Crow Nishimura in Degenerate Art Ensemble’s “Predator Songstress: Dictator.”

Joy of Art: The origins of Degenerate Art Ensemble

A stunningly avant-garde performance group marrying rage, resistance, and playfulness

Crow Nishimura in Degenerate Art Ensemble’s “Predator Songstress: Dictator.”

Crow Nishimura

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Words by Shin Yu Pai

Degenerate Art Ensemble (DAE) is the kind of performance group that defies expectation and categorization, weaving together Butoh-inspired movement, catchy punk rock songs, projection mapping, psychedelic music videos, and layers of narrative spoken text. Led by Seattle-based partners Crow Nishimura and Joshua Kohl, the group emerged from the pandemic with a new creative offering: Skeleton Flower presents a triptych of narratives that explore intergenerational traumas, the profound influence of stories, and the healing power of the creative spirit. The show takes its title from a flower native to Japan. When the skeleton flower’s petals come into contact with water, they become translucent.

In development since 2017, Skeleton Flower was born out of DAE’s long-standing interest in fairy tales. Nishimura remembers being a young girl and listening to her mother’s readings of various parables. Together they explored moralistic tales about female characters by the Grimms and Hans Christian Anderson—stories that provided cautionary warnings while emphasizing feminine duty. A young girl is forced to nearly dance to death when she puts on a pair of handmade red shoes that others regard as sinful. A little sister perseveres in trying to undo a spell that turned her brothers into swans, by secretly knitting them suits made of nettles. The youngest daughter of a family is given away to marriage. It’s her task to recover and reanimate the bodies of her murdered sisters who preceded her in marriage to the same violent man.

Together they explored moralistic tales about female characters by the Grimms and Hans Christian Anderson—stories that provided cautionary warnings while emphasizing feminine duty.

Yet, Nishimura sensed love and yearning in her mother’s animated retelling of these tales. “I think she wanted me to have the life that she wanted. Of joy and freedom of creativity. To do whatever you need to do. Because she was trapped in her own world,” she says. And it’s this particular aspect of fairy tales that DAE celebrates by presenting subversive anti-heroines that shatter societal values by asserting their very right to exist.

As a child growing up in a Japanese diplomatic family, Nishimura found herself living in Japan, Syria, Australia, and the United States. Though distanced from her culture of origin by the circumstances of her father’s profession, she also strongly sensed her mother’s aversion towards Japanese folk culture and music. “Post-war when there was the American occupation, she resisted almost anything to do with a Japanese aesthetic. So she and my father blasted Romanticist classical music all day and night long,” she says.

As a result, Nishimura was pushed towards studying competitive classical piano. After enrolling at the New England Conservatory of Music in 1989, she suffered a psychological breakdown. “I saw a sausage grinder of my teacher, cranking out all these students as a cookie cutter of him because he could not approve interpreting [music] in other ways.”

Joshua Kohl in “Skeleton Flower.”

Bruce Tom

Nishimura’s alienation from conservatory training mirrored some of her partner’s experiences. Kohl studied at the conservatory at the same time as Nishimura. The son of Herbert R. Kohl—an educational innovator and alternative education advocate—Kohl attended a rural public school without music education and also experienced rich educational opportunities at the summer camp that his parents ran. Without a deep background in the classical tradition, becoming a classical musician felt out of reach for Kohl. “It was something I could never accomplish. I was in school with tons of kids who had been trained since they were 2 years old. I just didn’t have that kind of background.”

“European music is a theory. Not the theory.”

Nishimura and Kohl left the conservatory environment and made their way west to Seattle, where Nishimura had gone to high school. The couple enrolled at Cornish College, where Crow was introduced by a friend to butoh—a genre of modern dance that resists classification. Nishimura embraced studying movement art after seeing Japanese performers like Butosha Tenkei and Sankaijuku performing at Seattle theater company On the Boards, plus Kazuo Ohno at the Moore Theater. Kohl immersed himself in studying composition and worked with Jarrad Powell, creator of Gamelan Pacifica. When Kohl expressed his desire to analyze Brahms, Powell pointed him towards Indian and Indonesian musical theory. Kohl came to realize that “European music is a theory. Not the theory.”

Surrounded at Cornish by a group of extraordinary artists that included Eyvind Kang (CalArts faculty and touring viola player for avant garde composer Laurie Anderson and jazz guitarist Bill Frisell), Reggie Watts (band leader for The Late Late Show with James Corden), musician and film composer Timothy Young, cellist and composer Brent Arnold, and Saiko Kobayashi (avant garde dancer and former choreographer with The Pat Graney Company), Nishimura and Kohl’s ideas of what could be possible in a creative practice expanded. Nishimura later performed in the all-girl punk rock band the Buttersprites, plus a 13-piece punk jazz orchestra led by Kohl. The couple began to bring activism into their art in projects. Kohl joined the Infernal Noise Brigade—a protest marching band that formed around the 1999 WTO Protests known as the Battle in Seattle. One of their earliest performance pieces Scream! LionDogs explored the real-life killing of an Olympia-area Asian American youth by a neo-Nazi. Nishimura was deeply affected by the lack of news coverage about the hate crime. This story is brought back into Skeleton Flower to give it new meaning. Nishimura delivers a direct speech about this incident which resonates with this current historical moment in which violence against Asian Americans has exploded.

A character from Degenerate Art Ensemble’s “Skeleton Flower.”

Bruce Tom

While rage and resistance have been an important theme in DAE’s work, the group has also explored playfulness. While working with Sleepytime Gorilla Museum and inkBoat collective in San Francisco, Kohl started building his own instruments. For their piece Nymph, Nishimura asked the group to stage a show where none of the musicians were allowed to play the instruments that they knew how to play well. The challenge resulted in the performers building their own instruments and performing together in both Berlin and Seattle. Kohl brought this same spirit of innovation and creativity to creating a unique instrument for DAE’s newest show Skeleton Flower. Constructed as a box which can function as a miniature portable suitcase, Kohl built his instrument using minimal hardware and recycled materials from the “free box” at his local lumber store. The instrument “combines all of the most effective sound making techniques that I have discovered over the years in a single box,” says Kohl.

Crow Nishimura in the final scene of “Skeleton Flower.”

Bruce Tom

Other elements of the handmade and a connection to materials are apparent in the design of Skeleton Flower. In the closing scene of the performance, Nishimura wears a dress sewn with 10,000 hand-painted silk flowers. Painted by 60 to 70 people over the course of two years, the flowers wilt and have to be steamed and massaged before being restitched to the garment. “A whole community formed around these costumes,” says Kohl.

“I felt that I was not alone in my suffering as I sat and listened to these amazing and courageous anonymous story contributors.”

The role of community itself can’t be overlooked when it comes to the shaping of DAE’s work. In the early development of Skeleton Flower, Nishimura put out a social media post asking for community members to join her in committing towards healing the biggest challenges and difficulties of their lives. DAE recorded these stories and created a Skeleton Flower seed ceremony around them. As people told their stories to Nishimura, she asked them to hold a skeleton flower seed pod. With her storytellers, she planted these seeds in pots and cared for them, watering and tending to them for two years. The personal narratives of these community members also appear in the current performance of Skeleton Flower. Recordings of disembodied voices representing the larger human community play while Kohl sounds a singing bowl. Nishimura credits the seed ceremony with giving her the courage to get to the finish line with Skeleton Flower. “I felt that I was not alone in my suffering as I sat and listened to these amazing and courageous anonymous story contributors.”

The experience of viewing Skeleton Flower has deeply spiritual dimensions. As the show opens on Nishimura alone on a stage, we see her figure withdraw into an embryonic shape seeking to protect herself. Under the harsh glare of lights and the overwhelm of physical sensations, an image of the soul’s journey through the Buddhist bardo before reincarnation comes to mind.

In Degenerate Art Ensemble’s “Skeleton Flower,” the Mothra represents one of Crow Nishimura’s parents.

Steven Miller

But a DAE performance wouldn’t be complete without both high and low culture. Butoh exists alongside a recorded music video in which Nishimura’s parents are cast as Mothra and Godzilla. The creatures do battle over the dinner table and abuse one another with cooked rice. As they stomp on and destroy their family meal by hurling it at each other, their conflict transforms from campiness to a profound darkness.

Making monsters out of her past is a provocative move. When we examine all the parts of Skeleton Flower, it’s clear that Nishimura grew up feeling like an outsider in her own family. In her independent-minded nature, she became unrecognizable to them. Another kind of monster. But unlike her mother, Nishimura developed a language to retell her stories and reclaim them in a way that her mother may not have ever been able to access as a migrant. And it’s through language that Nishimura has arrived at the central questions of her artmaking practice—the journey to becoming fully one’s self despite the experience of trauma, while expressing care for others.

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Degenerate Art Ensemble tour Skeleton Flower to the Hans Christian Andersen Festival in Odense, Denmark from August 21-22.

Published on August 21, 2022

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Words by Shin Yu Pai

Shin Yu Pai has published in NYTimes, YES! Magazine, Tricycle, Seattle Met, South Seattle Emerald, ParentMap, Seattle’s Child, and other publications. She is the host, writer, and producer of The Blue Suit, a podcast centered on Asian American stories from KUOW, Seattle’s NPR station.