Portland Opera Puccini

The Headwaters ended as experimental as it started

The performance space by the railroad tracks in North Portland and the Butoh-inspired company Water in the Desert whisper their farewell to the Portland scene.


Mizu Desierto (front) and Douglas Allen in the performance "American ME" at The Headwaters in 2013. Photo: Kamala Kinglsey.
Mizu Desierto (front) and Douglas Allen in the performance “American ME” at The Headwaters in 2013. Photo: Kamala Kinglsey.

Behind the roll-up door, boxes and older tech items fill the space. A table with snacks and drinks, off to the side, invites those who want to say goodbye with a last toast. It’s Thursday, February 29, the final day of “The Headwaters Going Out of Business” sale. “It’s the end of an era,” says leo ariel, who’s been part of the theater’s collective management team since 2022.

Truly, it seems to be the end of one era and the cutting short, or temporary disruption, of another. The Headwaters Theater, as a home for Butoh programming of a high international level under the direction of the resident company Water in the Desert (WitD), came largely to an end about four years ago. In its place rose a quiet project called the Subsidized Space Program (SSP), offering free theater and studio space to folks “existing at the intersections of two or more of the Black, Indigenous, People of Color, Disable, Immigrant, Trans, Elder, Queer, and Low Income communities.” 

But when the Dubois Charitable Trust terminated their funding unexpectedly in late 2022, the Water in the Desert management team had to pull out all the stops to push through another year. Last November, the situation had become dire, and SSP, which served over 40 residents, was changed from a free to a small-fee rental program. A few months later, years of water damage on the site culminated in an untenable situation, and according to the WitD management team, the building’s property management company, installed by the Bay Area tech company that bought the building in 2018, was unwilling to work with their renters in good standing. At that point the management team, which had gone unpaid for months, no longer had the capacity to keep going. Now, WitD is a nonprofit in dissolution. 


When Mizu Desierto and John Marc Schaelling found what was to become The Headwaters Theater as an empty warehouse along the train tracks in 2010, Portland was rapidly expanding as a haven for artists. With funding, a friendly building owner, and a commitment to the arts from the city, Schaelling’s building skills and Desierto connections in the international Butoh community quickly transformed the space into an experimental ‘Temporary Autonomous Zone’ (or TAZ, coined by author Hakim Bey) that was to last ten years. 

“As a nonprofit, Water in the Desert hosted international workshops,” Desierto says. “Sometimes two or three in a row, I said: let’s call it Butoh College.” Butoh, a contemporary dance form that originated in Japan in the 1950s, was making a home in Portland. Exploring the values of presence, transformation, and curiosity, PICA had brought Butoh artists Eiko & Koma to town for the revelatory Offering in 2003. A scene had developed, including Desierto, Momentous Movements’ Meshi Chavez, Stephanie Lanckton, and other artists. The Headwaters Theater became an important marker for experimental and high-level Butoh-related programming.

“The same people showed up again and again. There was such experimentation, including life on my farm, which was connected to the workshops,” says Desierto. “I didn’t have children, but I gave birth to a space. I put all my energy into it.” But nearing the end of the decade, Desierto was burnt out and ready to experiment with more inclusive and non-hierarchical forms of organizational structure. “Call it Founders’ Syndrome,” they say, “but I was trying to move out of holding all this space. And interested in making it more of a collective, shifting from my white perspective to a BIPOC vision, a collective vision.”

Inclusive Leadership Structure

As Desierto voiced stepping away, artist keyon gaskin got involved as a management team member in 2019. A collective leadership team evolved in 2020, including gaskin, Crystal Sasaki, and Marilou Mariko Carerra. When the pandemic stopped all programming, WitD was already changing as a nonprofit. “We wanted a different organizational model that reflected what we were doing. A lot of institutions don’t support that, but that’s exactly why it felt important,” says gaskin.


PPH Passing Strange


As the pandemic hit, Desierto moved away, as did Meshi Chavez, greatly diminishing Butoh offerings and programming in Portland. Desierto recently settled on a horse farm in New Mexico. As their involvement with the theater became more peripheral, they shifted their attention to what they’d wanted to do their whole life: be the caretaker of equines.

Meanwhile, the leadership team changed. Sasaki left in 2022, Carrera in 2024, leaving space for ariel and maximiliano to step in. Early on, SSP had been started in a quiet way. Most residents found out about it through word of mouth, rather than the traditional Headwaters community channels. “That worked for us,” says gaskin, “because even though the traditional Headwaters clientele may be part of one or two marginalized communities, they’re still predominantly white.”

On this final day of the going-out-of-business sale, some of those earlier folks now roam through the box of Butoh posters, commenting on performances they attended or participated in. Others pay homage by lying on the stripped floor that once held the Butoh dancers. At the makeshift bar, ariel, gaskin and maximiliano meet with their community. The sale went well. The Birch wood floor is gone, and so are the curtains and the speakers. 

gaskin notes that almost all of the folks who bought The Headwaters’ inventory were white. “And the standard answer is that Portland is so white,” they say. “But I know that the diversity is there. Portland is a lot less white than, say, a decade ago. The thing is that the people in positions of power in these institutions, or the people that have the resources to own these things, are still predominantly white.” The Headwaters made an effort to change that. From start to finish, WitD was true to its experimental core.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Miri is a freelance writer, sound designer, creative coder, and installation artist with a commitment to performance and consciousness expansion. They are based in Portland, where their written and creative work aims to integrate the body and mind in a state of decolonization. They have contributed to National GeographicNRC/Handelsbladde Volkskrant, Radio Netherlands Worldwide, NOS Radio 1, and others as a foreign correspondent in the Caribbean. Find more about their work at kodicr.one
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