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December 4th, 2013 AARON SPENCER | Dance
 

American Me (Mizu Desierto)

Stars and stripes and spoon-fed absurdity.

perf_dance_4005USA! USA!: Mizu Desierto (left) and dancers. - IMAGE: Kamala Kingsley
When you think of butoh—if you think of anything at all—it’s probably bald guys in G-strings and white body paint staggering around like mimes on acid. That generalization bothers Mizu Desierto. The 40-year-old is Portland’s foremost butoh practitioner, and she says the form is so much more. Her newest piece, American ME, indeed opens with some artsy nudity, but as a whole it eschews abstract writhing and grimacing for flashy Americana.

Butoh is at its core a “rebellious art,” says Desierto, who studied in Japan with one of the form’s founders, Kazuo Ohno. For Desierto, a defiant message is more central to butoh than style, and in the case of this performance, that message is a big finger to the ruling American ethos. Consumerism, nationalism and religious fanaticism are all bluntly and fantastically lampooned in this mix of dance and theater, which also features vintage commercials playing on a stack of old TVs in the corner.

“Butoh is an art form that I feel at its best has a very transformative aspect to it,” Desierto says. “The goal of the butoh performer is to look into the darker aspects of oneself or one’s culture and reveal that and maybe transform a little bit of it.”

American ME not only critiques America’s shortcomings but also our notions of personal identity. Dancer Stephanie Lanckton, who grew up in the Midwest and has a sister in the Army, says that during rehearsals she began to question whether her choice to be a low-paid artist was an American one. “I don’t know what it means to be an American,” she says.

Desierto says she finds such ideas of identity a little absurd, which she pushes in the show with relentless literalism. At one point, she gussies herself up as a well-to-do housewife and badgers Lanckton, who’s playing a maid, to “trickle down!” In a town where dance audiences are often left scratching their heads, that kind of spoon-feeding may be the most rebellious aspect of the show. But the absurdity also creates a sense of levity, especially as the performers turn the jokes on themselves. In a climactic scene, performers scream over each other about why they are better than the rest. “I’m the director of this show!” Desierto declares. Such exaggerated spouts of egotism help make America a pioneering and individualistic force, and Desierto says they’re necessary in a transformative butoh piece. “We don’t want to just spit up all of our garbage all over people for an hour,” she says. “We want there to be some of America’s beautiful side.”


SEE IT: American ME is at the Headwaters Theatre, 55 NE Farragut St., 404-2350. 8 pm Fridays-Saturdays through Dec. 14, plus 6 pm Saturday, Dec. 14. $12-$20.

 
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