The streetlight is in a theater in Petersburg, and the women are in rehearsals for a burlesque show. One further tease: This surreal scene began as a song in an imaginary radio.
Across the room, a tall redhead in a satin top hat is talking to Samson Trinh, musical director, and Slash Coleman, emcee, about how it all fits together. The redhead is Anna Tulou, and the radio belongs to her. She's tuning in the various elements of her show, brought together for the first time tonight at Sycamore Rouge.
Tulou, 26, is the director of the Nouvelle Burlesque Troupe, and she's preparing to use an 11-piece band, physical comedy and a trio of chairs to reintroduce Virginia to female sensuality.
Her natural element is flirtation, a bright innocent thing coming through in the curl of her lip when she smiles, an expression that might best be described as one side of her mouth being in a little more of a hurry to lift into a grin. When she cheers the dancers onstage, she calls them "Mama," the feminine version of an athlete patting a teammate on the rump.
Back in January, Tulou dreamed of an old radio playing a tune she'd never heard. She awoke and sang it for her husband, who told her she should turn it into a musical.
"No," she replied, thinking of their honeymoon months earlier in New Orleans: "I should do a burlesque show!" Tulou wrote a story about the masks people wear. She wrote two songs. She chose a dozen more. She had a show. Cue dancers.
Like Tia Platte, choreographer for the show the one in the jumpsuit and hidden bikini top. Platte, an instructor at Yoga Source, has put together the dances for herself and four others Rebecca Bernard, Kat Legault, Mattie Eisenberg and Damion Bond based on the songs Tulou chose for her three-act.
"Anna is just amazing for her knack with writing a script," Platte says. Tulou approached Platte with the idea of organizing a troupe just a day after Platte had finished working with Ground Zero Dance Company on "Moment of Flight." In 2004, Platte choreographed her own burlesque show for a troupe she called Goddesque Burlesque, a performance that was more pole-dancing than chair-dancing.
For Nouvelle Burlesque, Platte ties together the sensual, comical and nostalgic. There's the jumpsuited striptease, with a mechanic's wheeled board and perhaps the luckiest steering wheel in history, set to Cake's "The Distance." There's a fan dance, a tap dance, a rope dance, a chair dance. Both Platte and Tulou say the personas the dancers assume onstage are natural extensions of their personalities, teased into the movements of seduction by Platte's choreography.
Tulou built a narrative around masks and glamour, big, bright theatricality that is slowly removed to reveal what she calls a darker side: "What happens when you exist in that land of glamour and then you're forced to take off that mask? Where does that leave you?" In your underwear, apparently which entertains Platte immensely.
"I trip out on the fact that I'm teaching girls to take their clothes off," Platte says. Cue music.
Samson Trinh's theory of arrangement: "The main thing is just adding color to a piece and making it full." Trinh, 23, has the enviable task of arranging the music for the show, taking Cake and pouring it into an 11-piece band, modifying old standards and turning Prince's "When Doves Cry" into a tango.
Tulou "called me and said she needed a madman who could arrange and direct," says Trinh, who used to run the Upper East Side Lounge and wrangle a 17-piece band. In March he released an album of original compositions, bringing in a total of 48 veteran Richmond musicians for the project, but no one sported a red checked bikini top during recording. Trinh took the tune from the dream radio, as sung by Tulou, and arranged it for his 11-piece. And now "Rather Be Alone" exists in the real world.
With Coleman onboard as the Chaplinesque emcee guiding us through this strange pageant of unpredictable femininity and the Paris-by-way-of-Old-Dominion charm of Petersburg's new performing arts venue, Sycamore Rouge, Tulou had a show, and she had to convince sponsors that she wasn't trying to single-handedly wreck the morals of said Old Dominion. Cue flashback.
"Burlesque" was, in the mid-1800s, the birthplace of skit comedy, where all things could be parodied, where society and government were mocked, stripped of the trappings of boring old decency. It was the scandalous underwear beneath the constricting fashion of Victorian society. It celebrated comedy and, increasingly, the female form until the 1920s, when burlesque theaters had to introduce the striptease to keep dwindling audiences coming in.
Those shows dedicated themselves to women peeling off their clothes. The humor, the music, the social commentary withered, and the comedy bits themselves became the second banana. "Burlesque" became "porno," and the comedy evolved into "Saturday Night Live" and "The Daily Show."
Despite or perhaps because of burlesque enjoying a renewed popularity through high-profile names like Dita Von Teese (the new Mrs. Marilyn Manson) and troupes in the United States and Canada, there's still a stigma attached to the name itself that Tulou says makes potential sponsors shy.
Maybe it's understandable. Once they begin performing, the dancers sort of go somewhere else, where motion is designed not to carry a person from place to place, but as invitation, seduction, allure. The frightening suddenness of the transformation recalls the days when men, unnerved by the sensuality of women, blamed the devil.
At one of the earlier practices, Legault, working on her fan dance, leads the eye around the stage with flashing legs, prancing on tiptoes. She has the classic moves of a ballerina, but now her movements are more organic, more suggestive. She writhes along the floor, kicks, throws her hips. At the end of the dance she's sitting facing away from the audience. The devil's work is in the raw redness on her back, from the floor, and the gray dust on the bottom of her feet.
There's no nudity in Nouvelle Burlesque, and the audience probably won't ever see the dirty feet or the joking under the streetlight. But the way these women move themselves, or let themselves be moved, is both an invitation and a challenge.
"If we get tomatoes thrown at us or roses, so be it," Platte says. "We take the stage." S
Nouvelle Burlesque opens at Sycamore Rouge in Petersburg July 15 at 8 p.m. The show runs through October with several performances in Petersburg and Richmond. Tickets are $15 at Plan 9, or $20 at the door. Or visit www.sycamorerouge.org.