Vau de Vire and the Edwardian Ball, Interview with Shannon Gaines, June 2012 Vhcle Magazine Issue 9, Art
Issue 9: Vau de Vire and the Edwardian Ball: Interview with Shannon Gaines
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Interview with Shannon Gaines
Founder/Choreographer Vau de Vire Society
Tim: How would you describe Vau de Vire Society to someone who has never seen your shows?
Shannon Gaines: We come from the San Francisco underground, the festival circuit, community spaces like CELLspace, local non-profit circus organizations. I feel that we are like the San Francisco underground in that we are still a treat that a lot of people who live here don't know about yet.
T: Seeing a lot of the San Francisco underground club scene over the years, it seems to have its own identity apart from every other city.
SG: It definitely feels like it comes from a lifestyle. We are all here where we all have the same interests. We are all artists, musicians, actors, fundraisers, producers, all sorts of people that are here for the lifestyle. It just flows from that. We are a group of people living, making art together. Let's take it to the next level, and maybe even tour it around. Getting back to your question, "What are we?" Really a mash up of dancers and circus artists, actors and actresses. I'd say those are the major portions of it. But we are always keeping our minds open to add in other types of performers. And then it doesn't stop with the performers on stage, it also extends to our media artists. For instance, every year we have a video projectionist who will join us, and that is a whole artistic process in itself. And this year, we are really going to be heavy on showcasing some of the exactly replicated sketches that Edward Gorey did in Iron Tonic.
T: So, in previous years at the Edwardian Ball, those things on the screen behind the stage were part of your crew?
SG: Yes, they were done live. Mike (Shannon's husband and co-founder) will always work with our video crew and they make it happen. It always turns out just beautiful.
T: You and Mike are the ones who created Vau de Vire Society?
SG: Yes, this started way back in Colorado where Mike and I lived before this. We are from Southern California, but we lived in Colorado and we had a venue there for a short period of time and that's where Vau de Vire was actually spawned. All of our friends, we were in this space and we were working to raise funds to turn it into community space, and we threw together the Vau de Vire Society just as some entertainment for our events. And it just became so popular. People loved it. And so that's really when we thought we have something here. We thought that we were going to be more offering classes and workshops and gallery space. And then this theatre dance company really took off. And so, when we moved to San Francisco, we waited a couple years, got to know the city a little bit, raised our funds and then drew upon the people we met in those couple years, dancers and circus artists, and taken it way further than we did in Colorado, for sure.
T: Back in that formative stage, did you specifically sit down and talk about what aesthetic you wanted to create, or did that just kind of organically grow out of what you were doing?
SG: Back then, I would say a lot of our stuff was really fantasy based, and more about the theme of the event we were throwing, and so if the theme that month was "New Planet", we would have some aliens appear throughout the night and the music would be very electronic. The art we showed would be tuned to that theme. And so back then I think it was a lot more, "What do we want to do this month? What do people want to come dressed up as?" We explored all these themes. The one that really stuck with us was our Bohemian Carnival theme which we've actually turned into a kind of party now. Back then it was a little more Commedia dell'arte based. Here it's pretty much anything goes. It's pretty much a party that we throw every other month at DNA with Kingfish. He's our MC and that is a really fun party and we'll be producing another six of those this year.
T: You've created an art form that I have never seen before and you are taking it to a wholly different level of expression, like the Edwardian Ball. For instance, the Edward Gorey theme - who came up with that?
SG: Well, Rosin Coven (the band), and Justin Katz had been doing this party for about four years before we became involved. And so this was their brilliant idea. But they hadn't quite put the whole full stage show with it at that point. In the beginning it was held at the Kat Klub, which was a very small venue and our first time joining them was at the Kat Klub. Then it moved to the Great American Music Hall, and it got bigger since then. From there, as we became collaborative partners, we decide which story we are going to do. We have all these books, all of Edward Gorey's books, and we all sift through and will throw out five ideas. All of them, when you first read them, I always raise my eyebrows and say, "Oh my, what in the world would we do to that?" They leave so much open to the imagination which is how we make our shows then. We'll all agree upon one, and then we just start bringing out ideas - "Well this sounds like it could be the raven, sounds like it could be some trapeze artist flying through the air," or, "These gas lanterns feel like they should be hand balancers that are holding lanterns in hand stand," which we are going to do this year. Ideas are just thrown out. It's super-collaborative and at the same time there are definitely leaders who help that flow go faster.
T: Working with Rosin Coven, everything fits so well. I understand it is a collaboration, but do they come to you with the music and you choreograph to that?
SG: That's a very interesting question. Normally, I am a choreographer that loves to work off of music. The music has always inspired me to move. Well, we all are working musicians, and performers, and we have families, and we have all these other things going on, so we don't really have that luxury of rehearsing that often together. We know each other so well now, that once Mike and I and them have sat down and talked about some ideas running around, they'll go and work on the music, we'll go work on the act, which is very interesting to work on acts without the music. But they are so good, such great musicians, that we can choose some music we like ― a tempo and feel, and give it to them and they'll produce something just like it. That's where we were this week, just one week before the show. We'll all get together and have... it's actually not even all of us... it'll be Mike and I again sitting down with the band. We listen to what they came up with, tell them how our acts went, show them video if necessary, and then it just goes together. They shave it down to our timing.
T: You both know each other so well that you are both shooting for the same target, yes?
SG: They are so wonderful. They also watch us and I just feel that when they play live, they are so attuned to us that we'll do a pratfall and there's a "ba-boom-boom" (imitating a drum effect) right there to go with us that we never asked for, they just know what to do. They are just amazing. And our first formal rehearsal with them will be our dress rehearsal which is tomorrow night, which you'll be there taking photos. That will be the first time that the performers and the band have met together for this.
T: That's extraordinary.
SG: But we've been listening to their music from the rehearsals. I know it will come together. It always does (laughing).
T: I would never have had a clue that it was cut that close.
SG: It wasn't in the beginning, but now we kind of have flow… we're approaching ten years here, so…
T: When I first heard of you I thought, "OK here are some club kids performing burlesque," but when I saw you, my jaw hit the floor so fast. You have been able to pull together some great talent. Was that just through making contacts in the San Francisco scene?
SG: Yes, I am also a coach, a gymnastics coach (Shannon humbly did not mention that she was training at the U.S. Olympic facility in rhythmic gymnastics). And so upon moving to the city I got a job at a local gym, and from then on I just got introduced to the circus scene and made a lot of my acquaintances through my own performing, through dance companies, circus companies, people scout them and bring them in. A lot of people find us too now, which is nice. And anybody that wants to audition at anytime is welcome to make an appointment and bring in anything to show us. And it's the warmest crowd ― the members are so warm and receiving to everybody. It's a nice experience when people come on to audition. One thing I'd also like to say about the description of what we do, one of our goals is to really drop the barriers between performers and the audience and pull it together and make it this all-encompassing, all-participating event. People can get as much as they want out of it. The Edwardian Ball is a perfect example how people come dressed to the T. It's so beautiful how they arrive.
T: Being in the audience I have felt that too, and then being able to meet the performers after the show and before really helps bring that together.
SG: That's our favorite part too ― play time! When the show's over and we get to go out and play with everyone.
T: Hopefully you get to. You've worked so hard in preparing for this. Just looking at the performers, how do you get such individualistic personalities, such non-conformists who would be attracted to the kinds of art you perform to come together.
SG: You do get strong personalities. I'm not going to say that it is always easy. Through the years you encounter every kind of working relationship and they're all really necessary. I am open to criticism because there is probably some truth to it and probably need to hear it, and so we are real open for people to come and let us know how they are feeling. We do however, when we bring someone in to audition, we are looking at how they interact with the crowd, with our members. And we can tell a lot of times whether there's a match or not. There's just a spark about, and you have it as well, I can tell, there's just a spark and you know that things are going to be alright. We kind of go on our intuition.
T: How many people are part of the regular crew. Some are closer to the center of the troupe and some are more like add-ons?
SG: There are. We have members that come twice a week to train and rehearse. It's not mandatory. It's mandatory to come once a week. Some come three times a week and I'd say we have about fifteen people that are rehearsing with us now that come every week and we call them the core. Five or six of those are dancers. And then there is an extended family who come around at show time and they're people that we collaborate with like Klown Korps and Gooferman, and all sorts of outside groups that we will collaborate with depending on what we need. We'll collaborate with people with piercings and being suspended by the skin. They are called Displayed Labors, the name of the group we work with. They'll be at the Edwardian Ball too. While I wouldn't say that's a Vau de Vire skill (laughing), I would say they are definitely part of the family, not to mention all the musicians and bands we work with. The three biggest ones we work together with are Angelo Moore ― "Dr. Mad Vibe", who has the Mad Vibe Orchestra. He is also the lead singer for Fishbone and he is also our orchestra leader when he is here in town. So we are very excited to have him be part. Also we work with Rosin Coven alot and Gooferman. And Trip Trap, who is here right now. Our VJs at the ball will be Sean Cooper in San Francisco, and then Grant Davis for our LA performance.
T: The whole Edwardian Ball is such a ton of work. When do you start preparing for the event? As soon as one's done, you starting to work on the one for the next year?
SG: I'm sure in the production facet, yes. It's already starting for the next year. As far as what I do, basically I receive the cost of living for the shows, and choreography. My job starts later in the year. But if you consider the rehearsal, directing, and the training of people, and getting the dancers in tip top shape through out the year, I would say that we are preparing all year for it. Because it is put together so fast, we pull from whatever acts are ready that we've been doing through the year that are new. We try to do new acts every year. So, that's hard to top yourself ― to display the aerial in a new way, or whatever.
T: Even the humor of your stuff, I guess that's a collective thing, but that's its own whole dimension too, to keep the fun there. I imagine with all the effort that goes into this, you can start to lose the fun.
SG: Being in the moment helps, and we all love being campy with one another, campiness and the wit behind it. And that calms a lot of just running things, and we'll find something funny that works and all of us will laugh and say, "Ah, we know everyone will get a kick out of that, we'll keep it."
T: Yeah, sometimes I wonder if this humor would play well in middle America.
SG: That's interesting because I come from middle America. This kind of art that I produce now, I really didn't talk much about my ideas growing up (laughing). Now it's so nice to come here and be free, and who cares. As soon as I was old enough, San Francisco was calling.
T: What would you like the future of Vau de Vire Society to be?
SG: Well, I would like a lot more travel in our future. We love San Francisco, we love performing locally, we love having homes, but we also like to visit other places. We were on a U.S. tour a couple years ago. We did 11 cities and New York. We'd like to continue to tour, especially with the Edwardian Ball. We've toured L.A. but we'd like to go further. We plan to do that. And of course, travel to Europe and anywhere else we can go. Anywhere and everywhere. I love traveling as a performer. People are very welcoming and gracious. When we were out New York, downtown, we were in our costumes to go to our event outside our hotel waiting, and we were stopped by a reporter with the New York Times, he just had to stop and ask, "Where are you going? What are you doing?" and we told him. And he said, "You know, we don't see enough of this anymore in New York." We said, "Wow, you don't see enough of this in New York? Fabulous! Let's bring it back." This is about three years ago. Hopefully it's still wide open.
T: I think it would be. I can't imagine there's anyone else out there doing quite what you guys are doing. Is there any last thing you would like to end with?
SG: I guess as a last thought, the successes we've enjoyed right here is really a reflection of the wonderful audiences we've had. I don't think we would have anything if we didn't have that audience. So, I'm just really grateful for the wonderful people that have open-armed us here in the city. Yeah.
The art and atmosphere is one of an old dark Victorian museum hall or medicine cabinet adapted to a new millennium and playfully themed around the morbid cartoons of Edward Gorey. The main performance each year is an adaptation of one of Gorey's works presented by the band Rosin Coven and stage show by Vau de Vire Society. Wandering through the dim corridors and stairways of the Regency, one may discover Kinetic Steam Works, the Museum of Wonders, or Malvoye the Mentalist complete in his glass-encased arcade box and waiting to foretell your future without being overly constrained by the demanding intricacies of clarvoyance, yet brilliant nonetheless. Other turns and explorations may lead to postmodern period musicians or performers of odd dramas. A special gem this year was the presentation of the Evil Garden of living statues as a side project by Vau de Vire. White paper-clothed characters with dark, sunken eyes derived from Edward Gorey drawings held impossibly long poses that periodically, upon the ringing of a bell, shifted to poses of vomitous nausea and despair, held for equally long stretches.
A stairwell leading to a basement of vendors of curiosities, corsets and cravats is punctuated by a display case of posthumous rodent and mink skeletons in rococo dress and re-enacting the court of Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette. The growing popularity of the "steampunk" style in no way estimates the wonderful creativity of these merchants who make almost all of their own wares by hand, and one can find some real treasures to supplement their ball costumes.
But the central performance hall is where the Ball truly shines. The audience are participants. It is not unusual to see members of the crowd waltzing to techno beats. On stage there is an eclectic mix of entertainment from musicians, to knife-throwing comedians, acrobats, and even a sexy corseted gothic Victorian fashion show by Dark Garden. Between stage shows a full cancan troupe burst into dance in the middle of the floor with the crowd congenially and readily stepping back to form a large circle to create space for them. And such is the spirit of the evening where the boundary between performer and audience is dismissed. To be around so many creative people with such a developed and bizarre sense of humor, often self-effacing, intensifies this camaraderie and sense of community. For many, myself included, this is the best part of the event.
However, the main attraction is the joint creation between Rosin Coven, founders of the Edwardian Ball, and Vau de Vire Society, performing one of Edward Gorey's books. Rosin Coven is an avant garde band sometimes described as orchestral dark cabaret, complete with cellos, trombone, and xylophone. They write compositions specifically for this as a score for the stage show. Vau de Vire is the pinnacle of the visual expression of the Ball. They are a disciplined collection of dancers, aerial artists, fire performers, contortionists and actors, not to mention all the production hands it takes to build the sets, secure the rigging, platforms and lighting.
This year they are performing Edward Gorey's The Iron Tonic, a book of 14 short verses with the beginning verse: "The people at the grey hotel,  are either aged or unwell." And it only plunges deeper into the humorous, dismal abyss from there. The line "It's known the skating pond conceals a family of enormous eels" began a lusciously seductive number with the classically-trained Kelsy Hiyakumoto performing an exotic serpent dance with an emerald tree python along with her fellow dancers draped in snakes. The verse "A venturesome but wounded bird is making an unwelcome third" unleashed a trio of aerial artists in raven costumes swinging in threateningly elegant choreography. And finally, the climax of the show featured the sparklingly campy and talented Kara Nova beaming and even pole dancing to a rousing version of It's a Hard Knock Life.
The entire performance was both a hilarious romp and a mesmerizing exhibition of stage craft. The energy and audience response was akin to a victory celebration. From front to back, the cavernous ballroom erupted into cheers and unsuppressible smiles. The troupe eventually joined in the festivities of the evening together with the crowd - just as they like it.
Having seen the Vau de Vire Society on a number of occasions, I contacted them to interview Shannon Gaines, the co-founder of the group along with her husband Mike. Their name derives from the origins of the term vaudeville. However, their performances would quickly dissolve any notion of what traditional vaudeville is. It could be said that Vau de Vire is to vaudeville as Burningman is to summer camp. And their gorgeous go-go girl routines would send the likes of the Rat Pack running to the doors in horror. Allow me to start by saying that, in spite of contacting them during their busiest week of the year preparing for the Ball, they openly made time for me and provided a very warm and welcoming environment. I met Shannon in the Vau de Vire practice space in an industrial art section of San Francisco. She had just arrived to begin the day's training and rehearsal, but she was already glowing with energy. Her ebullience did not belie the genuine excitement that she held for the art of her creations and collaborations, and so it was quite easy to begin the conversation.
This article can be found in Vhcle Issue 9

Tim Sunderman is a Graphic Designer in the San Francisco Bay Area whose first love is drawing and painting, tries to avoid computers until there is no other recourse, and because there is no other recourse, yearns for the open spaces. Tim is a graduate from the Academy of Art in San Francisco, and majored in Philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh. He is a college art and design instructor and freelance artist.
Read other articles by Tim Sunderman
Visit Tim’s website: www.timsunderman.com
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Vau de Vire
and the Edwardian Ball:
An Interview with Shannon Gaines
It has become common in contemporary media to refer to San Francisco as the living symbol of the out of step, eccentric, and weird. But there is a subculture in the San Francisco scene that even the locals would raise an eyebrow toward and consider strange. That subculture is the one from which the Edwardian Ball has emerged. The Edwardian Ball, named after the Era of British King Edward VII of the early twentieth century and its fashions and technology, is an event where nearly every attendee is dressed in full Edwardian regalia, though with a 21st century post-apocalyptic twist. Performances, art installations and absinthe are set throughout the four floors of the Regency Ballroom, itself built in 1911 at the height of Edwardian style.