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By day, they take your order in restaurants. They do your occupational therapy. They design graphics for your websites, and teach your children to play the piano. And on the second Tuesday of every month the performers of Guilt & Co.’s Pandora and the Locksmiths effectively bare it all – combining vintage striptease, go-go, singing, comedy, and live music with a classic aesthetic to create one of the most raw, energetic, and refreshing evenings of burlesque in Vancouver.
“I think the thing is, we all needed an outlet for the training that we had,” says Nicky Ninedoors, one of the show’s co-founders. “We needed a big, sparkly, ridiculous outlet, and we came to burlesque for that.”
Since their premiere in September 2010, the Pandora collective, which also includes performers Miss Fitt, Carole Brunette, Delilah Dare, bassist John Bews, pianist Sean Bayntun, drummer Trevor Grant, and trumpet player Alison Gorman, has been a hit with local audiences and has brought new life to a night when bar and restaurant business in Gastown is typically slow.
“That first night, we had to turn away sixty people,” recalls founding member Carole Brunette, “and I think they [Guilt] were immediately impressed because we were increasing their sales by something like 300%. And we were filling up the place on a night when the rest of Gastown was quiet and asleep.”
The shows, which run about two hours, revolve around a loose theme, and are organized and programmed entirely by the eight members of the collective — each of whom brings more than ten years of experience and training to the stage. As they explain, the placement of each number is given a great deal of consideration.
“One of the things that Burgundy [Brixx, co-founder of Kitty Nights, and grand dame of the local burlesque scene] teaches, and that she teaches so well, is this idea of tension and release,” Nicky Ninedoors explains. “That’s really important, not just in a number but over the course of an entire show. If we look at what numbers we’re doing in a set, they’ll need to go in a certain order to build that tension. It’s singing, dancing, and then, finally, burlesque,” she says with a wink. “It’s that idea of tension and release. Each show has multiple burlesque numbers. And who doesn’t like multiples, really?”
Every number is backed by four musicians and a singer, making Pandora one of the only regular burlesque evenings in Vancouver to employ a live band. The arrangements for each number are worked out by the musicians and tailored to the needs of the performers.
“That’s the best thing about live performance,” Miss Fitt explains. “You can’t count on it always being the same. And that what’s great about having a band: it gives you that flexibility to work with the musicians and the singers, and sometimes things come out of that that weren’t originally intended.”
“Absolutely,” Ninedoors agrees. “For instance, the trumpet player isn’t always going to play the same solo, and that change might affect, say, how you take a glove off. It adds this level of improvisation to every single one of our numbers.”
“I think that the truth is, we all [improvise],” Brunette agrees. “I think I can quote Burgundy Brixx in saying that it’s important to leave room for improvisation in everything. And with our art form it’s most important to have a structure mainly about when things are going to come off, because you need to keep in time with the music. But, in between those moments, there’s a lot of room for play and it’s important to keep that, otherwise things can become a little too flat.”
At the time they founded Pandora and the Locksmiths, all four of the principal performers were already familiar faces in the local burlesque community, having been involved with a number of the troupes already in town. Vancouver’s burlesque scene is one of the liveliest in the country, and for Vancouverites interested in the art form’s revival there are dozens of options to choose from: the frenetic hilarity of Screaming Chicken Theatrical Society, the punk-glam of Sweet Soul Burlesque, and the mainstream appeal of Kitty Nights. Since the launch of Pandora and the Locksmiths, the community has put their full support behind the enterprise.
“I think, in general, it’s a very supportive community that we’re in,” Ninedoors says. “I mean, there are big burlesque competitions and conventions that happen. Last year, I went to the Burlesque Hall of Fame weekend in Vegas, and the vibe that you get when you see another burlesque performer in the hall or the elevator is very much ‘Hi! How’s it going?’ You’re like sisters. It’s like: ‘Hey! You find glitter in your bathtub, too!’”
“Overall, since Burlesque became a part of my life, it’s been the most empowering and supportive community I’ve ever been a part of,” Brunette adds. “It shows us that we do not have to be cookie-cutter. We do not have to be any one thing, to be ‘burlesque’. It’s about any woman, in any size or shape, being empowered and loving herself, and being creative, and being allowed to express that.”
“I think the best thing about burlesque, in my experience, is that it caused me to view myself differently, in such a positive way,” Miss Fitt recalls. “I was on a cheerleading team when I was in my early twenties, [...] and it was the most unhealthy environment I’ve ever been in, because I learned in that world that I had to look a certain way to be of value. But burlesque completely- it was this light that came on, the first time I saw it. I saw these women — and they’re all beautiful women, but they all have a different style and a different look — and I was so inspired. The more I did the whole burlesque thing, the more I realized that these are real women doing this. It was just such an important lesson for me. It broke through all these barriers.”
“I struggled deeply, deeply with self-esteem, and with body image issues when I was younger,” Brunette adds. “I’ve grown and learned to appreciate my body, but I still struggle here and there. Every one of us will deal with it, probably to some extent, forever. I dealt with eating disorders when I was thirteen. I was in ballet and I wanted to be a ballerina [...] I dabbled in anorexia. I dabbled in bulimia. I never looked in the mirror and saw somebody who was beautiful. And a couple of years after taking my clothes off onstage for fun, I realized that, for the first time, I was comfortable in my bikini.”
“I think it’s something that every burlesque performer has to work for,” Nicky Ninedoors concludes. “When I first got into it, I had little to no self-worth, and I was in need of a change. [...] It completely took me out of my skin, and made me into who I am today. Burlesque changed my life.”
But for all their discussion of empowerment, not a single performer wants to see their name in print. This, as they explain, has nothing to do with personal shame or regret, but rather with the possibility of some lingering social stigma.
“Ultimately we are old-school strippers,” Ninedoors explains. “More acceptable than exotic dancers, but it’s sexuality, so there is an implicit level of taboo to what we do.”
“I consider myself a performing artist specializing in burlesque,” Miss Fitt adds. “The motivation behind my performances is to use my dance and singing skills [...] to promote a sex-positive and empowering form of artistic expression. I am proud of my art [...] and there is no conflict between what I believe and what I do on stage. There is, however, a potential conflict when I am interviewing for a job. At this point, paying rent as well as advancing in my other professional career is equally as important to me, so I don’t want to put myself in a position of losing out on employment opportunities due to peoples’ misunderstandings or disapproval of what I do onstage.”
In spite of any potential stigma, Pandora and the Locksmiths continue to enjoy a capacity audience for each and every performance. And, surprisingly, by Nicky Ninedoors’ estimation more than half of the attendees are women.
“I’d say 60% [of the audience is female],” muses Ninedoors. “Most of the men who come up to me after a show are there to tell me that their wife loves me. It’s such a safe and non-competitive environment. We’re not after men. We’re not trying to seduce someone. We’re seducing an idea. We’re seducing an audience. But, with Burlesque nowadays, it’s predominantly women in the audience. Because it’s not just about women taking off clothes. It’s about women taking off fabulous clothes.”
“I think it puts women into a really good light,” Miss Fitt concludes. ”It puts them in a positive, empowered light, and I think that men and women can really appreciate and respect that. It’s just really inspiring to see somebody, no matter what their shape and size, exude that confidence. It’s such a fierce expression of feminism and femininity.”
Pandora and the Locksmiths is presented on the second Tuesday of every month at Guilt and Co, in Gastown. In addition, they will be performing an evening of Burlesque and entertainment at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre on Feb. 19, at 8pm.
Tickets available at www.stealthedeal.com/vancouver