For burlesque dancer Evelyn DeVere, the show must go on and the clothes must come off even under the worst of unpleasant circumstances.
"You have to perform when you've just been broken up with — that happened. When you are having awful cramps — that happened. When you find out someone just crashed into your car — that happened. When you just had to call the cops on your violent roommate — that happened. Or when you have knots in your stomach because there's a chance someone you really don't like, or really do like, might show up — that happened," she says.
DeVere's been shimmying and shaking her way out of every scenario in intricate, handmade sequin and satin pieces for five years now. She made her professional burlesque debut with a troupe in Salt Lake City, eventually making her way back to the East Coast, where she's tasked herself with expanding the entertainment options for audiences in the Lowcountry.
"I've been producing burlesque and variety shows in Charleston since 2010, under the troupe names Ménage à Trois Burlesque and Carnivalesque. For most of this year, I was living and performing in New York City; I moved back to Charleston this fall," says DeVere, who is the producer behind the upcoming Twisted Christmas show at Redux Contemporary Art Center. The show will feature DeVere and two other national burlesque performers — Mourna Handful and Cherie Sweetbottom — with an assist from internationally renowned host Armitage Shanks.
Redux's Executive Director Stacy Huggins says the venue is up for the change of pace. "As an unusual sort of room for performing arts, we're always trying to welcome and provide an intimate place where exceptional artists can have a chance to connect with new audiences," says Huggins. "Evy's brand of burlesque is pretty classic and classy and she's bringing some talented performers and I hope they'll in turn bring in an adventurous and fun crowd."
The twisted theme will carry over into performances with naughty and nice takes on winter and holiday traditions. "Each act will have a bit of a twist — some sensual, some irreverent, some hysterical," says DeVere, who tends to lean toward a playful vintage vixen stage persona. "I would say that my stage presence is an amplification of my everyday personality. It's my chance to be super sexy, to joke around with the audience about what they're watching, and to revel in the reveal."
Modern burlesque shows encompass a range of performance skills beyond sexy shrugs and leg extensions, too. A stage might feature performers who incorporate hip-hop, ballet, contortion, hula hooping, aerial work and even ice skating. "Performing is individual to each dancer," says DeVere. "Some performers are inspired by music first and then dream up the costume and choreography to match it. Some may score a great thrift store gown and create an act around it. Some may have a particular theme or character in mind, and track down the music to fit. The costumes and music are integral to the acts of course — but they can be anything. There are acts all over the map, from 1920s jazz to heavy metal and everything in between."
Having worked as a seamstress for eight years, DeVere relishes the challenge of burlesque's necessity for customized costumes, allowing her to design not only how something looks on, but how it how it looks coming off, too. "Most burlesque dancers make at least some component of their costumes — from the very start, it has been a DIY art," she says.
Audience members may maintain that burlesque's creative glitz make it merely entertainment, but DeVere demurs. "Burlesque, plain and simple, is stripping. Many people, both performers and audience, try to separate burlesque from stripping to ease their discomfort, but going to a burlesque show in the 1940s would have had much the same connotation as going to a strip club today. Burlesque has become quite mainstream in the last decade. One reason that people appreciate burlesque more is that it is a bigger production — there are stories, hosts, costumes — things that were prevalent in strip clubs in the '90s. Many pioneers of neo burlesque got their start in [those] strip clubs, including Dita Von Teese, Catherine D'Lish, and Jo Weldon," says DeVere, "I think it is absolutely the responsibility of perhaps more visible burlesque dancers to de-stigmatize other forms of sex work that are much more marginalized."
And DeVere says what's on stage is a healthy model of sexuality with the capacity to raise the audience's consciousness. "Not only are women deciding that this is what they want to do, but they are designing every aspect of their performance themselves. This is not a manufactured, airbrushed, glossy idea of what women's sexuality should be. It is the woman's own proclamation of what her sexuality means to her. On stage, the burlesque dancer is in complete control of her situation," says DeVere.
That notion of empowerment, of a woman's own agency, is why the Twisted Christmas show will include a shelter drive for My Sister's House, an organization and shelter that offers aid and counseling to survivors of domestic abuse. "This is an issue important to me, and one that is especially relevant in South Carolina, which ranks No. 1 in deadly violence against women," says DeVere.
Donations for the shelter will be accepted at the show. Bring trash bags in 13-gallon and 39-gallon size, dishwashing liquid, housecleaning supplies, ladies pajamas (tops and bottoms), bleach, tissue, hand sanitizer, Lysol spray, Lysol wipes, twin comforters, twin sheets, plastic mattress covers (twin), juice, and pillows.