I am not a big fan of burlesque and rarely enjoy butoh – so many sad characters and powdered angst. But Kata Pierce’s press release caught my attention: Golden Corpse Butoh Ensemble presents “La Femme Tragique: The Story of Memorie” at Les Girls Theater.
Les Girls is an all-nude strip club off Rosecrans. It’s hard to miss the giant sign. Goofy cabaret laws allow patrons over age 18 to watch naked women and sip soft drinks. There is no alcohol. A sign above the entrance warns of nudity inside, but I doubt many visitors run away after reading it.
The theater will not win any awards for décor. The style is dark and dingy. String lights run along a small stage. A little bed carved into the back wall looks a bit like a crypt. Yes, there is a pole.
Seats are strangely reminiscent of church pews, but wrapped in carpeting. There are narrow booths in the back where one can have privacy, which brings new meaning to the expression “We’d like a booth.”
The ensemble is a collection of well-known modern dance artists including Minaqua McPherson, John Diaz, and Anne Gehman, and butoh artist Charlene Penner, who often performs with Eveoke Dance Theater. Pierce invited them and others to collaborate and train with her and butoh artist Diego Piñón.
“La Femme” is inspired by a poem by Pierce (that is autobiographical), which tells the story of a young Catholic girl who becomes a stripper. The cast expanded characters and the result was a structured improvisation that scrolled across the stage like an old film. Think Rocky Horror Picture Show, without the singing and in slow-motion.
The program did not romanticize or condemn the odd occupation of strip teasing or exotic dancing. While one dancer was fully nude, and another waved a – let’s call it a long sex toy that starts with a “d” and ends with “o,” the program was never overly erotic.
Honestly, the experience was just weird and awkward. Watching a nude fair-skinned woman who was clearly portraying a pre-pubescent, innocent child was unsettling and sad. She was a weightless, helpless object, and somebody’s daughter.
“La Femme” is not going to impress those who see nudity as demeaning. And the slow, intense butoh style is an acquired taste. It does not convey a sense of humor. Amidst copious program notes, there’s mention that the cast performed a run-through for a convalescent home; I’m guessing the costuming was more substantial!
I found myself drifting and comparing. I’ve attended three strip clubs in my life –make that four now – all in the company of several friends and relatives. That’s not a big survey, and perhaps cheap drinks were to blame, but I recall that things were relaxed and upbeat, a few yuks and laughs. In contrast, “La Femme” by design was overly slow and serious, hardly the lively cabaret show you might expect.
I don’t remember the show at the club in LA, it was in the 80s when Spandex was hot, but was intrigued by the “whatever” attitude of our topless cocktail waitress. “Does she have another passion? What will she do when she hits 40 or 50?” I wondered.
A club in Tijuana had a Vaudeville theme. When the pudgy comedian introduced a nude ballet, my brother almost tipped over in his chair. A man spun a woman over his head. She went into a trance, locked her arms stiff, and whirled like a helicopter blade.
At the Club Saratoga in Duluth, Minnesota, a woman performed a magic trick dance. Without delving into details, she swallowed a glove and magically retrieved it. (They have jazz there on Sunday afternoons too).
And so it was on a recent Friday night that a group of us headed to Les Girls Theater, a windowless barn that co-owner Pierce touts as a San Diego Landmark. That’s up for debate, but Pierce is on to something with “La Femme” in that it takes viewers to unfamiliar territory and challenges our notion of art and beauty – and confronts ageism.
The most compelling image was Penner riding on the train of Pierce’s tattered gown, a wide-eyed ghost of Pierce’s former, younger self.
I am not ruining the program by saying that Pierce had people wincing but also marveling at her fortitude in the second half.
She carefully stepped out of her gown to expose a mature, 64-year-old woman’s body. With eyes twinkling, she stood proudly.
Men and women in the audience wanted to cheer. Still, the experience stirred up feelings of inadequacy and body image.
The drama really heated up with the entrance of Diaz as the Aztec Bird God who shared divine wisdom with the mortals. Adorned with warrior paint on his face and red stained knees, he was riveting in poses and slow extensions.
In the role of Night Terror, Gehman, with heavy black eyeliner running, exuded madness in the realm of Alice Cooper crossed with a dead French maid. As Angela, McPherson embodied the perfect female form in a sheer lace sheath.
Costumes designed by Gehman were subtle and effective in defining characters. The lighting design by McPherson cast shadows on smooth skin and illuminated expressive faces. Music was engaging and tapped into cabaret days long gone, such as Natalie Wood singing “Let Me Entertain You,” and Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose.”
“La Femme Tragique” had an early start. That’s because the real show started afterward. Our tickets let us stay for that. We sipped some non-alcoholic wine and agreed to stay until one of us said “uncle.”
A thin woman with boyish hips did an uninspired bump and grind. She didn’t seem to notice the audience, even when a woman tossed dollar bills onto the stage.
We lasted a few minutes and sneaked out in the darkness.
Program cover: KD Rose Productions & Golden Corpse Butoh Ensemble Presents: La Femme Tragique: The Story of Memorie. “a unique mix of Cabaret-Butoh-inspired energy, Modern dance & Metaphor. July 13-15, 2012. Les Girls Theater, a San Diego Landmark.
Cast: in order of appearance:
Angela: Minaqua McPherson
Memorie: Kata Pierce-Morgan
Memorie: Charlene Penner
Tragic Angela: Dawn ter Veen
Feathered Angela: Lizzy Moore
Society Lady: Mary Gyselbrecht
Night Terror: Anne Gehman
The Seeker: Sarah Jaffe
Aztecan Bird God: John Diaz