Seduction, Serpents & Oakland’s Secret Sisterhood (Part 1)

May 24, 2017 in inQueery

I have loved burlesque ever since I attended my first show in a small bar tucked away in Seattle’s University District.

So when I moved to the Bay Area, one of the first things I did was to start looking up burlesque shows. I found one that looked great while offering really affordable tickets. It was put on by the cabaret collective Haus Serpens and was set to take place at the Golden Bull, a popular bar in downtown Oakland. When I tried to buy tickets online, however, they were not available anymore. But I wanted to see the show so badly that I headed down there anyway hoping I could get in. The show ended up being packed, but I made it! One thing worried me though: one act was going to involve a snake and it so happens that I’m terrified of them.

Shortly after 9:30pm, the lights were dimmed, the MC got onstage and the show started. Amazing performances succeeded each other in a whirlwind of fun, beauty, stealth and sex appeal. When a dancer started performing with a snake on her shoulders, which she carried and interacted with lovingly -even at one point seemingly kissing it- I felt no fear or repulsion but was fascinated by the beauty of this duet, by the tender interactions between the dancer and the snake, and by the art and sentiment that went into this act.

After the show, I approached another dancer to congratulate her and asked her if I could meet the show’s “manager” to interview them. She informed me that the person in charge was in fact the dancer I had seen performing with the snake. So I went and talked to her. Mojo DeVille, one of the founding members of Haus Serpens, was extremely kind in accepting to be interviewed for inQueery. She had very interesting insights about how performing onstage and creating original art that involves one’s body and image can help define one’s identity, especially when it comes to gender.

Below is an edited transcription of the conversation we had. I hope that you will enjoy learning about the gender-bending, patriarchy-defying, sexually-liberating potential of burlesque as much as I did and that this piece will convince you to check out Haus Serpens, which performs every last Wednesday of the month at the Golden Bull Bar!

 

inQueery: Can you tell us about how Haus Serpens came about and how it works today?

 

Mojo DeVille: Haus Serpens started as a feminist passion project in NYC. A living cabinet of curiosities featuring the beautiful, bizarre, and brazen antics of the women I had been collecting in my friend circle. I aimed to do something with my dancing that would allow for more visibility as a queer, alternative, poc and build a space in my life for exploring experimental art making. I had just performed for a stint at Tom Swirly’s Psychedelic Circus in the basement of historic Lucky Cheng’s and was pretty lit on the idea that a person could just up and throw a club night based on the deconstruction of  an ecstatic entertainment experience like that.

Around 2008 or so I became extremely interested in what it means to be a part of the cabaret community and what vaudeville did for Americans during the era of the Great Depression, acting as medicine for people’s souls or as a happy distraction. I got really into the ten and one styled productions, which is one of myriad traditional cabaret formats. You would have ten acts; some of those acts would include comedy skits and some would include the sensuality of burlesque, and some would include feats of great strength or discipline, like we would see in a sideshow. It kind of evolved and eventually, I came to the feeling that I wanted to use this ten-in-one format to instigate more collaborations within my performer community. I wanted to push myself out of my comfort zone as a dancer and learn from those around me.

Eventually I moved to Santa Cruz, CA where I brought it out of my head, out of my journals…and onto the dance floor with my friend Sophia. We were dancing duets together. Her background was in samba and modern contemporary movement. Mine was varied: musical theater and hip hop and some training in the classical techniques. I wanted to broaden the scope so that it was no longer just a duet between Sophia and me, that we could eventually start producing larger group spectacles with a focus on choreographing these sort of rituals for empowerment, as well as focus intention on curating a safe space for us to workshop and showcase some of the talents that maybe weren’t easily accepted in the other productions in town.

When we made it a real thing, as in…reaching out to producers outside of Santa Cruz to perform, it was about 2011. It has been building momentum over the years in a kind of organic way. In the world of burlesque I definitely want to curate something that is not your average striptease show. We already have many producers putting those kinds of shows on in much better ways than I can offer. I chose to focus on novelties and the absurd. Due to the subset of performers I approach to dance within the Haus, our shows will often have a bit of political commentary and some very extreme aesthetic twists and turns. Right now, our cast includes a handful of ladies across the country who will periodically come together to celebrate sisterhood through experimental movement.

When I moved to the Bay Area, many of us started hanging out via the burlesque shows. Many of us made a living off of freelancing as circus performers or street performance artists, which was kind of a diaspora that I hadn’t had much experience working in prior to coming to California. I had been working more in nightclub environments or doing site specific performances but never the sort of immersive gallery showings, eclectic “burner” events, or corporate shindigs I was now gaining access to . So, it became really cool to me to try to bring together all of these new types of artists I was meeting in an effort to cultivate some comfortability surrounding art as a showcase of reverence for our bodies and a means of pushing societal boundaries. Through burlesque, that often came about through our play with artistic nudity as a form of self expression.

So if we flash forward a few more years now, it’s 2017 and I’m comfortable in my body with and near other bodies, and the community that has been cultivated around the Haus show includes the same women that inspired me to come and join the “circus” years ago -I have had the honor and pleasure of working with my IDOLS through this project- and also their mothers, their grandmothers, their daughters and their neutral and non-binary friends. And now I’m just wanting to access and maintain that old, punk-rock sensibility that kept me feeling groovy in those younger years where I lived in the thick of my wonderment. Like, holding on to the feeling that comes with BEing on stage with our most vulnerable and authentic moments, embracing the candid creations.

We’re still those funny little freaky kids that sneak out to do questionable things at night -often to the disdain of our parental units. Only instead of it being smoking a clove for the first time or hitting a house party it’s entertaining audiences at our regular venue with Pussy Stunt Artists, knife juggling clowns, fire eaters and contortionists. I can’t speak for the whole tribe, but it definitely gives me a deep feeling of belonging and support, also strength and inspiration…as these people I’ve met and worked towards collaborating with, showcasing and promoting are truly changing the world just by living out their passions.

At this point, I hope to continue building environments that are fueled by sisterhood, that reflect the diversity and viability of our creative  backgrounds, and the breadth of each of our ancient wisdoms as womyn and as others… I hope for it to exist as a sort of radical “red tent” that can be used to recharge, reconnect, and resuscitate our imaginations…especially in this current social dynamic where many of our folks are being marginalized or displaced. It’s really beautiful to create a space that’s specifically for us, a space to celebrate us. One that is intimate and welcoming. I’ve been enjoying watching how I personally change as a performer the more the Haus opens its doors to each new dancer.

 

inQueery: Is your work more political commentary or fun?

 

Mojo DeVille: I would say, it’s probably equal parts commentary and fun. We try to poke at the obedient and “ladylike” housewife -or hauswife!- tropes without taking ourselves too seriously. We toy with stereotypes surrounding formulaic femininity and gender presentation. It’s all part of a running theme in the shows we put on every month. Some months, it’s definitely more of a crazy party, some months we definitely dig deep, but as a producer I am learning to maintain a balance. After all, people go to shows to have fun!