At venues across North Texas, the theatrical dance ensemble known as The Velvet Kittens perform variety shows inspired by the classic styles of vaudeville, cabaret, and burlesque. But first-time audience members thinking about going to the Kittens’ revue at Arts Fifth Avenue on Saturday should know one thing: Where these gals are concerned, “burlesque” does not mean “striptease.” Not even old-timey, campy, Gypsy Rose Lee-style flesh-baring.
“We don’t do burlesque stripping,” said Jana Edele, Kittens founder and artistic director. (Throw in “choreographer, costumer, dancer, and unofficial den mother,” as well.) “The dancers are more covered than most people you see at the beach.”
Edele, an Arlington native and trained professional dancer with a theater degree, formed The Velvet Kittens in 2006. Back then she was only vaguely aware of the national burlesque revival championed by celebrity performers like Dita von Teese and Michelle L’amour. Edele has never had much interest in the flamboyant art of dancehall striptease. Her impulse to perform came from a straightforward theater background as well as a childhood love of everything from movie and stage musicals, TV shows like I Love Lucy and Bob Hope’s prime-time network specials, and anything related to celebrated choreographer Bob Fosse. As a little girl she was always mesmerized by nightclub scenes from old black-and-white movies, where impeccably dressed men and women sat at small tables sipping cocktails while singers, hoofers, comedians, and musicians strutted their talents under bright lights.
There was nothing like that in North Texas when she started out as a freelance choreographer for city events and industrial films. She remembered a sage observation offered by Fosse about the supporting role played by dancers in most Broadway and film productions: “Remember, they call it a ‘musical,’ not a ‘dansical.’ ” But Edele longed to create her own “dansicals,” so in the mid-2000s, she started designing, booking, and performing small dance revues at comedy clubs. The first Velvet Kittens performance was at the Hyena’s Comedy Club downtown seven years ago. The Kittens have since evolved into a full-fledged variety show with stand-up comics and singers, the kind of marquee roster people might’ve flocked to in the days before satellite TV, the internet, and mobile devices shortened the attention spans of mass audiences.
The Kittens, she said, “are about my love of everything show business. That means singers, actors, comedians, and dancers. It’s all-inclusive. We work together as an ensemble. It sort of has the feel of a dance company.”
Though Edele doesn’t consider herself part of the burlesque revival, she is conscious about combining some of the bawdier elements from that traditionally blue-collar form with the more literate, topical material that might be featured at a classier turn-of-the-century vaudeville house. The Velvet Kitten dancers don’t expose a lot of skin, but they still sport corsets, thigh-highs, ultra-short skirts, brassiere tops, and of course, nose-bleed high heels. The comic sketches and stand-up routines featured in the show are laced with double entendres –– the group performs a seasonal parody of The Nutcracker entitled The Cracker of the Nuts –– and the occasional f-bomb. Edele insists, though, there’s nothing in their upcoming Arts Fifth Avenue revue more outrageous than the average R-rated movie comedy. The only shocking things about a Velvet Kittens show are the last-minute backstage surprises that Edele sometimes encounters as she’s preparing her performers to take the spotlight.
“I had a dancer go into labor two hours before a show,” she recalled with a laugh. “We had to take her to the hospital and then replace her in the cast. I was, like, ‘I didn’t know you were that far along.’ ”
The Velvet Kittens
8pm Sat, Mar 30, at Arts Fifth Avenue, 1628 5th Av, FW. $15. 817-923-9500.