How many elements of the performance have to change before ballet becomes burlesque? And when you’re Lily Verlaine, are those really the only two options? Verlaine’s new dance company, House of Verlaine, put these questions to work on stage at the Triple Door for L’Edition Noire last Saturday, May 8. In a split bill with burlesque star Perle Noire, this “coming out party for the House of Verlaine” (as host Miss Indigo Blue termed it) injected ballet with an erotic sensibility that both freed ballet from the concert hall and lent an air of classicism to a burlesque setting. With dancers from Whim W’Him, Spectrum, and Coriolis, Verlaine—or, rather, Rachel Gourd (she takes choreographer credit under her legal name, but performer credit as Verlaine)—is filling a dance niche in Seattle we didn’t even know we had.
Ballet, despite its overlay of purity and chastity, has a strong erotic current running through its history. Head back to Giselle’s French Romantic era, with its unattainable ballerinas on stage and a largely male fanbase in the audience—and backstage (oh, the possibilities of a silk-covered ankle!). The 20th century saw its share of eroticism as well, starting with Nijinsky’s 1912 Afternoon of a Faun, which depicts a faun’s desire for a nymph in Grecian bas-relief style choreography. For the House of Verlaine, Faun becomes Afternoon of Paris Original (Sylvain Boulet’s burlesque name), and it’s amazing how little changes. The essential structure stays the same, with Boulet lusting after Davione Gordon, this version’s nymph corollary, and his scarf. The choreography quotes so many of the original’s reserved, stylized postures and gestures that it’s almost a game to see how many elements remain intact. The biggest alterations are music and atmosphere—Debussy is swapped for Sex Mob, and the golden glow of Léon Bakst’s designs is replaced with black velvet and cigarette smoke. The way the choreography retains the original’s reserve matches the slow burn of a strip tease, but it departs from burlesque structure as well: Boulet’s final moments on stage are self-absorbed, rather than for an audience.
The show’s opener, Tales of the Vienna Woods, filled the stage with six performers beautifully showing off their ballet chops, albeit with pasties and g-strings under sheer gowns for women and men alike. Giant fans, two for each dancer, wafted through the air, turning each step into larger-than-life spectacle. Gourd used them effectively as prop pieces, too, like when they formed a giant rotating flower, Busby Berkeley-style, with Tory Peil at the center. The work’s only drawback was that most performers looked like lovely ballet dancers unaware we could see their underwear. Peil and Sylvain Boulet, both seasoned burlesque artists, were exceptions—their faces dared the audience to look and keep looking. A tad more wink in performance quality would really make Vienna Woods shine, contributing to the humor (especially with knowing choreographic nods to Swan Lake and other ballets) and deepening the relationship between the erotic tone and the classical choreography.
Gourd’s Histoire de Melody Nelson turns Serge Gainsbourg’s 1971 concept album into an erotic narrative ballet for a cast of twelve. The story mirrors the album: a man (Danny Boulet, as smoldering as Gainsbourg’s voice) in his Rolls Royce collides with a teenage Melody Nelson (Peil, a perfect match of curiosity and abandon) on her bicycle and seduces her. The tale ends in tragedy, with Melody at the bottom of the sea, complete with two aerialist mermaids. The Lolita-esque subject is enough to turn heads, but Gourd’s treatment of the work makes the focus a little less creepy old man, and a little more adolescent sexual awakening. The most sexually fraught moments occur with Peil alone on stage. In terms of structure, Melody Nelson’s clean, well-choreographed dances made the work a surprisingly orthodox ballet, tidy around the edges. From a thematic perspective, it also successfully broadened the definition of what can constitute ballet with revealing costumes and movement ranging from suggestive to explicit. If you put it on a concert bill next to, say, Serenade, it would feel out of place, but, really, could you make a ballet of Melody Nelson that didn’t put sex at the fore? Melody Nelson perfectly captures Gourd’s impulse to make erotic ballet, and shows how the format can work.
L’Edition Noire also included three burlesque stripteases, two from highly acclaimed guest Perle Noire, and one from Verlaine herself. Noire’s acts Birth of Venus and Boudoir de Perle Noire showed her to be a charismatic mix of elegant and fierce. She is a direct performer, a master of knowing when to hide and when to reveal, but her drawn out reserve shattered at key moments when she burst into spitfire jazz moves with a vintage feel. Verlaine’s No Sale showcased her sassy sense of humor as she rolled around a bed, gleefully showering herself with money.
To close the show, the Can-Can de la Maison Verlaine brought all your fin-de-siècle, Toulouse-Lautrec fantasies to life, complete with big, colorful skirts (costumes by Stephanie Seymour) and towering hair (Shelby Rogers). There is something incredibly satisfying about an upbeat, endlessly high-kicking can-can; the combination of cheeky French flirtation, ebullient Offenbach music, and physical wow-factor makes it a timeless crowd-pleaser. In Gourd’s version, four women (Peil, Lara Seefeldt, Marissa Quimby, Natascha Greenwalt) and two men (Gordon and Thomas Phelan) radiated an infectious energy that matched, rather than overshadowed, their fine technique. Can-Can hit home the central theme of the night: these people can really dance. From the elegance of Vienna Woods, to the sultry allure of Afternoon and Melody Nelson, to the bawdy joy of the Can-Can, House of Verlaine combines the personality of burlesque with the specific physical rigor of classical dance. The result is a highly entertaining show that both concert hall and nightclub audiences will enjoy.