[With apologies for recent delays in updating our website, please enjoy this extended version of “Boardwalk Empire,” a condensed version of which ran in print on April 20th, 2016]
By María Sol Suárez
Photos by Janice Cliff
It’s the night of the second Boardwalk Burlesque show in Dawson City, and the doors open at 8:00 pm. It’s 7:58 when I race to Diamond Tooth Gertie’s, and I’m praying that my friends were able to save me a spot in the line, since I had made the commitment to write this article and, well, how can I write it if I don’t get to see the show?
I heard the line was already three blocks long by 7:30, so I panicked. I had spent about two hours turning a friend’s very long blonde hair into a gigantic 80’s rock star mane, part of her transformation into Ramblin’ Rose. It was no small feat for a hairdresser, let alone a Youtube tutorial amateur like me.
When I see my friends and make my way to join them, I am met with the dirtiest of looks by the other people in line. Folks in Dawson are usually so courteous, but tonight, it is below zero outside and the stakes are high: everyone is jealously guarding their spot as the chances to get in become slimmer.
And hey, I totally get it. I have heard how legendary this show was last time, and I know it justifies standing in line for over an hour, and maybe a little elbowing here and there if necessary. At some point I even attempted to conjure my inner “Paparazzi” to gain entry, but: no dice. Maybe next time I should show up wearing a 1940’s fedora with a “PRESS” note on the side and a big camera with one of those old flashbulbs that blow up; that would really be in tune with the show’s vintage aesthetic.
Rachel Wiegers, a.k.a Yukon Chevonne, has delighted Dawson with her burlesque talents for years. When she decided to offer her knowledge on the art through a course for beginners in winter 2015, a small revolution started. Suddenly, women of all ages, sizes and backgrounds, were learning how create a striptease routine with humour and entertainment, that highlighted their personalities and tastes.
They loved it. And what’s more, everyone else did too: the first Boardwalk Burlesque showcase, held in May at the Palace Grande, was an explosive success.
On stage, Rachel becomes Yukon Chevonne, who has to use her wit and her charms in a surprise encounter with a cheeky bear that rips her clothes off. Randy Ravenwood, an Indiana Jones beauty, survives a snake infestation in her underwear with the help of a gigantic whip, while Sherry Haze shows us a woman’s strength but also reminds us life is not all work but also play.
Other performers like Angel Pie and Ramblin’ Rose derive their characters from puns on their real life names, and give us incredible routines set to immortal 80s tunes like “Cherry Pie” and “Sweet Child of Mine.” And they took the puns all the way to props like a pie-shaped umbrella and a flurry of rose petals.
Klondike Katie pokes fun at the all too real winter dilemma of wearing way too many clothing layers. Also in a true testament of our winter realities, Athena Blaze starts off in her onesie pyjamas eating chips and watching tv, to end up in an incredible beaded bikini. Leather clad Ruby Amore takes us on a wild motorcycle ride and a moustachioed Golden Goddess shows us how things are done down in Mexico.
Every single one of them surprised and thrilled the crowd from beginning to end, and sent everyone home feeling ecstatic, like they had just witnessed pure magic.
Maria Sol Suárez: Congratulations guys, that was amazing! I almost lost my voice from screaming so hard!
Yukon Chevonne: Oh, thanks! That makes me feel so, so happy! I honestly can’t imagine doing the show anywhere else other than Dawson, because the audience here is so loud and supportive, and they get really jazzed up!
MS: You should have heard the people outside, we almost didn’t make it in and people were ready to start a riot. Everyone was already demanding there should be a second show, things were getting agitated!
Golden Goddess: I heard people were about to start a riot, I guess they weren’t kidding! It is such a gift to be able to perform in Dawson, I can’t believe this community.
Yukon Chevonne: Oh Wow! Maybe we should talk to management and do another round for all the poor folks that didn’t get in. Again, Dawson is just unreal. To come out on stage and see all these people that you would never imagine would attend, people that never go out in Dawson, and yet here they are. Burlesque has a way of making people come together, it is the kind of show that appeals to everybody. It is different, it’s new, it is community-based too, all the ladies are local. Burlesque appeals to the common person, which is what I love about it. It is theatrical, the costumes are flashy, it’s fun, it’s sexy and saucy. What they love about it is that they see that ladies are large and in charge on stage, specially women in the Yukon. People think “Oh my God! I can’t believe she is on stage!” “She’s bigger than me, she is smaller than me. She is a teacher, she’s a neighbor, she’s a friend and she’s up there.” They get surprised and get blown away.
MS: These ladies are so good at entertaining! It is not the same thing to perform on stage than to be an entertainer. The way they keep the audience hooked, how they build up the tension, keeping people thinking “What is she going to do next?”. All the props, the reveals, the humor. The humor is a big part of it, which is what I love.
Yukon Chevonne: That’s why I love Burlesque! I feel like comedy is a great equalizer. “If it is funny, it is ok that I am looking at her butt” – haha. People aren’t as nervous or as ashamed that they are watching women get naked because it is funny and it is inclusive, and there is a story. Burlesque really has something for everybody, I think.
MS: For the audience and for the performer as well, I’d say.
Yukon Chevonne: Oh, absolutely! You can get up there as a non-trained performer and have an opportunity to create something onstage. You just don’t get that chance in many other art forms. For example, in the summer time, we get to see the awesome Gertie’s Dancers. But the difference is that these ladies are professionals and they have been honing their skills for most of their lives. But we also get to do an amazing job but in a different way. It is accessible, it is something everyone can do.
MS: How did you feel about the audience’s response? Did you see their faces?
Klondike Katie: I have done a lot of performing, but with this show I could see their faces, and I could hear them a lot more! The exchange of energy with the audience was incredible. Burlesque in Dawson has been the most liberating, inclusive and supportive experience. I don’t quite know how to describe the feeling I’ve gotten from it.
Sherry Haze: It was a bit hard to see into the crowd too much, but up close and in the balcony I definitely saw some familiar and very excited faces. Big smiles, arms waving. It makes you feel pretty awesome! I think my favorite part was when I was doing my act and I held up the sign with my name in it, it felt incredible to be able to really “milk” the crowd and having them go wild.
Randy Ravenwood: The best thing is easily the crowd, Dawson is so supportive of everybody. When we first performed in the Palace Grande it was emotional, it was amazing. I had a friend who was in the crowd for both shows and she said she cried everytime a girl completed her number, because she was so proud that these everyday local women can get up in front of a crowd, of their community, and have their support no matter what happens. They are there for you, they’re not there to judge you, they are there for a good show. And they show that in the way they cheer you, and it is the best goddamned thing you can imagine!
MS: I heard a rumor that when Boardwalk Burlesque had its debut at the Palace Grand, people that were dining at Klondike Kate’s just around the corner could hear the audience screaming like they were in the other room.
Yukon Chevonne: Well, I heard from people that the screams reached all the way to 8th Avenue!
Klondike Katie: When we did the first Boardwalk Burlesque we had no idea what to expect and we were blown away. That will be the most memorable performance of my life, for sure.
MS: What is your favorite part of doing burlesque? Is it the dressing up? The theatricals? The teasing?
Sherry Haze: You know, it’s a little bit of everything. I love to dance and to dress up, but it is also about letting your alter-ego out. I highly recommend it to everyone who has an interest.
Randy Ravenwood: Rachel Wiegers and Katie Pearse really did a good job in showing all these women that we got it in us. We come from all walks of life and we all go through our own personal battle of body image or self-confidence, every girl has their own issues. I have a 6-year-old son and I’m 32, I don’t have the body of a superstar, but I do feel that way when I’m on stage. About coming up with my character, personally, I am a huge nerd. My number one all time favorite movie is Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade, so the idea came up when I was thinking about doing burlesque. Then Rachel suggested the whip and she showed me how to use it, and that sealed the deal. And for the song, “Survivor” by Destiny’s Child was perfect.
Ramblin’ Rose: There is a definite rush when you are on stage, which is amazing. But I also had the best time in the course itself. For me, it is one part the performance on stage, and another part all the time you spend working and rehearsing and bonding with the other girls. And costume development, it is so much fun, a very exciting process. In my case, my character came after brainstorming with a million different songs and ideas. I realized a lot of those songs had the 80s rock feel, and then I thought how the Axl Rose image had a lot to offer in terms of costume, props, reveal opportunities, general attitude. And I thought “Well, “Sweet Child of Mine” is a great effing song, why not take my pants off to it?”.
MS: Is there anyone you can cite as your burlesque or performance inspiration?
Sherry Haze: I had the chance to see Melody Mangler, one of the best Burlesque performers in Canada. She is hot stuff!
Yukon Chevonne: Definitely. There’s a lot of the great old-timey performers like Mae West, I like how she’s just kinda hammy. And of course people think of Betty Boop and Helen Kane and their cutesy little ways, and all the other old Hollywood glamour girls. There are so many of them…Also there is this woman, her name is Sophie Tucker and she was this sexy ukranian jewish comedian who didn’t fit the typical “beauty” cannon of the time and she incorporated that into her humor. Personally my favorites are comedians, sexy can be serious but I like it when it’s funny.
MS: I agree. Femme-fatales are great, but goofballs are just as enticing. Funny is sexy!
Yukon Chevonne: Well, it is like when you are in bed with someone. If it is serious there is so much pressure, but if it is funny you can relax and enjoy, and love it!
MS: What are the plans in the future for Boardwalk Burlesque?
Randy Ravenwood: I can definitely see myself performing in the future, maybe something new this time, since I’ve already done this number twice and rehearsed it a million times. I’m dying to try a new character.
Yukon Chevonne: It sounds like there is another course in the works, an introduction to burlesque class coming up. Nothing is confirmed yet, but we are thinking maybe in the fall. And as for new shows, I’m sure there will be more.
MS: What would you say to anyone that is thinking of joining the future burlesque courses?
Randy Ravenwood: The first class you will feel insecure and shy, but once you get comfortable you will see all the other girls are on the same boat. I would tell them to stick it through. At some point you are going to question whether you can do it or not, and you can, every single one of you can. I know all of us at some point reached that awful crying moment, whether it is your first class or performing night. We all broke down, but we supported each other and realized we could do it. And when you come down from that stage you will feel invincible.
Well, in my opinion, demand is there for more Boardwalk Burlesque. Can’t wait till the next time!