The cast of “Va Va Venus” | Photo by HHH Photography

It must be an interesting time to be a Va Va Vixen, and an exciting time to be performing in the company’s latest production, “Va Va Venus.”

The burlesque scene in Louisville is in the middle of a growth spurt. Used to be we’d get two Va Va Vixens shows a year, and maybe one or two poorly advertised, tiny touring shows that probably wouldn’t return because they didn’t sell tickets.

But we’ve seen a steadily growing number of offerings at venues from The Cure to Tim Faulkner Gallery to The Alley Theater, and even at Zanzabar’s newly renovated space. Burlesque became a monthly fixture of the scene, then you were able to catch a show every couple of weeks, and now we even have a weekly burlesque night at The Limbo, a new tiki bar downtown.

Lady Phoenix, with Mr. Jinglepants behind her | Photo by HHH Photography

As the grand mammy of the local scene, the Vixens now have to compete with their progeny, an interesting task for a group this well-loved and successful.

While it isn’t a direct response to the growth of the scene, the Vixens recently have undergone a change of their own, moving from their one-time stomping grounds at Headliners to their own space at Art Sanctuary.

If Vixens founder Lisa Frye was worried that their faithful audience would have a hard time finding the Vixens at their new venue, Saturday’s crowd surely put it to rest.

For years, the group has been straining against the confines of Headliners, with limited access to the venue in the crucial last week of rehearsal, a single point off which they could safely hang circus apparatus like the trapeze and lyra, and a stage small enough that the cast had to watch their elbows lest a fellow performer get clocked.  

In “Va Va Venus,” the group’s Valentine’s Day-themed show, we see the Vixens have the opposite problem at Art Sanctuary.

At Headliners, the energy of the show not only filled the venue, but spilled out the doors and into the street. In the new space, they couldn’t quite duplicate that energy, no doubt made more difficult by some last-minute sickness and injury that cut the cast size down by two members, including vocalist Meghan Julius, a very much missed personal favorite.

Despite the diminished roster, the Vixens offered some high-quality numbers.

The 13 performers include a number of the usual suspects, many of whom continue to perform at the height of the art form, twerking, stripping and dancing with a liberal helping of circus and comedy. Madame Michon and Lady Phoenix continue to be the two most impressive athletes in the group, exhibiting physical prowess that is matched by their stage presence.

Michon shines in an aerial silks number set to Beyonce’s “Halo.” No doubt Queen Bay deserves some of the credit, as “Halo” is one of the more dramatically compelling pieces of music showcased in “Venus,” but presumably Michon gets the credit for having the good sense to use such an evocative piece of music.

This solo also highlights one of the times the Vixens gave us a glimpse of the possibilities for this new space; the aerial silks were located behind the audience, and we all happily turned to catch the action.

The area of the warehouse-turned-venue offers a much higher ceiling and vertically larger performance space, which lets the seemingly inhuman Michon climb higher and drop further, all the while exhibiting a musicality and fluidity that can occasionally be missing from some circus performers.

Miss Coco | Photo by HHH Photography

Newcomer Miss Coco did some nice silks work in the back of the audience as well, and it will be interesting to see what she, Michon, and the other circus-minded Vixens dream up for that space next time.

Michon also has an excellent duet with vocalist and dancer Talulah Darling — Michon strips while Darling sings. The two have been showcased in duets together many times, but they have an enduring chemistry that keeps the numbers exciting.

Phoenix, one of the choreographers for the group, continues to explore her mime and acting abilities in a series of vignettes with her frequent partner, Mr. Jinglepants.

Their short scenes chart the course of a love affair, showing comedic and occasionally hot interactions between an unnamed man and a woman.

The second act of the evening even lets the two take their relationship to a more dramatic area of love, the inevitable realities of everyday life that can dim one’s ardor if one doesn’t remember to stoke its fires. Watching the couple struggle to connect was the most dramatically satisfying part of the evening.

I was a little disappointed that this artistic thread didn’t follow the couple to the ultimate end, the “till death do us part” that is waiting for every couple who stays together long enough.

Phoenix’s solo work, notably in a “Singin’ in the Rain” number that would have made Gene Kelly blush, put her in the sweet spot of athleticism and sexiness as she performed on a pole that resembled a streetlight.

Vocalist Lady Stardust served up some satisfying music, both as a soloist and an accompanist to a few dances. I was particularly excited by a jazzy, brass-band-fueled cover of The Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights.” 

Beatrix B Naughty brings a lovely level of grind house ’70s sleaze to the proceedings. Her fringe-flinging, gun-toting number to “Evil Woman” reminds us that while the neoclassic burlesque that has been at the forefront of the art’s re-emergence in the last decade may hearken back to the ’20s and ’30s, there are a lot of other decades that can teach us something about getting naughty. 

The price of such strong solo performers is that they frequently outshine the ensemble in the larger group numbers in a way that diminishes rather than enhances the number. This is exacerbated by some of the choreography’s tendency to lean toward full-stage unison movement.

The evening’s final number is the exception that proves the rule. Set to Queen’s “Somebody to Love,” the choreography allows the focal point to wander between dancers while the ensemble performs with gentle and supportive grace.

While the “everybody take a solo” structure can often feel empty, this piece lets each solo organically come forward from the mass of dancers, and when the performer is taken back into the mass, it’s often with an impressive lift or trick that serves as a mini-climax for that performer.

“Va Va Venus” continues Feb. 9-10.

The meaning is clear — each individual is recognized, supported and loved.

In addition to the hanging silks at the back of the house, a couple of numbers began to explore some of the other eccentricities of the space, such as a steel framework behind the stage and some industrial-looking shelves that can hold several people sitting up and possibly standing.

Hopefully, these will get a little more use, part of an exploration that could range into a large number of areas in the spacious warehouse.

There’s great news for anyone who likes to sit down while they watch burlesque — while the show is still “first come, come serve” on general admission seating, there are now a couple hundred chairs, making it pretty easy to get a seat. 

While this wasn’t my favorite Vixens show, it still has plenty of thrills and offers tantalizing hints about how the group can continue to be an artistic leader in the scene they created.

“Va Va Venus” continues Friday, Feb. 9, and Saturday, Feb. 10, at Art Sanctuary, 1433 Shelby St. Showtime is 8 p.m., and doors open at 7. VIP tickets (which sell out fast) will set you back a mere $35, and general admission is $25.

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Eli Keel
Eli Keel is “pretty much” a Louisville native. You may have seen him around town reading poetry, short stories, dancing or acting. He’s a passionate locavore, so you may have also seen him stuffing his face at one of Louisville’s amazing restaurants. When he isn’t too busy writing short stories, he blogs at amanwalksintoablog.wordpress.com.