mizu desierto dance 2
Image: Chris Leck

Mizu Desierto performs “Migration” at Imago Theatre in June 2009.

Though butoh emerged from the reject-all-tradition context of post–World War II Japanese art, it has gradually grown into a globally practiced dance ethos. Desierto has studied with practitioners ranging from the son of one of the form’s founders, Kazuo Ohno, to the Mexican master Diego Piñón. “I define something as butoh when I perceive an authenticity,” she explains of the dance’s ethereal code. “The dancer or performer is not acting, not trying to be something, but actually becoming something.”

And her adopted name? “An old Japanese man came to me in a dream,” she recalls, “an iconic, classic Japanese figure, with a scroll. He showed me the scroll, and he wrote ‘Mizu’ in kanji, then ‘Desierto’ in Roman lettering, and he said, ‘This is your name; it means “water in the desert.”’ At that time I was living next to water, in a desert. And, by the way, I wasn’t on drugs.”

After spending 15 years with Arizona’s Human Nature Dance Theatre and cofounding San Francisco’s Carpetbag Brigade Physical Theatre, Desierto ?arrived in Portland in 2006. Here, she has worked on projects ranging from choreographing movement for the Classical Greek Theatre of Oregon to orchestrating a 70-person butoh version of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Peninsula Park. She bought her St. Johns property last year to create what she calls a “dance farm.” This summer’s season at Prior Day Farm has garnered the support of entities as diverse as the Portland Center for Japanese Studies and the PSU Institute for Sustainable Solutions. The performances will double as a course she’s teaching at Portland State University, called “Butoh and Permaculture.”

As collaborator Stone puts it, “I think of Mizu as the hub of a wheel.” For ?Desierto, the manifold activities that constitute her interpretation of butoh all come back to the land. “In ancient cultures, why did dance come to be?” she asks. “It was a celebration of harvest; it was all related to food cycles. It was deeply connected to the seasons, and those relationships to our food and our community. And that’s what I’d like: to re-create a contemporary context for us to dance in relationship with handmade life—and chickens.”