Headwaters Theatre. There’ll be five performances through Dec. 14, featuring on different nights such guest artists as Linda Austin, Kajanne Pepper, Meshi Chavez, and Emily Stone.


No move is too surprising from Desierto, who doesn’t just survive outside her element—she thrives. Starting out as a typical white midwesterner, she gradually discovered the Japanese dance form butoh and eventually devoted her life to its study. She even took a Japanese name that came to her in a dream (it means “water in the desert”). For a while, butoh’s conventions consumed her work. Dancers wore ghostly white body paint, made angular gestures and rolled-back eyes, and froze in prolonged poses of stillness wrought by deeply interior meditation.

[Note: Butoh tradition doesn’t go back as far as many in Japan; the form was conceived post-WWII. It borrows some aesthetic (whiteface, some gesture) from Kabuki and other older forms, but rejects their traditional yen for composure in favor of life-and-death viscerality and near-naked vulnerability.]

In recent years, Desierto decided to make a form of butoh more her own, a brand more “Portland organic,” if you will. She acquired Prior Day Farm and began improvising and choreographing themes of domesticity and permaculture. She even derived great inspiration from her chicken coop, regularly observing and mimicking the birds. (Around this time, I profiled Desierto in Portland Monthly; it’s a decent read). Butoh, which encourages dancers to make peace with their life cycle from birth to peak to decrepitude to death, was an appropriate fit for a farm. And perhaps that’s why Desierto, who prefers more of a stretch, moved on to reconcile a starker contrast. I asked Desierto what she thought she was up to (young lady) with this wild new work that marries Japanese self-sacrifice to American self-celebration. And more specifically…

Q: What in the world are you doing in this photo? I’m going to make a wild guess that you’re devising interpretive dance moves based on all-American southern rockers, heshers, and party animals; am I right?

A: Well, in the particular photo you are asking about, from the American ME Party Boy Series, we are pretty much just rockin’ out, drinkin’ Coors and smokin’ Camels. You know, celebratin’ our freedom and stuff like that. However, we did make some interestin’ interpretive-stylin’ moves at a few fine specimens of female walkin’ by that afternoon. … Is that pretty much what you mean?

Q: The last time we had a big long chat about one of your projects, you were taking inspiration from observing chickens. Where are you getting your latest source material?

A: Why, America of course! and ME! Or rather the culture of American ME.

As you know, I have been inspired by the teachings of butoh for nearly 20 years … and I have been following this interest of “What is American Butoh” for the last seven or more years.  I am not Japanese and I was not alive in 1959, so I’ve often struggled with the idea of claiming this contemporary performance expression as my own.  In truth, in its original expression, it is not me. It can’t be. I am of a different time and place. At the same time, I like to think that the original emanation of this surreal dance-theater fusion was meant for me and for the American Me – as a way to understand and transform my own time, culture, beauty, and craziness.

In this present multi-media, multi-disciplinary work, a lot of other influences are present. Butoh is there, for sure, but so is physical theatre, contemporary dance and performance, voice, song, live sound and a live film installation. From the inception of this project, I knew that I wanted to work within an ensemble-based creative process and work with peers who were equally dedicated to the intersecting crafts of dance and theater, music and film. I also knew implicitly that I wanted to give time for a longer period of creative research and development, without a strong pressure to produce immediately.

What we found began to happen over the course of time, and shared practice was a dynamic intimacy of collective trust and expression at the edge of some provocative current American themes … class, race, gender, religion, sexual preference, government, family, and the overall breakdown of the American Dream that we were all born into.

So I suppose the latest source material and interest has a lot to do with the ensemble and what they bring from their own personal histories and identifications. It has a lot to do with spending 3-6 hours in the studio a week with some amazing performers, over a period of two years, and allowing the cultural memes of our conscious and unconscious associations with America to reveal themselves. In addition, I think that the original impulse to create this work came from spending a lot of time traveling around the world when I was younger and particularly during the G.W. Bush era. I had to grapple a lot with my own cultural craziness at that time and this work gives us all room to celebrate it, make fun of it and hopefully destroy some parts of it.


Q: Who’s dancing this piece with you, and what are a few particularly American experiences that they each bring to the work?

The other performers are Stephanie Lanckton, Douglas Allen, & Nathan H.G. – I think one of the more vulnerable and also humorous parts of the show was developed around Doug’s experiences as a gay man in America. We are essentially making fun of some of the religious right’s ideas around purification rituals of gay people to clean away their sin and restore them to heteronormative states. A lot of the other American experiences we are working with are coming more from a shared story – of growing up here under the constant propaganda of beauty and success standards for both genders, the ceaseless bombardment of seductive consumption campaigns (of everything from cheeseburgers to pharmaceuticals), the post- 9/11 politics of the Bush administration and the uprising of religion within the sphere of the government.

A lot of the material that came out of us was a way for us to open and express our own personal relationships with cultural values around competition, self-absorption, power, money, indulgence and freedom. Of course, none of these things are black or white. We each became immersed in the complexity and contradiction of our individual and collective identities. For example, if you take the simple concept of freedom – we played with both its beauty and its perversions. Throughout history, people have usurped the ideal of freedom to get away with horrendous acts (either to themselves or to others) and at the same time it is, at its best, at the very foundation of who we are as Americans and what is also so great about us.

Q: How would you define the American character in contrast to the Japanese one…or if that’s too broad, American contemp dance values/character as opposed to the values/character of butoh?

A: America vs. Japan: Americans generally like things BIG. They like them NOW. They want instant gratification with a lot of big fireworks and explosions around it all. In Japan, there is an appreciation for empty space, small details, slowness and simplicity. There seems to be much less focus on the individual and more on the care of everyone. (This is from an outsider’s perspective, but these are the things that I noticed when spending time there). In terms of the cultivation of personalities–the Japanese tend to value more restraint, more listening and more respect in general for the world around them.

In terms of contemporary dance values, I think there are often a lot of shared values. However, the expression of the face as used in butoh is closer to theater than most contemporary dance. In general I would say that there is a theatricality in butoh that is often not found in a lot of contemporary dance (which is often more interested in very pedestrian expression). Because of this, I sometimes feel that the work I am doing is closer to theater than dance. And in this particular work we actually use a lot of text and even some song–so perhaps that distinction is getting blurrier and blurrier for me….


A. L. Adams also writes the monthly column Art Walkin’  for  The Portland Mercury, and is  former arts editor of Portland Monthly Magazine. Read more from Adams: Oregon ArtsWatch | The Portland Mercury

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