Louisville’s blossoming burlesque scene is part of a national artistic movement, bringing back the time-honored art of the strip tease.
On Saturday, one of the national leaders of that artistic movement, Lola van Ella, is sharing her “Van Ella Bordello Tour” with Louisville audiences at the Alley Theater. It’s her unique immersive burlesque show, and we get to see it on the first night of a national tour.
Insider spoke with van Ella about strip tease, her artistic process, what audiences can expect from the “Bordello Tour ” and the time she took all her clothes off while giving a TED Talk.
(The interview has been condensed and edited.)
Insider Louisville: Can we talk a little about the show you’re bringing to Louisville? The immersive bordello — what does that look like?
van Ella: It’s still a show, a sit-down experience, but what makes it a little bit different is, the fourth wall doesn’t really exist — all the people who are coming to the show, they are coming into the parlor of this house of ill repute. They are hanging out with us in this brothel, this sort of Victorian-styled, what I would imagine to be a post-modern-feminist brothel experience.
I have a real fascination for that time period and also for the women who thrived and survived at that time, when there weren’t a lot of options for women — especially reading and writing artistic women. So it’s a way to sort of pay tribute, but also shed some light, and this is not in a heavy-handed way, but the idea is that it destigmatizes the idea of sex workers, you know. While not tokenizing them either.
So it’s still a burlesque show, but there are some storytelling elements to sort of give people a little history lesson they didn’t even know they wanted, and by the end, they’re like, “Oh wow, I learned things I never knew, and that makes me really happy.”
IL: A lot of your material seems to come from a heavily conceptualized, academic place. How do you build those first ideas into full numbers?
van Ella: If it’s a show, it’s that process, so sometimes I’m going from that angle. But sometimes if it’s just an actual piece, usually I’m driven by what really inspires me — a piece of music I absolutely adore, or a costume I had this idea to build. But often, it’s also a concept. Like if I really need to create a piece that expresses heartbreak, or betrayal, or love.
I kind of live by the motto “Be the show you wish to see in the world.”
IL: What’s it like to pack a whole show into a bus … or what did you drive here?
van Ella: We pack everything into a Van Ella, and it’s just a regular vehicle. But this show is really small, it’s just five people plus a stage manager that we travel with, who is also a stage persona, a kind of chambermaid. But it’s a pretty packed tight show.
It’s one of the things I love, because when I developed this show, it started as an immersive party I created that was a private affair. People would come and drink absinthe, and there would be courtesans reading poetry and artists and muses.
And it was really fun, but then I wanted to turn it into an actual show that people could see in public, so I had to make it really small in order to travel. It fits in one vehicle and a camper, and we just go. This will be our second cross-country tour.
IL: So you did this amazing TED Talk about burlesque. How did that come about?
van Ella: They asked me and they messaged me and said they were interested in having me present something. I thought I had already been 100 percent confirmed, because they invited me to have wine, and so I figured, “Oh, we’re having a meeting to discuss the talk.”
And then at the end, he had this formality in which he had to say, “OK, well if we decided to have you, are you 100 percent committed?” I looked him dead in the eye and said, “Oh, I’m doing the talk.” And sure enough a couple of days later, I got the official invite.
IL: At what point were you like, “Also, I’m going to take off my clothes”?
van Ella: Oh they were 100 percent behind that. I’m mean, they didn’t expect it, but they did not forbid it. I didn’t know what my talk was going to be about at first. The mission behind TED Talks is “ideas with passion,” and so they couldn’t have asked a more passionate person. I could talk about these things forever.
Then I started playing with ideas of what it ended up ultimately being about, this idea of the Madonna/whore juxtaposition, and feminine ideals of beauty, and of course a little burlesque history sprinkled in there for good measure — and it started to just come together really organically.
So I had decided, you know, I want it to be really over-the-top, and I made a decision that I would be the most sparkly and the most naked TED Talk presenter who had ever done a TED Talk. And I think I achieved that. I definitely achieved the most naked.
And that led to the idea of how I would get there, and I thought it would be really fun to strip as I was talking, a la Gipsy Rose Lee, who is one of my idols.
The “Van Ella Bordello Tour” rolls into town on Saturday, March 3. There are two shows — at 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. — at The Alley Theater, 633 W. Main St. Tickets are $20.