A Fiendish Conversation with Lily Verlaine
While the Pacific Northwest Ballet undergoes a Nutcracker overhaul, Land of the Sweets: The Burlesque Nutcracker continues to deliver the artful spectacle that audiences at the Triple Door have come to expect. Now in its 10th year, the show cocreated by Lily Verlaine (artistic director, choreographer, and dancer) and Jasper McCann (technical director, writer, and lyricist) mixes dancers, aerialists, comedy, theatrics, music, and the right dose of sensuality to create a sweet holiday treat.
For our latest Fiendish Conversation, we chatted with Verlaine about bringing ballet to burlesque, the music that sparked the show's creation, and murderous Christmas trees.
What changes are in store of this year’s Land of the Sweets?
Firstly, we’ve completely recostumed the opening statement. We’re working with [local costumer] Stephanie Seymour, and what I love about what Stephanie brings to the table is she has kind of a holistic view of what the costuming is; like the costuming is not just a look, it’s a function to a greater purpose. She’s added a bunch of pieces and it’s given a lot more dimensions to the opening statement. So I feel like the production is going to be very fresh from the outset.
We also have new cast members who are working with us. One of the most charming and unique elements in Land of the Sweets is how we created a through line in the form of three snowflakes. Our Nutcracker opens with a snowstorm, so the costumes I mentioned are these adorable little snow bunnies. Historically, there’ve always been three five-foot-three girls. Well what showed up to my audition was this exquisite five-foot-three and gender queer male named Moscato Extatique. He’s a student at Cornish and and he’s also been an intern for [burlesque dancer] Paris Original. He’s a fantastic physical actor and he has beautiful ballet, so it was just a natural fit. So he has replaced one of the snowflakes who moved to New York City.
Davione Gordon of Spectrum Dance Theater is replacing Waxie Moon as the Rat King. As much as the role was always wonderful and definitely a highlight in the show, Davione’s physicality and sensitivity and elegance have really just brought it to a different level. He just has a lot of depth. He’s been working with Donald Byrd for several years, and I think it’s shaped the way that he comes to rehearsal with a lot of focus and attention in his character. He’s an acrobat so we have backflips for the first time ever.
There’s a lot. It certainly feels at least 50 percent new show, honestly.
What’s led to more and more ballet dancers being part of the production?
Having a classical background, I’ve always wanted to work with ballet dancers. So at the outset we had a lot of burlesque, and I was the only classically trained ballet dancer in the show. But because of the show’s reputation, it’s starting to attract people who were classically trained but also have this more risqué kind of sensibility and want to do something fun and new and different. And so one after another they’ve sort of shown up as people from the original cast have moved on to other projects or retired or left town or whatever.
Was there an original spark that led to the creation of Land of the Sweets?
I was in Minneapolis and heard this music—Duke Ellington's "Sugar Rum Cherry (Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy)"—and I was like oh my god what is this music? The show was begging to be written. I had already found burlesque, I had been involved in ballet since I was three years old, and that music just sparked this idea that was so obvious to me. I’m like, "Oh yeah, ballet meets burlesque. Let's investigate this some more." The first show we did was in 2006, and I think we did two performances. I don’t think we actually anticipated that it would grow into this institution where all the weekend shows are already sold out. It's taken on a life of its own.
With it being the shows 10th anniversary, what moments in the show stick out from over the years?
The fact that the Arabian Coffee Dance that I created in the first year has seen its way through for ten years is very special. It won an award at Burlesque Hall of Fame, which is an international competition, so it’s quite an honor to win it.
Then there’s the professional side. I think it’s cool to have been in a partnership with Jasper for ten years. It’s taken a lot of twists and turns, of course, over a decade. I feel really in awe of that, honestly.
What are you favorite aspects about the Seattle burlesque scene?
One of the things that I love about burlesque in Seattle is it has such a wide swoop; the brush stroke is very wide and people interpret it and make it their own thing. There are people who are interested in geek culture who are burlesque performers. There are people who are interested in queer culture who are burlesque performers. And then there’s me, who’s interested in dance culture who’s a burlesque performer. Ballet is my first love of my life, and when I discovered burlesque and envisioned myself fitting into it, I brought the ballet sensibility with me. And I think that’s a common theme in people who find burlesque: they find a way to express whatever their love and passion is and translate it that way.
Supporting working artists one of my underlying passions; giving employment to people who invested so much time and money and effort and blood and sweat and tears into their education. When I hear about people not getting paid, or people feeling under valued, or people being abused by directors, it’s sort of like I want to collect them and give them this experience. I sort of consider myself dance rehab because my directorial style is often to tell people how wonderful they are and to pay them a fair and reasonable salary. I’m so glad that the support of the Triple Door and Seattle has given me an opportunity to do that, because I’ve heard from a few dancers who are in the larger contemporary dance scene who are working with me that this show kind of changes their year. It supplements their income in such a way that they don’t have to be a barista full time or be working retail to support their dance habit. They can support their dance habit being dancers, and that is so thrilling to me.
Do you have any pre-show routines?
Yes, though some of them I cannot tell. First of all, we have a ballet master in Bruce Wells. Bruce was with New York City Ballet, and he was an instructor at Pacific Northwest Ballet for 20 years. He gives us class every day at 4pm on stage, and it gives us an opportunity to just sort of breathe together, check in together. I mean its very typical of a ballet company right to have class, but it’s not always something we did. It’s really enhanced the performances over the years.
I feel like part of the way that the show can sustain itself is if we do have traditions. It’s such a long and exhausting and crushing run. It’s like 33 shows in 17 days. That’s a lot for anybody, we try to bring our sense of humor and love and festiveness to the backstage environment.
There are certain holiday films we watch backstage. One that I like that doesn’t actually appeal to everybody and it kind of freaks people out is Treevenge. It’s a horror movie where the Christmas tree comes to life and tries to kill everyone. It has some great moments, but it’s also very Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
We sing together backstage, especially when Christmas draws near. We start caroling, essentially. Some people in our cast are Jewish, so we had dress rehearsal and then I cooked latkes for everybody.
We’re also having our picture taken with Santa on Sunday. We’ve talked about doing it for a long time, but this is the first year we’re actually doing it. We’re all going over to Nordstrom, so I’m sure it will cause quite a spectacle.
Land of the Sweets: The Burlesque Nutcracker
Dec 10–27, The Triple Door, $40–$65