A new variety show from the Danceworks Performance Company puts a contemporary spin on the dark and colorful characters of vaudeville's storied history.
The show is a follow-up to primary choreographer Kelly Anderson's critically lauded tribute to women's undergarments, "Bra Project," and strings together a wide range of dance acts incorporating everything from drag acts and acrobats to magicians.
"All the company members are from different training. They are all different sizes. Each person is so unique, so how perfect to do a variety show with them. I pulled a lot from their talents," Anderson said.
Anderson's interest in vaudeville has intensified in recent years, but the variety format is something that shadowed her, her entire life, she said.
"I come from a family where every year at the Banczak family reunion on the Antigo potato farm we have an MC that stands behind potato crates. We have a roast, and every year we have a theme and we do acts. My family is crazy," said Anderson, "It's been a part of my life for my entire life."
One of the most active faces in Milwaukee's dance community, Anderson's creative background took on many forms through the years.
"I didn't dance when I was younger. I played guitar and sang. I did some acting. I did some musicals. I did some visual art. I went to college for that for four years. Then I was like, 'I want to be a dancer!' Now I want to choreograph,'" said Anderson, "So a lot of my experience in life has been the source of the work I am making."
In many ways her Danceworks shows are rooted in boozy variety shows she put on in Milwaukee and Portland with the help of her friends.
"That sort of launched my interest in variety, and I had done a lot of reading up on vaudeville and variety entertainment. And when I lived in New York I saw a lot of burlesque shows, vaudeville, variety shows and circus shows and I just totally got addicted," said Anderson.
"I had been thinking for the last couple years about creating a show that is essentially a variety show with a little bit more tact and a little bit less booze."
While choreographing the show Anderson poured through books on the period and ended up spending the day in Chicago with Miss Viv, a former vaudeville performer who toured the country with her husband as Pinto and Viv.
"I went down to Chicago one day and I sat down with her and just listened to all her stories and looked through all her scrapbooks," said Anderson. "She was like showing me her high kicks. It was totally inspiring."
The Vaudeville show comes at a time when nostalgic vaudeville, burlesque and circus acts are popping up across the country. Anderson, said she sees its resurgent popularity as a continuation of the lineage of acts like Miss Viv's.
"I don't think variety ever left, but it moved to television. The stars of vaudeville got variety shows on television, went to the USO, got radio programs. They started to leave when television and film got big and vaudeville sort of faded," said Anderson, who will perform a dance number by guest choreographer Ed Burgess in the show.
"I think the resurgence probably has a lot to do with the fact that television isn't enough. People started becoming interested in the stage again for that type of entertainment."
The show starts Feb. 18 and a list of the full performance schedule is available at the Danceworks Web site, and tickets range from $15 for students and seniors to $25 for reserved seating.