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Lily Verlaine builds on ballet past for her shows

Lily Verlaine's Burlesque Alice in Wonderland, photo courtesy of company.
Lily Verlaine began her dance training in ballet, but she found her calling in the burgeoning theatrical burlesque scene of the 21st century.

She started in burlesque approximately ten years ago. “I arrived at the right moment,” she said about the explosion of acts around the country in the last decade. “I knew that I needed to do it. Obviously it worked out well for me. Now I’m so busy living it that it’s hard to reflect on it.”

As artistic director and choreographer, her list of credits include “Land Of The Sweets: The Burlesque Nutcracker,” “Through The Looking Glass: The Burlesque Alice In Wonderland,” “Burlesco DiVino: Wine in Rome,” and “L’Histoire de Melody Nelson,” part of the choreographers’ showcase l’Edition Française featuring Verlaine, W’him Whim artistic director Olivier Wevers, and Kitten LaRue. She also has toured the United States and Europe as a member of the Atomic Bombshells.

When people say burlesque, many think of Gypsy Rose Lee and the fan dancers of the Depression era. But today’s burlesque looks to creating stories for its audience as well as showing off the dancer’s moves and empowering the performers, said Verlaine.

“There’s lots of different types of stories about why women were involved in burlesque back in the day,” she said. “They didn’t just get into it because they needed money. Some wanted to travel, others to perform. It’s had a seedy reputation but it came back through the interest of modern women. I think we find a kinship in those wild women.”

Currently, Verlaine is re-mounting one of her popular “Alice” at the Triple Door in downtown Seattle.
“The source material is so rich. As a generative artist, I have so many bookings that I can’t create anything new. But fortunately that the Alice story is interpretable … is that a word? … and, as the show is getting more mature, I find new ways to finesse it and new characters,” she said. “This year I have new people playing lead roles and those new Alices bring new energy.”

When creating her choreography, Verlaine definitely credits her ballet past. “I get the steps from the music, always. Classical dance stays in my body and classical dance is very married to its rhythms,” she said.

Among the music selected for this “Alice” is Duke Ellington’s Far East Suite. A former Alice, Miss Inga Ingénue, is The Queen of Hearts with Holly Pop and Mimi Me playing Alice and mirror Alice. As with roller derby, the dancers adopt specific names and personas for their performances in Seattle’s burlesque scene.

“Every single time that an artist comes to me, and they have all worked their entire lives to become dancers, and that they want to dance for me is an amazing feeling,” said Verlaine.

In return, Verlaine works hard to make sure that her dancers receive suitable payment. “Starving artist mentality is really corrosive to the spirit,” she said. “Sometimes directors, producers, and companies act like artists should feel lucky to be performing. We should be paid.”

To keep her costs low, Verlaine turned her artist’s loft into a dance studio. “Rehearsal space in Seattle is so expensive,” she said. “To rent a studio might be $45 a hour. If I want to fulfill my mission, I have to sacrifice the luxury of having my own apartment and live where I work.”

Eventually, Verlaine would like to take her shows and dancers to where she began her dance career.
“I keep looking at San Francisco,” she said. “I went to San Francisco Ballet School. I remember very clearly the day that I went to school. It was like the earth shook when I put my foot on the step. I want to take that gift and give it back.”