“In the past I’ve brought a classical aesthetic to burlesque dance,” says Lily Verlaine, the Seattle burlesque diva extraordinaire. Now, as the director of House of Verlaine, her newly founded company, she intends to invert that relationship and “bring a burlesque aesthetic to classical dance.” Billed as an “exquisite assemblage of daring classical artists,” the group’s backbone is its roster of highly technical dancers from companies like Spectrum Dance Theater, Whim W’Him, and Coriolis Dance. In a one-night only event, the company will have its debut performance in L’Edition Noir, at the Triple Door this Saturday, May 9, with shows at 7 and 10 PM. The program features four works by the new company, solo acts by Verlaine, and several pieces by the internationally renowned burlesque artist, Perle Noir.
The creation of the company feels like it has been a long time coming for Verlaine. She has an extensive ballet background and a successful career as a burlesque artist and co-producer—along with Jasper McCann she has produced delightfully tawdry shows like Land of the Sweets: The Burlesque Nutcracker and Burlesco DiVino: Wine in Rome—but this endeavor seems to be the first time where the classical and burlesque worlds carry equal weight. The duality was evident in a recent rehearsal while the company practiced an ensemble waltz number. Choreographically it’s pure classical technique, and the group moved like a corps de ballet as Verlaine coaxed épaulement, finesse, and precision from them. But there’s no denying the burlesque-like sense of glamour created by the gigantic white feather fans each dancer flutters throughout the piece.
While Verlaine had been toying with the idea of forming a company like this for some time, she didn’t quite have the impetus to start it. The first catalyst came when dancer Tory Peil asked Verlaine to choreograph a can-can piece for a gig at a French-American school gala earlier this year. Verlaine created a festive number complete with extravagantly ruffled silk skirts—think a risqué Gaîté Parisienne. Shortly after, Verlaine was asked to perform for a waltz event at Century Ballroom. She said yes on the condition that she could bring a whole company and create a new work. She said it’s like “it was all there waiting for something to happen;” she already had the costumes and available dancers, not to mention those voluptuous feather fans. The waltz created quite a sensation at the event, and since then things have continued to fall serendipitously into place.
The timing was perfect when Perle Noir (also known as “The Mahogany Queen of Burlesque”) called and asked Verlaine to produce a show for her while she was in Seattle this May. It was the final push Verlaine needed to bring these new numbers together into a cohesive program, with Perle and herself to round out the evening. “The momentum is really coming from the outside,” said Verlaine. “I feel like I’m being called to do this work. It’s art that I’ve wanted to do for a long time.”
While excited for audiences to experience her new creations, Verlaine is also curious to see how people will respond to some aspects of the program. Classical dance generally depicts heteronormative roles and relationships, but Verlaine’s choreography presents a lot of gender and sexual fluidity—the men and women wear the same costumes and dance alongside each other. Though typical in the burlesque realm, it’s usually part of a tease with some kind of wink to the audience, so what’s refreshing here, is how Verlaine incorporates it without an ounce of irony or apology. “To me it’s natural,” says Verlaine, “they’re all dancers of the same calibre.”
The new company has also allowed Verlaine to more fully explore her capabilities as a director. While she has produced shows before, this is the first time she has been able to act solely as the director since she isn’t dancing with the ensemble. Delighted to be working with such a talented bunch, she credits Peil, who also brought her the first gig, for recruiting her all-star roster. This project also allows Verlaine to channel a mentoring urge to usher other dancers into the limelight. She noted that she could be pursuing her solo career full time, but right now she “feels like [she] can do a lot more good, for a lot more people, by acting in a directorial capacity.” So while having her name on the bill will certainly draw some viewers in, Verlaine says “the added bonus will be these unbelievably incredible artists. I’m just so thrilled to blow people’s minds through them.”
House of Verlaine could very well be the next big thing in both the burlesque and dance scene—its cross-genre approach certainly gives it the ability to appeal to both demographics. L’Edition Noir runs for one night only, so don’t miss the chance to see this exciting new endeavor unfold from the beginning.