Ballet Meets Burlesque

Lily Verlaine and The Land of the Sweets push a classic into risqué territory.

Lily Verlaine takes the Columbia City Theater stage wearing nothing but pink ruffled bloomers and a bundle of silk roses clutched against her chest.

Tonight is the second Saturday of the Atomic Bombshells’ four-weekend run of performances at the old vaudeville emporium. The place is close to full, the crowd slowly warming up at the crooning exhortations of pompadoured host Jasper McCann. Verlaine has already performed in the ensemble’s opening number, shimmying in choreographed kitsch with the five other Bombshells in the troupe.

When she returns for her first solo routine, “La Vie en Rose,” the kitsch is gone. Instead, as soon as Verlaine hits the stage, the temperature in the theatre rises. A vintage French chanson plays over the PA and—somehow—the scent of roses whispers through the room. Verlaine sashays off the stage and maneuvers through the crowd, hips bobbing as if afloat on high seas.

Verlaine prowls the crowd, bestowing single roses to blushing audience members. A tableful of women in the back of the theatre is revved up and near combustion. One of the women grabs at Verlaine’s thigh as she passes; she spins and bops the woman on the head with a rosebud. Grinning, she saunters back to the stage, tossing roses over her shoulder one by one by one until no more are left. Center stage, she turns around topless for a titillating instant. The theater erupts in feverish catcalls as the lights come up for intermission.

Only a student of dance would recognize Verlaine’s second routine, “Avian Invitation,” as a pasties-clad nod to Ukrainian dancer Uliana Lopatkina’s interpretation of a turn-of-the-century ballet called The Dying Swan. Here Verlaine’s classical training is evident: Her birdlike struts and flutters are precise and uncanny as she preens behind a pair of dun-colored plumed fans. Again she leaves the safety of the stage and toes her way through the crowd—notably, the only Bombshell to do so.

Her smile, her eyes, her stylized movements all convey a mind absolutely present in its body and a body absolutely comfortable moving through the world unclothed. Among the rest of the Bombshells, her confidence and wit radiate at full volume. Verlaine seems the flesh-and-blood product of ingrained technique exploded by robust sexuality and refined through self-aware expression.

* * *

Late on a Tuesday morning, Verlaine sits at a Capitol Hill café sipping tea in a silk cocktail dress, her hair glistening black and perfectly shaped, mink stole on the bench beside her. Jasper McCann is here too, sporting a grey sharkskin suit and pompadour. Together they look like exactly what they are: A pair of stylized lifestyle artists dropped into the mundane conventional world.

“This is a minor expression of glamour,” Verlaine says, indicating her dress. “But I will tell you, nobody wants to talk to you in Seattle if you have a wig on and are wearing a fox fur coat and it’s noon on Wednesday. You just don’t make any friends.”

That may have been true in the past. But today, Verlaine is no longer an outlier at the vanguard of an underground movement. She has outgrown her deep roots in ballet and blossomed into a full-time, globetrotting striptease artisté. She’s also the choreographer, artistic director and primary creative force behind Seattle’s biggest annual burlesque event, The Land of the Sweets: The Burlesque Nutcracker. Now in its seventh season, the show has helped nudge burlesque from dubious subculture to critical regard and mainstream embrace.

The Burlesque Nutcracker has played to some 20,000 people since its inaugural season in 2006. Running Dec. 11–27, all 30 performances will sell out at the Triple Door this year. Like it or not, The Burlesque Nutcracker is as much a holiday tradition in Seattle as Pacific Northwest Ballet’s PG version.

The production employs more than 20 professional dancers who come from once disparate but recently intermingled realms: classical ballet and new-school burlesque. The cast features Christina Stockdale of the Nevada Ballet Theatre, Spectrum Dance Theater’s Tory Peil, Julliard graduate Waxie Moon, 2011’s “Queen of Burlesque” Miss Indigo Blue and Atomic Bombshells co-founder Kitten LaRue. Irrespective of background, they’ll share the stage in glamorous integration, dancing to Duke Ellington’s swinging rendition of Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite”—and taking their clothes off to it.

“The level of talent is changing, and I think it’s only going to get more interesting as more diverse talent shows up,” Verlaine says.

No, it’s not your grandma’s Nutcracker. It isn’t your college roommate’s burlesque, either. It’s Christmas the way Lily Verlaine celebrates it, and it’s got a little something for everyone—provided everyone’s over 18 years old.

* * *

Verlaine started in ballet as a toddler, making her stage debut as a skunk with Pamela’s School of Dance in Dearborn, Michigan. After her family moved to Los Angeles, she started acting and appeared in a Cabbage Patch Kids commercial when she was 4. She was always serious about dance, studying at Ballet Chicago and later at the School of the San Francisco Ballet under renowned instructor Larisa Sklyanskaya. But she bristled against ballet’s intense self-criticism, “the aspiration to a certain level of unattainable perfection,” as she describes it. Her body was rebellious, too: Seriously voluptuous, hers was not the lithe, reedy figure of a ballerina.

In 2002, Verlaine moved to Seattle. Casting about for a creative outlet, she learned guitar, she painted, she socialized. Eventually, in 2004, she had her first experience with burlesque.

The Atomic Bombshells were one of Seattle’s first modern burlesque troupes and they played regularly to rowdy audiences at Re-Bar, a dim-and-dirty venue on the edge of downtown. A friend brought Verlaine to a show and instantly Verlaine recognized her calling. Following an enthusiastic conversation with Bombshells founders Kitten LaRue and Fanny N. Flames, she auditioned for the troupe.

Two months later, under the name Lily Vanderloo, she and the Bombshells opened for Dita Von Teese at the Showbox. A few months after that, they were booked for a U.S. tour sponsored by a cigarette company. The mid-’00s was the height of a national neo-burlesque revival, and the Bombshells were at the center of it. When she went solo for the first time in 2006 at the Pink Door, she used the name Lily Verlaine.

Since then, burlesque has weathered boom and backlash to become part of the lexicon of modern dance. More professional dancers venture into burlesque, more critics laud its artistry, and more fans enjoy more types of burlesque performed on more stages than ever before.

“For a long time I was the only ballet dancer who would touch it, you know,” Verlaine says. No more. Last year, Verlaine proposed a collaboration to Olivier Wevers, founder of dance company Whim W’Him and former principal dancer in the Pacific Northwest Ballet.

“I asked, ‘Do you want to work with me?,’” she recalls, “and he accepted in the most gracious, complimentary and lovely manner. Until it actually happened, I didn’t believe it.”

* * *

Verlaine exits the Columbia City Theater through the back door, tosses a battered suitcase into the rear of an old Volvo, climbs into the passenger seat and creaks the door shut. Her friend and collaborator David Godsey behind the wheel, Verlaine is whisked off to another side of her existence.

Olivier Wevers is holding his annual fundraising party for Whim W’Him at a South Beach-style nightclub called Club Sur. Just before midnight, the place is far from full but shows evidence of a major bacchanal: Champagne bottles upturned in silver ice buckets, lipstick-stained wine glasses abandoned half-full on tabletops, blinking plastic rave toys scattered across the floor, a couple dozen stylish socialites of various ages, genders and stages of inebriation dancing, canoodling and carousing.

Verlaine enters wearing a vintage gown and a white-feathered hat, brandishing to everyone and no one the same seductive smile she gave the audience at CCT. She trails Godsey across the dance floor and into Club Sur’s green room. Wevers, untied bowtie dangling around his neck, climbs onto the club’s small stage with a microphone.

“For everyone still here, this might be the best part of the evening,” he announces. “Miss Lily Verlaine!”

She takes the stage already almost entirely undressed. A long string of pearls swings across her bare torso. In a flourish she peels off her long silk gloves, then lies down on a couch and pulls up a white sheet. Godsey, dressed in a suit and spectacles and carrying a briefcase, bumbles onto the stage and regards the woman writhing on the couch. For unclear reasons he lifts the sheet from her feet, gives a long look, then furtively delves beneath. More writhing. At one point Godsey surfaces with a perplexed expression and a pair of panties in his mouth. Again he slips under the sheet. This time there’s a loud POP! and Godsey emerges smiling with a bubbling bottle of Champagne. Verlaine, in content repose, lights a cigarette.

The routine—“My Boudoir”—is far raunchier than the coy stuff Verlaine gave CCT. But the room of graying matrons and patrons and assorted young lions of dance and their hangers-on is nonplussed. Perhaps the peak of the night has passed and sobriety and attention span are long gone.

Wevers, however, is visibly thrilled. He hugs Verlaine on her way back to the dressing room. Later, Verlaine tells me that he requested “My Boudoir.” Of all her routines, it’s his favorite.

“Every single thing that’s happened, whether it’s painful or difficult or I’ve felt like I didn’t fit in, brought me to this moment and I’m extremely happy,” she says. “My life has been charmed.”

Photo by Michael Doucett