Bird’s-eye view of Darwinian universe

Special to The Times

So much for the healing power of nature: The next dulcet bird song you hear may be a con. Turns out that cuckoos don’t have much of a maternal sense -- they lay their eggs in the nests of other birds and abandon them. To survive, their offspring learn to fake the calls of whatever species occupies the nest.

That notion of mimicry is the inspiration for Degenerate Art Ensemble’s Butoh post-punk vaudeville with music, “Cuckoo Crow,” which finished its run at REDCAT this weekend.

This experimental Seattle collective throws a bunch of ideas and styles at this bit of zoological trivia; some stick, some just add to the clutter.

A baby crow (Haruko Nishimura) is pushed out of the nest by a couple of interloping cuckoo hatchlings (Joshua Kohl and Paul Budraitis). Cruel clowns to her guileless angel, they rudely introduce her to a Darwinian universe of aggression, lies and one-upmanship.


The crow’s education is accompanied by an intense, percussive score performed live by three musicians (Alex Guy, Paris Hurley, and Jeff Huston) perched on nest-like risers upstage.

Nishimura, who directed and choreographed the piece, has real physical charisma, and her Butoh-inspired twitches, blinks and eerie vocalizing register vividly.

Her performance aura is reminiscent of Bjork (who memorably ventured into avian couture at the 2001 Oscars): an otherworldly innocence combined with an uncanny ability to express our need for shelter and safety, our vulnerability to others, our evolutionary resilience.

At the end of the show, when she has been radically transformed by a pointless surgery, the crow’s efforts to take the tiniest steps are a study in the miracle of being able to move at all.


Nishimura is the fragile heart of Crow, which is best at its simplest.

You can trace plenty of avant-garde and indie influences -- Pina Bausch, anime, the Kronos Quartet, clowns of horror Mump and Smoot, Aphex Twin, among others -- but outlandishness doesn’t ensure originality.

A basic idea about domination and indoctrination gets a little overwhelmed by the arty hubbub.

That’s not to say Degenerate Art Ensemble doesn’t display an impressive skill set: The members are bold, versatile musicians, and Crow moves from thrash to classical to rap with appealing nonchalance. (This L.A. premiere also marks the release of its eighth CD.)

They have a keen sense of materials and space.

Nishimura, set designer Etsuko Ichikawa and lighting designer Rainer Groenhagen create some striking tableaux: a bird-man walking down a wall, a storm made of light, an animated chick chirping under Nishimura’s voluminous skirt. (Her elaborate costumes, by Ruthie Nicklaus and Adriana Phillips, suggest both bird plumage and a post-punk princess.)

But the narrative of Cuckoo Crow, which primarily consists of the two cuckoos making trouble and cutting up, feels less acute than other elements of the performance.

By the second hour, they’ve run out of ideas, and the piece starts to feel thin. When Nishimura isn’t onstage, the show founders. It’s as though Degenerate Art Ensemble has created a terrific sandbox but hasn’t found the best way to play in it.