The Degenerate Art Ensemble probes the cosmos, ninja fighting and bagels


With a lead who sings like Bjrk, a penchant for the quirky and light overtones of Pina Bausch--inspired dance theater, Seattle's Degenerate Art Ensemble could be grouped into a genre I call "whimsically disturbing performance art." The group's particular blend of media and performance modes, which integrates original instrumental and vocal music, video and percussion-dance la Stomp, appeared unique in the preview they gave last week at the New Museum for "Sonic Tales," a piece set to premiere this fall in their hometown. Whatever hints of clumsiness remain in this work-in-progress, the performers are so refined that they leave no doubts about the show's future success.

The DAE successfully elicits audience participation in the show's soundtrack in a nonthreatening manner, at different points getting audience members to make strange noises, which the performers direct like orchestra conductors. "Sonic Tales" begins with the band's lead, Haruko Nishimura, dressed in a red gown one would expect to see on a manga Alice in Wonderland. Beginning with a narrative thread, the plot quickly dissolves into a pure celebration of rhythm as a bar hung with pots and pans drops from the ceiling and the musicians, dressed as ninjas, attack it with their drumsticks until they turn to their next victim: our protagonist, who percussively defends herself with a pan and spatula, while gyrating on the rim of a steel hoopskirt. Next, we see a film the group shot while in New York about the adventures of Bagel Boy, a bagel who must escape the threats of ingestion and menacing schoolyard bullies (the bagel is played by one of the group's performers, a brown man who appears in whiteface, or arguably bagelface).

Silly and spirited, the common theme of the show is the power of things small against the universe's larger forces. Case in point are the lyrics to the song "Appetite," which address all sorts of hunger: "33 giants in one night, and even then I finish it of with a couple of dirty films."—David Levitz
Photos courtesy Virginia Rollison

The DAE is back in Seattle now, but check out the New Museum's other upcoming events.