Behind the scenes with the Va Va Vixens: How Kentucky’s largest burlesque troupe creates beautiful fiction

When the lights come up at Headliners on Friday night, The Va Va Vixens will take the stage for “Va Va adVenture: Explore Your Wild Side,” the last show of their seventh season.

By the time you see them onstage, the ladies and lads and lasses will be perfectly coiffed, oozing fun and sexiness, wearing an array of costumes, swinging through the air, and stripping off some of those costumes. It’ll be glorious.

But what does it take to get to that moment, when the lights go up, the bass line drops and the titillation begins? What if what happens backstage, out of sight, is just as exciting as what happens in the public eye?

LEO went on a little adventure of our own to find out.

So let’s get this out of the way: Yes, there are people running around in their underwear. There are people examining underwear. It’s fancy bra city. “Oh, that’s gorgeous,” said the Vixens’ leader, Lisa Frye, looking at one green be-sequined support garment.

So there are people in states of undress, but these ladies aren’t trying to titillate at the moment, they are women on a mission. Getting ready to rehearse.

So while it’s tempting to paint a lurid picture, I’ll treat the Vixens’ performance preparation with the same focus and determination that the ladies do.

You wanna leer? Buy a ticket, but first let’s take a backstage tour.

The Rehearsal Space

On Shelby Street in Germantown is one of those industrial buildings you find all along the rail corridor, the ones whose proximity to the tracks was key back when these buildings were all factories.

Now the buildings are all flipping to things like high-end condos, but one of the former factories is home to Art Sanctuary. It’s an artists space where a variety of creative folks have studios, and that’s where theThe Va Va Vixens make their home. Down on the first floor is a wide open room. It’s been used as a theater, an event space and a place for art shows. Currently, one end is cleared out to make room for Vixens rehearsal.

“We started choreographing this four months ago,” Frye said in a recent interview. Frye is the leader of the Vixens. According to her bio on the Vixens’ website she’s the manager and producer, as well as the president of Art Sanctuary. But the link to her bio on that website’s front page says it better: Da Boss. “We’ve had rehearsals every Sunday,” said Frye. Full disclosure: I rent space in the building to do my writing, and during those rehearsals, bass thumps throughout the building, as the performers gather together to learn steps, and drill choreography for the big numbers. But those hours on Sundays aren’t the only times the ladies and gentlemen are rehearsing. “They have their own meetings two and three times a week,” said Frye.

In the rehearsal space, you can see aerial apparatus hanging from the ceiling: a rope, a steel cube, a ladder. Only two can hang at a time, tied to the steel support beams with industrial-strength rope, held in place by sturdy carabiners. The odd-apparatus-out sits in the corner, waiting its turn.

Upstairs, among the studio spaces, is Frye’s office, which doubles as the storage space for previously used costumes. It’s a decent-sized room, but it feels cramped, because it’s filled to the brim with an array of costumes, each more ridiculous than the previous. Is that a lizard suit next to the giant banana peel? And there are more shoes than you can shake a stick at. Speaking of sticks, there’s a random bundle of stick-horse unicorns. Around the rest of Art Sanctuary you’ll occasionally run into one of the larger props. There’s a cake big enough for a woman to hide in, and a giant nest for what was no doubt a bird of rare plumage.

 Lisa Frye and Paul Receveur at Va Va Vixens rehearsal (photo by Joe Mays)
Lisa Frye and Paul Receveur at Va Va Vixens rehearsal (photo by Joe Mays)

The Vixens have been performing for five years at Headliners Music Hall, and Frye said it has been a great partnership. But she isn’t quiet about hoping to one day run shows out of the Art Sanctuary space. There’s certainly enough room, but the space needs some improvements, and there are some looming zoning issues. In the meantime, all the equipment and apparatus from the rehearsal space have to be loaded out.

Va Va adVenture is a slightly smaller show, compared to the recent “Va Va Vunderland,” so there is less that needs to come out of Art Sanctuary and get carried to Headliners, but last Sunday, the day to transport all the stuff, the temperature was already at 90 degrees by noon. And steel cubes are heavy. Paul Receveur did the heavy lifting for this show, loading all the stuff up in to his blue Ford F-150 XTL.

He’s sweating through his shirt by the time he gets to Headliners, and the rest of the team is just arriving.

Tech Rehearsal

“I think the worst day is tech day. This is it — figuring it all out, trying to make it work,” said stage manager Stephanie Barker. Barker has served the Vixens in several capacities. She’s performed, been a bunny and run tech. She says a lot of people change up roles from time to time. If you don’t know, “tech” is short for technical.

If you’ve ever done any performing, then that single day of tech probably sounds insane. For many performing groups, there is a full tech week. It includes adding all the stuff that isn’t the performers. Sets, costumes, lights and sounds. Headliners’ busy schedule doesn’t allow for a normal tech schedule. That means everything has to come in to the space, get rehearsed and then get moved out again over the course of one day. During that one day the Vixens will space the show (adjust their dances to fit the stage), practice quick changes, meticulously measure the heights of the flying equipment, set microphone levels and do all the other little tasks it takes to add light, sound and fog. Oh, and they do two complete run throughs of the physically-grueling show.

Recevour and the rest of the first wave of tech support and performers have most of the stuff from Art Sanctuary unloaded by the time I make it to Headliners. It’s blinding outside, and it takes a minute for my eyes to adjust when I step into the gloom.

Inside Headliners the atmosphere is jubilant. There’s focus, and serious conversations to be sure, but performers are excitedly greeting one another, loading in costumes, or even doing last minute sewing.

For now, all the tights, g-strings, animal outfits and sequined bras are strewn about all over the area that will be filled with audience members come showtime. Performers are organizing props and costumes into big plastic bins. Once they condense it all down, it will have to fit into two tiny backstage rooms, each about a 100 square feet. During the show the costumes will have to fit in those rooms, and so will the 30 or so performers, allowing the paying customers will only see what is onstage.

It’s just another example of the truth behind the beautiful fiction that audiences will see opening night.

The room slowly fills as more performers arrive. The work has started in earnest, but it’ll be another hour and a half before the first actual run through starts.

photo by Joe Mays
photo by Joe Mays

Hanging in the Balance

“When I knee-hang from the bottom, I need to be able to reach the ground with my hands … so … five feet?” That’s Deanna Gillispie, an aerialist, dancer and stripteaser. She’s at the front of the stage, setting the height levels for the Lyra, or hoop, that she’s going to use in her humming bird act.

Her tone can be pretty firm, like when she discusses a special carabiner she’s using for the first time. “I wanna lock it, and I don’t want anyone else to touch it.” It would almost seem pushy, but later on, when you see that knee-hang, it’s obvious that three more inches of drop, or if that carabiner was out of place, the dynamic forces of her movements which create enormous torque would slam her face directly into floor. I’m too superstitious to actually type the physical damage that could do, but let’s assume it would be real bad.

So, firm seems reasonable.

Each of the apparatus has to go through the same careful hanging and measuring, because each one is going to get hooked up, lifted up, lowered and removed throughout the course of “Va Va adVenture.” All this action is due to the fact that, structurally, there is only one point on one beam strong enough from which to hang the apparatus.

After Gillispie gets her hoop squared away, Christen E. Malone is checking out that steel cube, as it gets its levels set. She’ll be debuting a cube duo this show, working with Victoria Baumgarten, one of the original members of the Vixens.

“Can I climb on it?” Malone asks about the hole in the ceiling through which the ropes hang. Up through that hole is stage manager Barker, and another helper or two, who Da Boss sweetly refers to as “attic monkeys.”

Malone gets an an affirmative from the attic monkey, and reaches out two hands to grab the apparatus. In a quick series of flips and turns she ascends the device, balancing her hips on the steel bar at the highest point.

In case you were wondering, yes, it hurts. The metal bites into your skin, when your entire body weight is balanced on the front of your hip bones.

But Malone doesn’t seem to mind. She hits the top, and finds her balance, floating above us all for a second, in a fleeting preview of the feats to come. It’s the first moment of the day that seems completely separate from reality, but it’s not the last.

She hangs there, looking, waiting for something, evaluating in some way … and then it’s done. “Yeah, it’s okay,” she says, reality returns and she lets gravity reassert as she reverses the series of flips and returns to the stage. Then she’s off to get costumes set for the run.

Just Wear Any Bra

Costumes are getting tried on, and, as noted, there just isn’t that much room in the changing room. And the bathrooms … well, it’s a bathroom at a music venue. Do you want go in there barefoot?

I couldn’t help but laugh when one performer admitted that her special top wasn’t ready yet, and she needed an extra day to prepare. “Just wear any bra,” came the response from Frye.

While all the costumes are getting tried on, and the aerial equipment is getting secured, the light and sound guys, both of whom work for Headliners, are getting things ready on their end.

The first time the music booms through those big sweet speakers, it’s playing “Albatroaz” by by DJ/Swedish football star AronChupa. It starts with tinkly piano, but then there’s a record scratch and the bass drops, all fat and jangly. And it’s like, with that bass line, all of a sudden everybody stands a little straighter, their movements fall into the rhythm — everybody, no matter what task they are engaged in, is dancing.

The music moves them and they are unconsciously exuding whatever it is that makes them fun to watch when they are performing. It’s like that stupid montage in every movie ever made about performing, but for a second it’s real. Then, once again, reality returns — the performers turn it off again.

They’re saving it for the stage.

Are We Ready Children

Throughout it all Frye is hovering like a mother lion. She’s alert and relaxed, making decisions when needed, but, for the most part, she’s letting everybody do what needs to be done. A true leader knows how to delegate, and then gets out of the way.

But once the sound, the lights, the costumes, the props and the apparatus are ready, Frye calls out, “Are we ready children?”

Shouts of affirmation ring out from all over Headliners, and in the space of two minutes tops, the run through begins.

“Va Va adVenture” has a loose jungle theme, with some familiar central storytellers. “These are two characters that we had in our ‘Sailing the Seven Seas of Love’ show, Carol and Barb. At the end of the cruise ship show, they proposed to one another, so they are married and they are recounting the memories of the past,” said Frye. Those memories are all wrapped up in a big sea trunk, which Barb (Linsey Guessner) is opening up for the first bit of business. It hilariously fails to open. Lee Ann Cooper — the frequent MC for Vixens shows — is Carol, and she’s trying to ad lib and sweet talk long enough to get the trunk open, but after an agonized minute, they give up, and call for help, halting the run through. Almost as soon as the action has started it has to stop.

“Well, I’m glad we found out now,” quips Cooper. And, hey, that’s what rehearsal’s for.

The problems with the trunk are sorted out, and the run continues.

It’s a minor bobble, the first of many, as Frye and the Vixens iron out all the last little details of the performance.

But for the most part, the show is already there. There’s the heart stopping drops on those painstakingly hung aerial equipment. There’s the wink and sass of the hip hop, twerk and jazz dance numbers. There  are dirty jokes, and, of course, the strip tease, as carefully chosen and constructed costumed are removed one piece at a time, in the signature burlesque numbers.

All those undies that were strewn around are now employed for the purpose of catching your attention, and the Vixens want your eyes glued to them.

Now you can look.

‘Va Va AdVenture: Explore Your Wild Side’
Headliners Music Hall
1386 Lexington Road, 584-8088
$20-$35; July 29-30, Aug. 5-6