Just crazy for their art

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.

"I respond to work that completely intoxicates me in some kind of complete universe, where I'm in that world 100%," says Kohl, speaking by phone from his home in Seattle. "I don't respond as easily to work where, for example, people are just dancing onstage and making interesting mathematical patterns."

The initial ideas for the world of "Cuckoo Crow" came from Nishimura, who, as a vocalist always on the lookout for novel sounds, knew that cuckoo birds have a wide repertoire of calls. In conducting further research, she discovered that female cuckoos lay their eggs in the nests of other birds.

"It was interesting to me that these birds were brilliant con artists, conning other birds into taking care of their offspring," she says. "And to me, the crazy part is that baby cuckoos trick other birds by quickly learning to mimic their calls. This made me think of the musicians in my group, how we're all such chameleons in terms of the types of music we play."

Nishimura collected a series of images, drawing from sources, including classical Japanese dance, bird documentaries and the animated characters from Comedy Central's "South Park." The group then used the images as a basis for working with musical and choreographic improvisation.

"This is key for us," says Kohl. "Haruko would throw us into different improvisational scenarios and grabbed the gems of the things that came out. Her responsibility is the movement, while I harness all the ideas that people come up with musically. By the time we've finished creating a show, there's almost zero improv to it."

Not all group members have to be fluent in multiple mediums, but Kohl and Nishimura require that "everyone be totally willing to abandon themselves to the unknown," Kohl says. "Like I had to learn aerial skills, which were totally new for me. But I have some friends in the circus that helped me out."

Kohl and Nishimura's group, founded with Josh Stewart, was originally called the Young Composers Collective, a name that became a clumsy fit when they started branching into performance art and stage productions.

So, inspired by the Nazis' 1937 infamous "Degenerate Art" exhibit, which showcased and mocked plundered works from German museums, they changed it.

"To me, 'degenerate' means having artistic license to stampede over every possible artistic expression," says Nishimura. "It means staying true to your artistic goals, staying up rehearsing until 3 in the morning, building something that is completely over your budget, then letting off steam by drinking and marching around in the dead of night."

Whatever medium, project or performance venue the group might pursue, its guiding force will always be "instinct over intellect. If there isn't any soul or spirit to what we do, then the audience won't be able to connect with it in any deep way," says Kohl. "Plus you have to follow your imagination, no matter where it takes you. Otherwise, there's something missing."


Degenerate Art Ensemble

Where: REDCAT, 631 W. 2nd St., Los Angeles

When: 8:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 7 p.m. next Sunday

Price: $20 and $25

Contact: (213) 237-2800 or www.red cat.org

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World