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stg: degenerate art ensemble – a review

By Michael Hacker

From DAE’s “Sonic Tales” (Steven Miller photo)
Seattle-based Degenerate Arts Ensemble is “a performance company that through hyper-experimental music and dance transforms traditional genres into multi-dimensional and expressive works. DAE is a band, a dance company, a full orchestra, —an ever evolving art performance group that is committed to challenging new artistic territory with every new project.”

DAE’s performance of “Sonic Tales” at the Moore Theater last Friday [October 30] was a fulfillment of their artistic credo, a multimedia blend of music, sound effects, theater, dance and film, which rubbed the senses raw.

Five performers presented several connected “stories” that focused on individual characters. The action of the narrative structure took place inside a house, and set designer Jennifer Zyel provided modular flats and doors, as well as a peaked roof above the musicians, who were raised on a platform above the stage floor. The Protagonist, danced by Trinidad Martinez, was easily the most accessible character, one whose dreams and desires seemed the most grounded and resonant. The Appetite Girl, danced by Marissa Rae Niederhauser, added an element of menace. Her pallid skin and hunched appearance, as well as her spidery fingers, exemplified vampiric hunger. Her character reminded me strongly of the cook/lamia in Strindberg’s Ghost Sonata.

Hunger was a theme throughout the evening. Artistic director Haruko Nishimura presented the character of Shiro (guardian of the passageway) but also Nymph Red, who interacts with the Caretakers (Jeffrey Huston and Joshua Kohl) inside the kitchen of the house. Technology also played an effective role in the production, with film being projected against the set drops, and against certain costume pieces, to provide by turns, further narrative impetus, and meta-theatrical supertext, in which Joshua Kohl and Jeffrey Huston kvetch about Haruko Nishimura. These moments felt like Epic Theater techniques; they were precocious and amusing.

Interaction with the audience was also part of the sonic experience, with Trinidad Martinez, Joshua Kohl, and Jeffrey Huston persuading the audience to provide sound effects, which were then mirrored by the sound design. Tongue clicks became raindrops, for example.

Above all, the evening was interesting. Providing the audience with a loose narrative structure and definite objects within the field of vision invited interpretation. As such, “Sonic Tales” was theatrical. It was theater and it had purpose. The choice of presenting the action in a house was central. In dreams, houses are metaphors for the psyche, and that’s what I felt was going on here. The narrative, one of hunger and transformation, was a metaphor for the creative process, beginning with need, then hunger, the rejection of self-defeating obstacles, the barking of the ego, bargaining with the guardian of the threshold, the struggle and battle with form and structure, and finally the ability to be present in space and time and to channel expression without the detritus of personality getting in the way.

The audience enthusiastically embraced this piece, which was not surprising given its depth of meaning and heartfelt expression.