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Just crazy for their art

With a no-holds-barred music-theater-movement aesthetic, the Degenerate Art Ensemble's avant-gardists defy categorization.

November 25, 2007|Susan Josephs | Special to The Times

JOSHUA KOHL and Haruko Nishimura first met as students at the Boston-based New England Conservatory of Music and immediately recognized each other as kindred spirits. With music as their original love, they set out to "achieve the most seemingly impossible missions. It was always about adventure and creativity before anything else," says Nishimura.

Since moving to Seattle and forming the Degenerate Art Ensemble in 1993, Kohl, the Japanese-born Nishimura and their group of collaborators have been trampling over traditional definitions of art and creating new ones. Over the years, they have performed as a 45-piece orchestra, a punk-jazz-experimental rock band and a multimedia dance-physical theater troupe.

With Nishimura as the group's director-choreographer and Kohl as music director, they have staged performance art spectacles in rock clubs, performed guerrilla street theater and developed lavish stage productions incorporating music, dance, theater and visual technology.

They have recorded eight albums and acquired a cornucopia of skills, which include making their own musical instruments, tap-dancing and doing aerial choreography. Call them transgressors, anarchists or just plain crazy and they will thank you for the compliment.

"We're all about growing in unexpected directions," says Kohl. "What keeps us going is not doing the same thing over and over and having to learn new things with every show."

Such is the case with "Cuckoo Crow," the DAE's latest project. The show, receiving its L.A. premiere at REDCAT, also stays true to the group's ethos of defying simple categorization.

Created for six performers, the hour-length work features live music with specially designed musical instruments such as the panthrastic harp zither, Butoh-inspired choreography, hyper-physical theater involving aerial maneuvers, elaborate bird costumes, video animation by collaborator Stefan Gruber and a bicycle-powered ice cream truck. These elements coalesce into one surreal spectacle after the next, telling a nonlinear tale about two pugnacious cuckoos that want to be surgeons but have day jobs as ice cream vendors. The piece brims with darkly comic musings on the dog-eat-dog nature of society.

A YouTube video of "Cuckoo Crow" features two minutes of excerpts from the show's initial run in Seattle and conspicuously shows off its no-holds-barred music-theater-movement aesthetic. The teaser highlights Nishimura, a trained Butoh dancer, as a crow, decked out in an orange feathered dress and performing sinuous arm movements while warbling and shrieking at her cuckoo bird tormentors. With this comes musical accompaniment dominated by rambunctious percussion that melds into a sequence that sounds like a cross between punk and Jewish wedding music and segues into a melody suggestive of a Bjork-like lyricism.

Bringing a show like "Cuckoo Crow" to REDCAT fits perfectly "with our focus on reminding people that art can't always be easily compartmentalized and put into neat little boxes," says Mark Murphy, REDCAT'S executive director. And DAE, he adds, stands out in the world of interdisciplinary performance.

"Sometimes, when dancers and musicians move into unfamiliar theatrical territory, there is a lack of a larger vision, which affects pacing and the dramatic arc of a work," he says. "This group has a very strong theatrical sensibility and an innate sense of what works moment to moment. This gives them a special edge."

From a purely musical perspective, the ensemble's work is "all the more important because we live in an era where music marketing dictates that artists must neatly package their output to fit within a narrow niche," says Elliott Sharp, a New York City-based avant-garde composer and musician. "But as in every era, musically omnivorous and adventurous young listeners demand that music not conform but provoke and enlighten. The DAE does this while also providing gripping entertainment."

Still, like other artists who crisscross artistic styles and disciplines, the DAE seems to have an easier time achieving critical acclaim than commercial success.

"It's a huge challenge for us," says Kohl of his group's efforts to communicate its various incarnations to the public. "If you try and find us on iTunes, we're listed as jazz. You can't blame people for trying to narrow things down and categorize us, but it's frustrating."

An array of influences

KOHL and Nishimura, married now for 16 years and approaching their late 30s, definitely pay homage to those who came before them -- the Meredith Monks, Laurie Andersons and Rachel Rosenthals who have blazed the interdisciplinary trail. Their MySpace page lists a dizzying array of artistic influences: musicians such as Thelonious Monk and John Zorn, the filmmaker-performance artist-writer Miranda July and innovative theater troupes like the Wooster Group, to name a few.

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