On an August afternoon in the high desert of central Mexico more than a decade ago, Portland butoh performer Mizu Desierto found herself blindfolded and tied together with 14 other people. Running after Mexican butoh artist Diego Piñón, listening for the sound of his bell over the squawking chickens and mariachi music in the distance, the group was led toward a cave. There, still blindfolded, they crawled their way over the damp, cool rocks to the point of exhaustion. Then Piñón told them to scream for their mothers.
"I remember vividly knowing I was inside the earth, squatting on the ground like a primordial human," Desierto says. "This work creates something beyond any hallucinogenic experience. I don't know what the hell it is."
Piñón, 57, has been doing whatever the hell this is for 30 years, creating butoh pieces influenced by northern Mexican shamanic traditions. His work is marked by shaking and anguished contortions—he incorporates similar pressure points to qigong and acupuncture—but also pops of humor. He was Desierto's first butoh teacher and has worked with her both in the U.S. and his native Mexico for the past 17 years. On Sunday, May 11, he'll perform a solo piece called Puente, or "bridge," that aims to reflect his various senses of identity: his Mexican and Spanish heritage, his affinity for Jewish traditions, how he feels differently while in the U.S. or Europe or Japan. In the piece, he rides a toy horse, a reference to his childhood. He wears a clump of seaweed as a wig, an allusion to trips to the beach with his mother. But more important to Piñón than such props are the obscure spaces between our identities—those zones that are like decompression chambers between two environments, or airplanes between two cities.
"Literally what happens to the body when you go into the plane," Piñón says. "In a very short time, reality changes abruptly. During the transit, the bridge, my body experiences many, many, many things." He waves his arms as if in a whirlwind. "Whooooooshhh."
Piñón studied with Kazuo Ohno, one of the founders of butoh, but he's still a bit of an anomaly for the form, which was pioneered in Japan during the '60s. Typically characterized by agonizingly slow movement, near nudity and white body paint, it is austere improvisation seemingly detached from anything human, though its goal is to dredge up feelings that are often hidden—kind of like conjuring dreams.
While the Japanese do this by focusing on paintings or drawings, Piñón, who grew up dancing mambo and cha-cha in the streets of his central Mexican hometown of Tlalpujahua, takes a more unorthodox approach and concentrates on emotions. That's why Desierto thinks he connects better with American audiences.
"In the West, we've cultivated our emotion," says Desierto, who's studied butoh in Japan with Kazuo Ohno's son Yoshito. "We work with our passion, our lamentation."
Piñón interjects: "But as well to get to the other side of it." One of the goals of butoh is for the performer to feel empty, as if drained of everyday thoughts and emotions.
Piñón says he approaches this goal counterintuitively by focusing on becoming so full of emotion he feels ready to explode. "We need to learn to do it organically," he says. "Otherwise we only imitate the Japanese people. I am interested in really connecting, to create the bridge between our emotions and our emptiness."
SEE IT: Diego Piñón performs Puente at the Headwaters Theatre, 55 NE Farragut St., No. 9, 404-2350. 7 pm Sunday, May 11. $15-$30.