Burlesque with wit


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In a chilly warehouse practice space, nine young women often gather to transform into something their everyday images hide — burlesque performers.

The six who attend this night’s dress rehearsal cue up the opening number. From the first note, trench coats and glasses are thrown aside, to reveal scantily clad bodies performing seductive choreography.

Les Dames du Burlesque is a new troupe of dancers that brings the centuries-old entertainment into the limelight in Iowa City. The group will perform with Cirque Stupendo and Dr. Eli Calico’s Miracle Water Orchestra as part of the Mission Creek Festival at the Englert Theatre, 221 E. Washington St., at 9 p.m. today. Admission is $10, with limited seating.

Andre Perry, a cofounder and the president of the festival, said he loves to get new groups involved every year. Because burlesque is almost never seen in Iowa City, he saw Mission Creek as a chance to highlight it.

“It’s not another rock band,” Perry said, “Also, it’s a good opportunity to do something different at the Englert. Having the seating on the stage will make it a super intimate setting.”

One of the most recent additions to Les Dames’ performance is a history of the art form. Mixing fact with humor, the performers act out comical scenes to songs of particular time periods, from burlesque’s beginnings through its evolution into the 20th century. Also included is a circus act, which features none other than a cat shaved to resemble a lion in a lion-taming number.

Nelle Dunlap (Tough Köokie) began to form Les Dames several months ago. Inspired by a Des Moines burlesque act St. Vitus and the Taxi Dancers, the former Daily Iowan graphic artist sent out a mass Facebook message in search of interested persons.

“I kept pressuring people, especially those who were naturally interested and who I thought would be really good,” Dunlap said. “We all agreed we wanted to be sexy and fun but also have a little substance to it … be funny and clever.”

The move paid off, and the troupe now consists of Dunlap, Rachel Yoder (Bunny Von Black), Samantha Simpson (Trixie Deville), Nicole Vespa (Stella T’Artois), Elle Martin (Penny Freckle), Mackenzie Calkins (Ms. Jezebel), Molly Noesen (Sweet Cheeks), Betsy Ray (Sugah Pie), and Analia Alegre-Femenias (The Lovely Lia).

Though they have only been performing together for a short while, the chemistry among the women is evident in their offstage banter and the strong sense of teamwork displayed in rehearsal. Clothing, set lists, and set design are all provided by the performers.

“We have a budget now, I guess,” Dunlap said humorously. “We made money at our last show, and we’ve been putting that toward our act.”

Through twice-weekly rehearsals and all of the effort put into this fresh production, what they seem to appreciate most is that people are coming out in large numbers to support them. Rehearsing bit by bit, it is thrilling for the troupe to have everything come together on stage.

“Seeing your friends interested in that kind of thing is awesome, because it’s not something anyone sees very often,” Simpson said.

Like any performers, Les Dames may encounter hiccups, but the members seem to do so in such a way that the average person won’t notice. Knowing that anything can happen on stage, the women say they are positive they can “shimmy” their way out of any predicament that may come their way.

“We work really hard, but there’s a lot more flexibility and freedom as long as there’s some shimmy in it,” Dunlap said.

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