Underbelly is Overbloated, but Promising

I am a great fan of Degenerate Art Ensemble’s work, so it does not pain me to say that their latest work needs some retooling because in it I can see the seed of something bigger and better. Underbelly, which premiered last night, is a site-specific performance staged in the eponymous underbelly of the Seattle Center. It is part of a series of installations and performances by local artists and creatives to celebrate the Center’s 50th anniversary. DAE are master collaborators, and in addition to using animations, innovative props and sound design from local artists, live musicians and choral performers, the crew worked with Olson Kundig architects to construct sophisticated sets integrated into the architecture of the corridor and loading bay where the performance took place.

With that many cooks, a lot can go wrong, but the main problem of the night was actually something out of their control. Somewhat typical of Seattle planning (the people who most need to know are always the last to find out), the artists were sabotaged at the 11th hour by the announcement that a football game would be occurring just overhead for the duration of the first performance. (And I thought I couldn’t hate football season any more than I did before last night. I was wrong.) With only two nights to perform, the group had already sold out early and late performances for both nights. The fine sound design and live performances would have been completely annihilated by the din of the game. Therefore, the group decided to double the crowd for one performance. Perhaps it was too complicated logistically to allow people to choose other performances rather than cram everyone into the same show, but I would have preferred that option. (Tonight’s attendees will at least be in the right-sized crowds. I’m happy for them. No really, I am.)

In all events, the attendees and the performers did a valiant job of making the best of the situation. Regrettably, it was impossible for many attendees to see entire sections of Haruko Nishimura’s dances. At a site-specific piece, one can accept such things to a point, but this was deeply frustrating. Good planning mitigated this at times. In one section (I’ll call it The Dance of the Yamamba) Nishimura was in a flooded pit visible only to those pressed against the partition, but there were accompanying, animated projections on the wall that all could see. There was still some possibility of an immersive experience.

Hence, the crowd was a problem for the best parts of the performance, but it really threw a stark light on the weaker elements. The show was divided into three sections, each dedicated to an anti-heroine. At the end of the first and last sections, the crowd was guided in small groups to observe a small piece of sculpture. The chorus performed their parts on a loop to ensure that everyone got a glimpse…but that was all one could get: a rather unsatisfactory glimpse. And what was unsatisfactory was not merely the span of time, but the objects themselves. They were rather gimmicky and of no superior construction. The wait time and the hurried herding completely destroyed the immersive aspects so vital to the performance. It really cannot be overstated how much better it would be without these interludes, even with a smaller crowd.

Preceding each section are beautiful, vertical video projections in which Nishimura transforms herself completely into her three anti-heroines:  Seattle burlesque maven Gracie Hansen, legendary mountain woman Yamamba, and a “Joan of Arc”-inspired indigenous Warrior Woman. Frankly, these projections only make the sculptural curiosities look more ridiculous by comparison, and those who trail at the back of the line get to see little of the projections at all.

One of three doors printed with character sketches of the three anti-heroines

I would be remiss if I did not praise the three characters at the heart of Underbelly. Gracie Hansen (the only historical figure of the three) was a caricature in life—a nightlife maven who crassly greeted her audience as “suckers” every night and who was a key figure in Seattle during the World Fair. Nishimura’s Gracie is a woman who used sexual oppression and politics to carve a life for herself in a male-dominated world. It would have been easy to make her into a lumbering, maneating grotesque, but Nishimura’s characteristic pathos and sensitivity keeps the portrayal humorous and spirited. It is a shame we see so little of her. The Yamamba is a wilderness spirit who transforms abandoned elders into fantastic new beings. The Warrior Woman is a bellicose champion of displaced peoples and nature ravaged by greed.

The audience is thus given a trifecta of starkly different defenders of marginalized groups. Rather than preaching against the misogyny, alienation, and destructive elements of our culture or peeling back the surface and cynically declaring, “Look how ugly it all is!” without cause for hope, DAE allows us to dip into the underlying symbolic realm and discover characters that are redemptive even as they reflect the negative forces that created them. There is joviality, rejuvenation, and perseverance even in the belly of the beast.

It is already DAE’s intention to expand Underbelly and fine tune it in years to come. I would be delighted to see it retooled for the stage, more like their 2009 masterwork Sonic Tales. In all of DAE’s recent works, Nishimura has proved her maturity as a performer by creating fascinating—sometimes sinister—and indomitable women whose depths are revealed in their surreal, dream-like surroundings—lost in the woods or lost in their heads. Underbelly has enormous potential to do the same, but as it stands now the characters feel lost in the shuffle.