Degenerate Art’s UNDERBELLY Comes to Corvallis’ Majestic Theatre

Photo by Bruce Tom

Beneath the familiar swathes of any cityscape—and, for that matter, any skin—lies a subterranean realm of accidental and forgotten spaces. This hidden labyrinth of inside/outside is where the Degenerate Art Ensemble (DAE) will lead the brave and willing, when Underbelly comes to the Majestic this weekend.

Underbelly is the latest undertaking of the Seattle-based Degenerate Art Ensemble, a performance group that has captivated audiences from Los Angeles to Prague. As one of the Northwest’s foremost emerging companies, DAE is anything but a band of degenerates. With this latest production, DAE presents a fantastic collaboration that melts boundaries of artistic disciplines as diverse as architecture, modern dance, classical music, lighting and set design, video, and sculptural installation. With DAE’s characteristic flare, Underbelly tunnels into the undersides of both places and imaginations via surprising passageways.

Underbelly premiered Oct. 5 as part of the Seattle Center’s “Next 50” Festival. For over a year, DAE worked closely with Olson Kundig Architects and many other visionary artists to create the show. While such diverse collaboration among artists is itself bold and fairly rare, Underbelly goes even deeper, exploring DAE’s collective desire to create dialogue with hidden spaces, inner and outer, that we might otherwise ignore. Underbelly’s premiere unfolded in and around the Seattle Center’s subterranean loading docks and warehouses, where DAE took audiences swirling down through a dynamic and eerie site-specific palimpsest of hidden local histories and visceral experiences.

According to DAE Music Director Joshua Kohl, the chance to bring audiences deep into the city’s “substructures that the public isn’t meant to see” was a transformative experience for artists, crew, and viewers alike. Through the imaginative interventions of performers and designers, says Kohl, people saw shadowy, vacant spaces below the city “change before our eyes.” And this kind of magical transformation, according to Kohl, “is what art is about—having people see familiar things in completely new ways.”

Indeed, transformation from the everyday to the extraordinary is what DAE does best. Their performances blaze through physical spaces and into deeper psychic dwellings, where startling tensions and jarring, dreamlike juxtapositions hold sway. In this vein, Underbelly weaves a kaleidoscopic narrative around what Kohl calls “a series of portraits of complex and interesting women characters” created by DAE co-director and dancer/choreographer Haruko Nishimura. A 2012 Guggenheim fellow, Nishimura is known for her creations of provocative characters that draw as much from punk, protest, and pop culture as from ancient myths and fairy tales. For Underbelly, Nishimura melded several archetypal figures that have long fascinated her with specific traits of characters drawn straight from tattered Pacific Northwest history books. In solo dances rooted in the radical, post-WWII Japanese butoh movement, Nishimura embodies themes of fear and loss, abandonment of elders, and courage in the face of injustice, moving through captivating figures like the ancient Mountain Woman, 1920s grand-dame Gracie Hansen, and a Joan of Arc-like girl-hero battling for indigenous rights against riot police in a timeless alter-Seattle.

According to Kohl, Underbelly’s move to the Majestic offers audiences more intimate encounters with the show as a whole. For all the magic of performing amidst moss-stained concrete and flooded loading docks, Kohl says certain elements were sacrificed in those sites, like access to the giant, looping video portraits of Nishimura’s characters, which unfold their secrets only slowly, over time. DAE’s Underbelly offers Corvallis a rare, close-up encounter with an ensemble that stirs audiences—not only with radical, vibrant images and bodies moving in space, but by deepening dialogue with neglected places around and inside our imaginations. And for an even more in-depth DAE experience, local college-aged dancers have an opportunity to learn directly from Haruko Nishimura in a masterclass she will teach at the Majestic on Saturday, Oct. 20 from 10 to 1 p.m.

By KB Hart