For 10 years, the members of VivaVoom Brr-Lesque have sashayed their way across Anchorage stages, performing more than 150 shows to packed audiences across the city.
While many artistic organizations in Anchorage struggle to fill seats and then fade away, VivaVoom emcee and co-owner Kamala Stiner said VivaVoom has had less than a handful of performances that haven't been entirely sold out, and many regulars that come back again and again.
VivaVoom often leads workshops, but beyond "boa and glove removal," the troupe offers a lesson in how powerful the combination of good-natured naughtiness and a positive attitude can be. And glitter.
"Everything gets blinged," Stiner said.
You gotta have a gimmick
VivaVoom specializes in variety shows where striptease is the main attraction, but with comedians, musical numbers and other acts in the mix as well.
"We want people to have an entire experience, to have a great time, laugh, have a couple drinks and forget the world," said Stiner, who performs under the stage name Lola Pistola.
Stiner is a tall, buxom woman, with jet-black hair, a husky voice and a warm demeanor. VivaVoom began, she said, at a small New Year's party over a bottle of absinthe. At some point in the evening, someone posed the question: "If you could do anything you wanted and money was no object, what would you do?"
"I'd start a burlesque troupe," a friend said.
"Well, let's do it," Stiner said.
She set out to learn more, but resources were scarce. In 2003, Internet searches and trips to the library didn't turn up much information, and Stiner and the performers she assembled were left to come up with their own version, based mostly on photographs and video from the '40s and '50s.
Their first shows lasted about two hours -- "far too long" -- and the costuming was minimal. "They weren't really costumes, they were lingerie. With maybe some fringe or metallic rickrack," she said.
But from the beginning, their concept was strong.
"I knew we wanted striptease but with the vaudeville feel," she said. "I wanted lots of bits. Lots of morsels that people could have."
Themes have encompassed everything from the end of the Mayan calendar to fairy tales and the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. In addition to the shows, they offer workshops, bring up guest performers and host events such as the occasional city-wide "Burlesque Idol." One show from their first year used costumes made entirely from paper.
In general, it's striptease that's "poking fun at things, making people think about things."
In striptease, there's always a story, Stiner said. Though "Sometimes that story is: 'Once there was a girl, and she took her clothes off.'"
Stiner and her friends didn't realize it in the beginning, but around the same time they were getting started, a burlesque revival was taking hold across the United States, especially in major metropolitan areas like New York and Los Angeles.
Eventually, VivaVoom became connected to the larger neo-burlesque community, and as they continued to perform, their shows evolved. Since starting out at the Starlight Room at Bernie's Bungalow Lounge, VivaVoom has featured belly dancers, comedians, unicyclists, aerialists, jugglers, trapeze artists and firedancers. They moved to larger venues -- first the Snow Goose theater, then Chilkoot Charlie's, where they've been performing for several years.
The troupe has a stage manager now, and the costumes have become more elaborate -- there are gowns, wigs and complex underpinnings, all encrusted with crystals and ornaments. Almost everything is made by the performers themselves.
VivaVoom has gone through many cast changes but always has a lengthy waiting list of women hoping to join. These are grouped into the "Glitter Bomb Brigade," a kind of burlesque training regime, and hopeful performers must put in at least a year hostessing -- helping guests, selling pasties and "booby prizes" and otherwise assisting with the show. From there, one might graduate to becoming a sign girl, dancing between acts, and then a cast member.
"There are a lot of us with military backgrounds in VivaVoom, so we kind of have an understanding of that structure. There's a hierarchy," Stiner said.
It's a vetting process, Stiner acknowledged, and also a way to make sure the newbies are prepared for the time and work involved -- between creating their own choreography, four-hour rehearsals, workshops, special events and sewing costumes, it's a time-consuming and expensive side gig. While everyone gets paid, it's not a lot. "And, you know, Swarovskis are expensive," she said.
"You do it because you love it, or you don't do it at all."
VivaVoom may have been the first known burlesque troupe in Anchorage, but it is no longer the only one. In the last few years, Stiner said, she's counted eight other groups doing occasional burlesque performances from Anchorage and the Valley. That's a good thing. "We can't fit every single Anchorage lady who wants to dance in our troupe."
The 3 C's
On a recent Sunday afternoon, the VivaVoom women ran through their tech rehearsal for the 10th season opener, "The Classics." As Stiner discussed tweaks to the lighting, Danger Maus, a tall brunette with a pixie haircut, glasses and the long, toned legs of a runner, waited for her entrance.
Wearing a 9-foot-long boa with tiers of shiny organza ruffles, black satin gloves and high heels, she slinked onto the stage. As she began an old-school striptease, the sound of Dr. Dre's "Nuthin' but a 'G' Thang" thumped over the sound system. Cast members and stage technicians hooted and hollered encouragement and approval, and she performed a bump-and-grind routine that culminated with her coyly removing her heavily embellished, nude-colored bra from behind the boa and dropping it onto the floor with an almost audible thud.
Danger Maus is one of the original cast members and is co-owner and co-producer of the troupe. A nurse and former track-and-field athlete, she keeps coming back to burlesque for "the love of the stage, the high of it." It's like the thrill she got from competing in track meets, she said.
When Maus first started, the idea of taking off her clothes in public was scary. At first she'd go down to "granny panties and a huge bra"; then she moved on to big pasties. Now she's one of the most accomplished tassel twirlers in town.
"Sometimes girls come up to me and say, 'I love what you do, you're so confident,'" she said after her rehearsal. "But normally I'm not. Until you put a wig on me and take my clothes off, I guess."
It's feedback that Stiner said she gets a lot as well. The women of VivaVoom Brr-lesque don't have the airbrushed uniformity of magazine models. They may be curvy or thin, tall or short; they may have cellulite and bellies. What started with the troupe's philosophy that "Every body is beautiful" has had the unanticipated affect of making Stiner a kind of spokesperson for body acceptance. She's often approached by women after the show, she said, who tell her that they've been inspired to be more confident undressing for their spouses or partners because of the show.
Stiner was recently invited to give a talk at Anchorage's Loussac Public Library about body confidence. What she delivered, she said, was the first lesson of burlesque performance, "the three C's": carriage, countenance and confidence. ("Basically, faking it till you make it," she noted.) About a hundred people showed up, and Stiner's had more than a dozen requests to do the talk elsewhere in town.
The experience "made me realize how necessary it is and how no one is doing that ... We're in a world where people aren't really in touch with themselves in a positive way. We allow ourselves to be negative about ourselves because that's the norm."
VivaVoom has developed a code of conduct that doesn't allow for negative comments, even casual self-deprecation, from company members. It's a policy that Stiner says has been key to their longevity and success.
"We support one another and love another; that's the only way we've survived 10 years. That, and the support of our patrons."
VivaVoom's 10th season opener will feature guest star Bettina May, who will also host a workshop on pin-up styling. For more information, visit vivavoomburlesque.com.
VivaVoom Brr-Lesque, the list
With Kamala Stiner, aka Lola Pistola
VivaVoom Brr-Lesque Presents: The Classics
with guest star Bettina May
When: Doors at 8 p.m., show at 9 p.m. Friday-Saturday, Oct. 3-4
Where: Chilkoot Charlie's
Tickets: $25 at theclassics.brownpapertickets.com
Alaska Dispatch Publishing