BET CHARLES and Emma Frye never saw this coming: Sixty years after donating their collection of late nineteenth-century German paintings to Seattle, wildly surreal multimedia now shares a wall with bucolic landscapes. And around the corner from the gilt-framed oil paintings stands a ceiling-high sculpture—a coy giantess who lifts the hem of her skirt and beckons you to browse a video collage beneath the folds.
The latest avant-garde explosion at the Frye is courtesy of Degenerate Art Ensemble, a Seattle-based performance art group that defies definition. Founded as an experimental orchestra in 1999, DAE is an evolving collective of anywhere from six to 20 sound engineers, artists, filmmakers, composers, photographers, and costume designers, descendants of alternative circuses and “militant marching bands.” They take their name from the 1937 Degenerate Art exhibition in Munich, in which the Third Reich showcased 650 modernist works they pulled from German museums and derided for failing to live up to National Socialist standards. If purity was the Nazis’ party line, the DAE salutes mashups. They embrace all disciplines—with influences ranging from punk rock to Butoh to fairy tales—to create theater that’s been called “whimsically disturbing” and eminently memorable.
Performances are a mad mix of dance, music, video, and sculpture—nothing is as it seems. Case in point: The steel-framed “weeble-wobble skirt” from the 2009 work Sonic Tales doubles as a prop and instrument, allowing its wearer, codirector Haruko Nishimura, to spin about the stage battling ninjas without toppling over. Designers also tricked out the costume with chimes so Nishimura could hammer a battle hymn of atonalities with a set of kitchen utensils. In the spirit of collaboration, audiences are part of the spectacle. When Sonic Tales debuted at the Moore Theatre, everyone in attendance was asked to make it rain: 1,700 pursed lips collectively sputtered pewp, pewp, pewp while a sea of fingers wiggled high in the air. Video excerpts of the Moore event, along with the utiliskirt, will be on display at the Frye.
“It’s almost like we’re setting up scenes,” deputy director and curator Robin Held said of the exhibit. Another scene will focus on the DAE’s 2006 performance Cuckoo Crow, a mythical story of a fallen baby crow transformed from bird to beast, with prosthetic spring-loaded hooves that function as instruments. In its entirety the exhibit covers the spectrum of the group’s work since its formation, some 100 compositions that have been performed around the world. “For [almost] 15 years DAE has done some of the richest, most interdisciplinary, immersive, gleeful work in Seattle,” Held said. “We are so overdue to showcase all that they do in a context where people can spend time with it.”
Or under it: Madame Giantess, aka The Hidden One, was created just for the Frye exhibit, and the DAE has also prepared The Red Shoes Project, a traveling adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen tale of a ballerina whose toe shoes threaten to dance her to death. This performance comes complete with a marching band and chorus, and will take to the streets of First Hill around the Frye in May. It’s a fairy tale with special significance to the artists, says Nishimura, who sees in its lead character the sacrifices made to pursue passion.
“We wanted to give people an experience that they wouldn’t be able to have at one of our performances,” DAE codirector Joshua Kohl added. “We’re used to making things that people see at a distance, instead of making things that people will see from all sides and close up.”
What would Charles and Emma think? Not a problem, wagers Held. “The Fryes were extremely forward-thinking in their day—they’d probably be thrilled.”