Seduction, Serpents & Oakland’s Secret Sisterhood (Part 2)

June 8, 2017 in inQueery

This is Part 2 of Anne’s interview with Mojo, a local non-binary burlesque performer.  Read Part 1 here

inQueery: Would you say your art helps define your identity?

Mojo DeVille: Yeah, definitely. I consider myself non-binary, or androgynous, and when you’ve lived for much of your life in a space where people expect you to act out a very specific feminine presentation, it makes it really difficult to navigate your feelings and personal style. So for some years I used burlesque as a means of portraying this kind of exaggerated sense of femininity just to get it out of my system. Once you know the rules, you know how to better break them. I’ve been using burlesque as a means of dismantling this false sense of security through cookie-cutter femininity, in turn figuring out the different ways a female bodied person can present power, tenderness, or sensuality. Each year, it becomes a little more interesting, a little harder, and a little more complex.

My brand of burlesque and performance art has a sort of avant-garde sideshow leaning. I enjoy the daredevilish and ritualistic aspects of the types of street shows one might see in foreign times and distant places. It’s led me to dancing with serpents, walking on glass, and dancing through fire. At some point, I eventually made my way through to classic burlesque, which is through a lot of the sparkles and the bling and the feathers and the fans, and all of that vintage glamour. And through doing that, I feel like I have found a sense of comfortability with myself, with my gender presentation in the default world, when I’m not performing. It’s almost as if being hyper feminine onstage allowed me to access my most authentic self offstage…which ironically is the exact opposite.  

inQueery: So, this display of femininity onstage allows you, in a way, to liberate yourself from gender?

Mojo DeVille: I think so. It’s not necessarily about defying femininity. A lot of it for me has to do with the stereotypes surrounding femininity within the dance communities I grew up training within. For instance: as a child I learned that a young girl’s stage makeup must look a certain way, her hair must be a specific type of “neat”, etc. Now that I’m older there is the traditional pin up look: the curls and the red lips and the glitter, and at the end of the day, all of that is definitely a drag for me. And, when I dance classic burlesque, a lot of times people will even see me before or during the show and then after the show, they’re just completely like: “Wow! This is not the same person that we saw onstage with the big, fake eyelashes.”

So I definitely think that it’s been a solid outlet for me to just realize that sometimes femininity doesn’t have to be so formulaic and that it can still be fun, no harm no foul, when it is. I’ve held a lot of inner conflict over this within myself in the past. The mainstream femininity people will often times use as a selling point, as a way to market anything and everything: from Coca Cola, to our show is an exaggeration, and exaggerations elicit strong responses… And that’s what art is for, so why not play with the constructs set up around it?

I laugh here because I’m recalling the many times I have ripped my perfectly curled wig off my head in the middle of an act to exposed a bald scalp…I quite enjoy tricking people into thinking they will see one type of girly show and giving them instead something a bit more outside of those expectations… I feel like it has helped me come into myself quite a bit. I’m still working on it, it’s definitely a journey. I’m still attempting to access what it means to portray my own personal brand of androgynous art, and hopefully that journey will last through many more years, but, I’m in the thick of it for sure.

inQueery: You talked a lot about the community you work with, would you say your art is associated with a particularly strong sense of community and a special group dynamic?

Mojo DeVille: I’ll start by saying that I do very few solo acts these days as a result of birthing Haus Serpens. When I originally started, we had many group rehearsals so that people could convene and make sure that everybody was on the same page. As we started to spread and people’s schedules had become more conflicting and as we each started to individually tour more frequently, these regular rehearsals slowed down, which kind of works for and against us.

The way it works for us is that, when we do gather, it’s super intentional. Right?, it’s important for us to be present with each other. So, when we’re upstairs in the green room, there’s a lot of banter about what’s going on with our lives, how we’re seeing the world, how we’re being seen in the world and all the projects that are surrounding that.

The way it works against us is that it almost seems like the span of time that we’re not with each other can sometimes create a disjointed dynamic as far as the choreographic process is concerned: you have to try extra hard to really level with people and their personal needs. But when the time is made, magic happens! A group act that I hoped would come together in a few weeks took a year to dial in. Photo shoots must be delicately scheduled…The fact that we are kind of all on a similar page with our interests is of great benefit which maintains our strength but yes, we keep it flexible and modular. I learned years ago in theater classes that when it comes to ideas and collaborations one should lean in to the enthusiastic “Yes, and?” There is no timeline for the overall project. Just lots of yesses as the opportunities come up. I hope to create more repertory pieces with these talented women for as long as we can continue gathering.

inQueery: Do you have an example of such a successful collaboration?

Mojo DeVille: We just had a film showed in an East Bay Erotic Short Film Festival. It happened at the Grand Lake Theater and we got to work with a really lovely lady, Sissy St Maarten who directed us. These wonderful dancers, Gabriela Starchild, Morgan Julia, and Jain Dowe brought my choreography to life on stage, filmed it in the northern California forests with Sissy, explored it in a new context by performing alongside the projected film and are now in a place where we can revisit the work in new contexts. That is very important to me. I never wanted Haus Serpens to just be a series of one-off solo acts. It’s definitely been my goal to instigate creative collaborations and follow each one down its own special rabbit hole. Life always happens, we’re spread across the country, so it’s really cool that, at least right now, we have this one day out of the month, last Wednesdays at The Golden Bull, Oakland, that gives us time to connect with each other and plant seeds for new ideas. It’s like my church.

inQueery: Is the current political climate affecting you at all?

Mojo DeVille: I don’t know how it can’t! I think that to be a great artist means to tap into what’s happening in society at large and to comment on it either, you know, we’re up on stage acting as a diversion from all the bad news or we’re intentionally pulling attention to it. I have very specific personal rules about about mixing politics and policy with good clean fun. But I try to go wherever my feelings take me, be it through modeling, my choice of song to dance to, or whatever else. We definitely have many of our performers who wanted to come dance in the recent Haus shows specifically to speak to what’s happening with the presidency. When the Women’s March happened in Oakland, it blew up, it was beautiful and amazing and lots of submissions came in for our running theme, calling attention to rape culture and things like that. I was thrilled, but unfortunately had to draw the line at a certain point. It’s all about striking a balance with the content that gets showcased in the Haus.

inQueery: Do you have any advice for people who want to start doing burlesque or otherwise be onstage in a way that challenges classical identities?

Mojo DeVille: My advice is to definitely trust the process. When I began, I actually started doing burlesque out of spite. Before Haus Serpens was even a thing, I was a trained dancer. I hadn’t yet come into comfortability surrounding being queer, or glamorous, or boyish, or anything and I saw some performers and said “Oh my gosh. I can totally do that. I know how to go-go dance and they just have some rhinestones on them. Cool, I can do that.” And the more that I got into it, the deeper down the rabbit hole I travelled, the more I realized: it is really difficult! I mean, you can’t just slap on some glitter and some rhinestones and fake lashes and expect to be the perfect showgirl. There is a lot of history to be learned, and a lot of fumbling that has to happen along the way before you get to watch a video of yourself that you are truly happy with.

So, for me, a lot of my journey has been surrounding just trusting the process. Watching everyone, going to as many shows as possible, supporting as many other artists as possible, taking all the workshops and all the classes and, through it, you start to find yourself. And when you think you found yourself, you get to dismantle it, just break it apart a little bit more and start to figure out, you know: why am I reacting and responding to this thing that I’m inspired by? Why is it hitting me so hard in these ways? Then you can start to better identify or decide what you want to share with your audience.

inQueery: Can you tell us more about this exploratory process?

Mojo DeVille: In my earlier dance years, I got to work closely with a really phenomenal choreographer. I was going through my application process for Juilliard and he was an alumni. His name is Stanley Love and his work is largely comprised of toying with deconstruction.  I feel that working with him for the time I did at such a formative age really affected how I perceive art at large. I want to see everything lit on fire and flipped around, collaged and remixed until it feels right. I want to push people into exploring that classical side of burlesque to learn the rules, but what happens after that? Break it apart! What if you’re sewing your costume onstage while you’re wearing it? What if you’re taking your makeup off? How can you make people squirm? For me, it’s all about the deconstruction. You start of with this super pristine visage, and you start to take off the dress, or the gloves, or the shoes, or whatever. The more you deconstruct, the more you come to find what’s at your core, where your body’s resistance truly lies. Everyone is different but we can all find growth through cultivating patience and trusting the process…because it doesn’t happen overnight.

inQueery: How’s the snake?

Mojo DeVille: She’s doing well, my baby Satya! She is just such a joy, I’m so lucky to have her in my life. I adopted her from a burlesque legend actually, Isis Starr, who is just phenomenal in her ways. She was one of the first dancers to bring her stylized burlesque striptease to the Condor Club, which is a historic gentleman’s club in San Francisco. Coincidentally, she’s a priestess of the Temple of Isis, which roots her deeply in the medicine of her feminine ways and that of “Nagini” the little serpent. She passed guardianship of her long time friend and dance partner to me and the rest is history. She refers to her lovingly as Nagini, which means little snake, but, at this point she has grown so large that I can’t call her a little snake anymore. So, Satya means truth and she’s just beautiful, she’s been hanging out with me a lot lately and bringing me small graces and deep wisdom.

Truth be told, we dance together tons at home and during down time she can most likely be found snuggled around my neck inside my sweatshirt! It’s really nice to have a dance partner that teaches me to slow down and be really deliberate with my movements, my intention, my vibe… It is a practice that I try and take into the rest of my life. Sometimes with great ease, and sometimes it’s a little bit more of a challenge, but snakes carry the medicine of trust, deliberation, the shedding of skin and constant evolution. She’s a reminder for me to continually check in with myself, acknowledge what’s going right, change what isn’t, and make sure I’m slithering on the right track.

I’ve currently also been inspired by the medicine of temptation which could be said goes hand in hand with the burlesque and body awareness work I focus on in my life. It’s such a blessing and an honor to be able to take care of her and periodically incorporate her into my show as a dance partner, and to share her beauty with the world. She is the Haus Serpens mascot. My muse.

inQueery: You already mentioned some things, but what are your projects for the future?

Mojo DeVille: We’re going to definitely continue our monthly show -it’s really nice to have a homebase in Oakland. I’m also definitely interested in making more art films and touring the current one that we have by Sissy St Maarten across the country. Right now we’re definitely sending in these applications for various film festivals and seeing where we can get our footage shown. Also, Haus Serpens is about to become a full-time touring entity! The traveling roadshow is something special to me; it really has been an important part of the shaping of this country’s identity. I can’t wait to carry the torch and see the world, inspiring fellow wayward wanderers to grow as they follow their own sensational creative tangents.

 

Haus Serpens’ Quixotic Cabaret takes place every last Wednesday of the month at the Golden Bull Bar in Oakland. You can buy tickets on Eventbrite and also probably at the door ;)!

 

Like Haus Serpens’ Facebook page and follow them on Instagram to keep up with them and never miss an event!

 

 

Anne Errelis is a Contributor at InQueery.