“The Soiled Dove” Flies from Barbary Coast to Big Top, in Alameda
Vau de Vire Burlesque Adds Circus to Dinner Theater
by Irene Nelson
Lightly clad in bright turquoise, including the feathers in her hair, eka.boo.button (aka Eka Malboeuf) carries a whiskey jug from which she has clearly imbibed too much. Rejecting the warnings of friends, she jumps on a rope which rises high into the air. She begins her acrobatics, lurching gracefully and nearly falling, repeatedly. I love a good fake-drunk aerialist act, so I adore Eka.
At “The Soiled Dove,” fakery, send-up, and camp provide the soul of burlesque. But glamour, freedom and sex— that’s the heart. The Vau de Vire Society delivers full-on burlesque, with circus acts and a good dinner—under the Tortona Big Top at The Point in Alameda. And, of course, a bar.
The conceit: We are at a San Francisco Barbary Coast brothel and saloon. We meet Lotta Crabtree, Emperor Norton, Joaquin Murrieta, Shanghai Kelly, and a Sidney Duck. Their costumes are distinctive and fun. Aerialists, contortionists, and pole dancers wear a lot less of course, but not that different then you might find on a rare warm day in The City. Some women are men in drag. It leans Neo-Burlesque.
“The Soiled Dove” options include dinner and show or just the show. For dinner, courses are served by costumed characters with the most wonderful make-up, who soon morph into talented circus artists or dancers. Vau de Vire takes full advantage of San Francisco’s circus and dance worlds. Talented dancers, aerialists (Cassandra Cornell led off and was spectacular), a hand balancer, contortionists, a giant-ring artist, singers, a violinist, strippers, and a singing pole dancer put it all out there.
Emcees Vegas Trip, Emma Watson and Jasper Patterson keep the acts moving and introduce the historical characters. The excellent Jazz Mafia composes and plays their own music, including hip hop Barbary Coast style by Dublin Dave, with help from the Cosa Nostra Musicians. Violinists Shaina Evoniuk and Keith Lawrence in particular keep it lively.
Food is catered by Work of Art. The appetizer servings are extraordinarily generous, we were continuously offered smoked salmon and curry chicken canapes—and this being the Bay Area—a vegan confit—before the dinner courses. Drinks by Monarch Beverages are reasonably priced and crafted for the event.
Let’s tackle the awkward question straight on. Neo-Burlesque started in New York in the mid-90s. Theoretically, Neo-Burlesque preserves the glamour and sexiness, but approaches the body from a more “feminist” perspective—including body diversity, gender crossing and politics. In support of this view, there are burlesque venues with a big female clientele, and certainly we now have boy-lesque and steam punk burlesque.
Some very bright women still argue that flaunting the female body publicly for males always exploits, always objectifies. I am not smart enough to resolve the debate. I was once on the Board of a National Organization for Women chapter, but I have always loved burlesque, even before it Neo’d up. I was uncomfortable with the sexism, but that was in every part of life then anyway. And I loved the freedom that comes with burlesque.
I like circus acts too, just not the ones with lions and bears. I suppose it comes down to whether the lightly clad woman performing is smiling because she loves her body or because smiling is part of the deal. While women often fail to smile at strip clubs, almost everyone smiles in burlesque.
“The Soiled Dove” encourages you to dress up for 1880s Barbary Coast, or another time, or not at all. It’s all about having fun and participating, not following rules.
Vau de Vire comes here annually, but this is their first show out of San Francisco. They lost their venue in the Inner Mission. Well, they have lots of company on being evicted from the Mission to accommodate luxury housing. They are now in a giant Italian circus tent in Alameda. If you go on a cold night, bring a wrap, and enjoy free and easy parking.
I offer two suggestions to Vau de Vire. First, Emperor Norton’s correct title is “Norton I, Emperor of the United Stated and Protector of Mexico.” Two, we saw lots of briefly clad women, and we saw drag. I do not recall any briefly clad men. Even Las Vegas has added male chorus lines. But don’t take me wrong. I give them deep heartfelt thanks for keeping burlesque and circus acts alive and kicking. It’s the real deal. Don’t miss the opportunity.
“The Soiled Dove” provides a happy way to enjoy the history of San Francisco’s most flamboyant people. Rummage your closet to put together a costume and join the fun.
“The Soiled Dove” directed by Mike Gaines, by Vau de Vire Society, at Tortona Big Top, Ferry Point, Alameda, California, through Saturday, July 1, 2017. Info: thesoileddove.com