Following their previous project Predator Songstress, local performance group Degenerate Art Ensemble is presenting a new work entitled Skeleton Flower. As always, DEA will include multiple art forms including music, dance and video in this performance that highlights both fairy tales and the autobiographical experience of the lead performer, Haruko Crow Nishimura.
These interests hail all the way from Nishimura’s childhood. “My mother used to read me Grimm Brothers and Hans Christian Andersen’s gruesome fairy tales involving women and girls,” she said. “These affected me and have haunted me all of my life.”
For Skeleton Flower, Nishimura has chosen to draw from the fairy tales The Red Shoes, The Wild Swans, and The Fitcher’s Bird. “I have taken my own semi-autobiographical story, and wove it together with these fairy tales,” she said, “all of which have female protagonists that overcome great opposition by putting their desires or creative desires into action.”
Nishimura feels particularly connected to the latter fairy tale. “The Fitcher’s Bird is a lesser known version of Blue Beard, where the female protagonist defies the predator who had cut up her sisters by using trickery, creativity, and magic to put her dead sisters back together again and defeat him,” she said. “There is a shift of power that happens in this brilliant tale.”
It is this shift of power that Nishimura is seeking not only in her art, but also in her personal life, as she struggles with depression. “This piece is more about coming to understand and committing to healing traumas by confronting my demons and finding awakenings,” she said. “It is about finding power in knowing what leads to my major breakdowns and dysfunction as a human being in society.”
This effort is the product of a lengthy exploration for Nishimura. “I have come to find that depression has been the symptom of not knowing how to confront my childhood abuse, racism, and having a major identity crisis,” she said, “growing up moving constantly and living in four different countries, searching for a place to fit in.”
By creating Degenerate Art Ensemble, Nishimura has established her own place, and is making space for fellow artists who are also interested in multi-disciplinary work. This includes the costume design team of Wyly Astley and Willow Fox.
Astley has previously worked on other DEA costumes, but had yet to take on a design project. “I was overjoyed to be asked to join this project as a designer,” she said. “The beauty and depth of their work astounds me and they are incredibly fun and generous to work with.”
Fox agrees. “The Degenerate Art Ensemble’s work has fascinated me since I arrived in Seattle, especially how they create immersive experiences based in shared and personal mythologies,” she said. “The level of craft and artistry and fun in their productions make it a dream project to work on.”
That’s not to say their work is without challenges, since DEA productions are known for elaborate costumes. “The biggest challenge, so far, has been the Flower Dress costume. It’s such a hungry thing!” Astley said. “It has over 7,000 hand-cut, hand-painted, and hand-stitched silk flowers on it. This costume also has a strange and wonderful shape that is hard to hold in place because of its weight.”
The ambitious nature of the costume caught Fox’s attention. “It took an incredible team of artisans months to accomplish this intensely elaborate costume,” Fox said, “and five of us finished covering it with the very last of the 7,000 flowers in the final hours, nothing to spare.”
Complementing this team is the work of production manager Tom Wiseley. “With a group like this, titles fall short,” Wiseley said. “I also design, implement, stage manage, act, and help with administrative.”
Bringing these skills to the team has required a balance of generosity and respect. “As always, it is a challenge to balance aspiration with practicality,” Wiseley said. “Also, there is a fine art to joining a family, learning how they work and honoring their ways while being a strong contributor.”
Wiseley has found DEA to be an ideal fit. “For years, I’ve sought an artistic home where I can employ my various skills among good-hearted peers pursuing the highest quality work,” he said. “So I was honored to be invited into this ensemble.”
With these collaborators and longtime DEA partner and music director Joshua Kohl, Nishimura has integrated her personal and artistic explorations. “The path of creativity and imagination pulled me through it all,” she said, “allowing me to not only survive, but to be able to continue to create, grow, and share my imagination with others.”
In Nishimura’s perspective, this growth spans the generations. “Skeleton Flower also deals with what we inherit from our ancestors and allowing them to heal through us,” she said, “and healing myself by choosing my own paths for my own life.”
For Nishimura, the title Skeleton Flower reflects all of these interests and concerns, because a skeleton flower is white when dry and translucent in the rain. “When the rain hits the skeleton flower, it turns it to this glass-like transparency,” she said. “The inspiration was about seeing through the surface and transforming, expressing your truth and through that process of sharing, the journey transforms you.”
Skeleton Flower runs March 13 -16 at the Erickson Theatre, 1524 Harvard Avenue, Seattle.