"I feel like we are the elders."
So says Lany Stardust, host of the Va Va Vixens: Anniversary of Love show. The truth of this statement stings a bit. I remember the first days of the Vixens, back when it was a ragtag group of exhibitionists performing at the Alley Theater in the old Butchertown location. It doesn't seem like that was fifteen years ago. A lot has changed since then. That's two marriages and three kids for me, a pandemic and three presidents for the country, and, what, 20 or 30 police chiefs for the city?
The Alley is gone, but the Vixens live on. Stardust, who has been with the troupe since the very first “Va Va Valentine,” explains that the Vixens have continued to evolve during that time, and now "put on a full, brilliant variety show, not just burlesque."
And folks, it is not just burlesque.
They let me crash a dress rehearsal for which I arrived late. During the time I was there, I saw pole twirling, people hanging from the ceiling, a piece that started with the dancers in togas and ended with them wearing Christmas lights, Whitesnake karaoke with a face-melting guitar solo, a human pyramid, and a Nutcracker pas de deux. I am told that I missed a lot, including a number involving a leaf blower and multiple incarnations of '90s model Fabio. It would be a mistake to confuse this with the "burlesque" that you can now see in Louisville on any given night. This is chaos, but regimented. Think Benny Hill meets… I don't know, an oversexed Muppet Show? The set changes are tight, the choreography is well-rehearsed, the costumes are decadent, the props are in the right place, and so on. These are the elders.
Of course, if exposed flesh is the draw for you, you're unlikely to be disappointed — no matter what you're into. That's the point, after all. Not just of the Vixens, but of the whole concept of their home base, Art Sanctuary. Lisa Frye, artistic director of the Vixens, explains that before founding Art Sanctuary, "people asked, ‘well, if you could do anything with your life, what would it be?’ And I would start describing this place, but I didn't know what the words were for it yet, but they would ask 'who's it for?' And I would say, everybody. It's for anybody, everybody. Anyone who wants to experience this kind of creative energy - that's who it's for, and it manifests itself in so many different ways." Over the past twenty years, that's what Art Sanctuary has tried to build: true variety.
"It helps so much to have Artists of all different genres of being around because they all influence each other," says Frye. "Musicians can influence the visual artists just as much as the fashion designer or burlesque dancer or any of that. So we are creating a place where all of those types of artists can be in one spot and make magic together."
If you ask the performers, old and new, the venture has been a success. Beatrix B. Naughty, an original Vixen who still performs with the troupe, says " I connect with these people on a really deep level. I get to explore my own creativity with them. We grow together. It's a really tight family. I think it's representative of the creative culture in Louisville, what makes us weird and cool and artistic." The Delightful Miss Coco and Slim Jim Dandee, aerialists who are relatively new to the Vixens and who look like they were sculpted from a slab of lean protein, say their eclectic performance needs are satiated here. "I've never done anything like this in my life," says Dandee. Song, dance, performance, theatre of any sort, and…man, they just form you into —" Coco breaks in: "They put him to work."
But the mission of Art Sanctuary, and the Vixens, goes beyond artistic syncretism. Salem Vytch-Tryells, a bona fide Kentucky superstar who describes herself as "the first trans drag queen on cast," explains: "It's almost unbelievable that I've had so much support. I'm not trying to make anybody cry or anything, but it's just…I can't believe that I am part of something."
That's what Frye sees as her legacy. “When people come into the space, I just want them to feel safe, and to feel embraced by their community. That's always been the main objective, and when they come to me and say, ‘this is the best thing, I feel like this is the most safe I've ever been, this is the most comfortable I’ve ever been with other people’ – that is everything. This is our sanctuary.”
Va Va Valentine: Anniversary of Love runs through 2/17. Doors at 7:00 p.m., show at 8:00. All performances are at Art Sanctuary, 1433 S Shelby St, Louisville, KY 40217.