Skeleton flowers bloom in the wooded mountains of northern Japan. When you see them in the sun, the plant looks unremarkable. A little clump of six-petaled flowers with yellow centers. But when it rains, the flower petals become completely transparent. They look like glass.
"To me, that's the whole metaphor of the show," said Degenerate Art Ensemble cofounder Haruko Crow Nishimura, discussing Skeleton Flower, a multidisciplinary performance about a woman using her substantial creative powers to transform her trauma into something beautiful. The piece premieres February 13 to 16 at the Erickson Theater.
Earlier this month, I visited Nishimura and DAE's other cofounder, Joshua Kohl, at their house on a hill in Fremont. The place has become more or less a storage facility for current and future projects, which makes for dreamy decor. Neon-colored canvases line the wall. A tall throne entirely covered in faux fur stands near the stairs.
DAE has been conjuring up spectacular contemporary fairy tales for the stage, the screen, and weirdo festival campgrounds since 1999. The fantastical worlds originate in Nishimura's brain. She animates them with dance, and Kohl helps shape them and set them to music. Both performers draw their aesthetics from all over, but common themes include Japanese monster cinema, comic books, fairy tales, and protest.
Over tea and vegan macaroons, Nishimura and Kohl told me they began work on Skeleton Flower about two years ago. They're planning to use all the storytelling devices they're known for, but this time it will be just the two of them onstage. And this time, it's personal.
After a few years of therapy, wherein she was able to open up for the first time about her violent upbringing and experiences of sexual assault, Nishimura decided to explore her own life with this show. "It's time. I'm 48 now," she said. "I've been an avatar of other characters in these new contemporary fairy tales that we've been creating in the past, but now it's time for my own story."
This new project has many tentacles (there's a full album in the works), but the performance aspect reimagines several fairy tales—including "Fitcher's Bird," "The Wild Swans," and "The Red Shoes"—and incorporates characters from previous DAE shows. All the protagonists are women who put their creative desires to action and overcome great opposition.
As they worked on Skelton Flower, Kohl and Nishimura began to see the piece as a way of understanding recurring characters and themes in the group's previous efforts. There are always strong female characters fighting back against demons, monsters, and menacing male figures. There's a Mothra character that recalls Nishimura's mother. A very early DAE show featured a guy walking around the stage and harassing women with a giant dildo. "Why do these things always show up in my work? Oh, because I have to confront my demons," Nishimura said, laughing.
"The truth is that everyone suffers. My story isn't new. Our hope for the piece is to say it's okay to voice and share your shame. Shame becomes a power once you share it."
Kohl said, "And it's a wonderful thing to be exploring something like depression in such a celebratory and wild and colorful and defiant way. As opposed to it being something that's like— depressing."