By Laura Latzko, April 2020 issue.
The Voices of the Desert show choir unites members of the LGBTQ and allied communities to sing, dance, and share in a love a music. It has recently been expanding its reach by performing for and working with different communities.
At its upcoming fundraiser, Voices of the Desert has a show planned that combines cabaret music and burlesque performance, along with a live pianist and drummer.
Lacey Aves Harmoania de la Virginia, a drag queen who is part of the choir, will host the shows.
Many schedules are changing due to the Coronavirus — follow the organizations’ websites for showtimes and dates.
Artistic Director Keith Clark said with the show, bringing together members of the two communities was a goal.
“It will help Voices of the Desert to meet our commitment to our mission statement, which is to bridge the gap between various communities. I think that’s good for us and good for the burlesque community, and it’s something different for pride,” Clark says.
Voices of the Desert did a cabaret-style show last year. After attending a burlesque performance with members of his choir, Clark devised the idea for combining the two artforms in one show.
“When we saw that show, we thought that Voices of the Desert could really add something to this,” Clark said.
Voices of the Desert will be joined by burlesque dancers from Spellbound Burlesque Productions.
The company was founded in 2014 by Frankie Fillmore and Maxi Millions, who will perform in the Saturday and Sunday shows, respectively.
They will be joined by a group of Arizona-based male and female burlesque dancers that includes Mia Piacherrie, Visa V, Dottie May Duitt, Pepper Mint Schnapps, Dusty Button, Lil Boy Blu, Anya Graves, Luna Lovebutton, and Matt Finish.
Together, the performers will put a vintage twist on modern songs.
The burlesque dancers performing in the show have different levels of experience.
Like many dancers, Millions started performing over a decade ago during a major life change. She had just gone through a major breakup and was looking to be a part of a group with other women.
She had been involved in musical theater in high school and college, so burlesque allowed her to get back onstage in a different way.
Millions performs a classical style of burlesque, with vintage costumes, makeup, hair and movements, but she said in burlesque, there is room for different types of performers.
“People tend to want to think that you need to have 15 years of classical dance training to be a good burlesque performer, and to that, I say it takes all kinds. I appreciate very dance-heavy performers and very theatrical performers,” Millions said. “Every performer is going to connect differently with the audience, and we all respond to different things.”
The upcoming show is providing opportunities for more choir members, including longtime member Rachel Cohen, to perform solo numbers. The choir members will also perform as trios, quartets and small groups.
Prior to the performances, they had a chance to workshop these numbers with each other.
“The whole goal is to help them to be more comfortable in their skin and in the choices that they’ve made,” Clark said.
Cohen, who has been with the choir for six seasons, will perform a piece from A Chorus Line along with Millions.
Last year, she did a solo of Zina Goldrich’s and Marcy Heisler’s “Alto’s Lament” and a song from City of Angels during the cabaret show.
She regularly performs with smaller and larger groups within the choir, including a quartet.
Although she had some stage fright at first, she has found solo work to be rewarding.
“Keith is pushing us. He’s definitely expanded all of us artistically. I feel like I’ve grown so much as a singer and as a choreographer working with him. I would never have taken these kinds of chances,” Cohen said.
The burlesque/cabaret show allow the choir to keep expanding on and producing new offerings for the community.
The group has tried to reach LGBTQ and straight communities by participating in events such as Christmas fairs, the HRC Arizona Gala Dinner, a meeting of Arizona choral directors, a transgender awakening event and singing workshop with one•n•ten, a Project Nunway show with the Grand Canyon Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, and an LGBTQ event for seniors.
“We are really trying to branch out into religious communities, senior communities, the youth community. This is our opportunity to get into the arts community in a very different way,” Clark said.
Clark is continually trying to reach new audiences because even though Voices of the Desert has been around since 2008, the group is still building a presence in the Phoenix area.
A mixture of newer and longtime members make up the 30-person choir. The members come from different backgrounds, including choir, musical theater and dance backgrounds.
Cohen has a musical theater and dance background and worked in the past with Cohen has a musical theater and dance background and worked in the past with TheaterWorks, Greasepaint Youtheatre, Tempe Little Theatre, Mesa Community Theater, Soul Invictus, Dance Theater West, and Center Dance Ensemble.
Being part of the choir allowed her to showcase her performance abilities in a slightly different way.
Voices of the Desert has developed to the point where it is able to put on new styles of shows.
In the last few years, Clark has noticed immense growth in the choir in its performance level.
“People see that we’re doing really good work, and that’s helping us to expand. Because we have more talent, and we are getting more polished in our performances, I think we’re ready for the public, and the public is ready to embrace us,” Clark said.
The company has developed most in its use of choreography. Cohen has been helping with this for the upcoming show in May, adjusting movements to fit with the choir members’ abilities.
Cohen said that choir members’ joy in being onstage comes through in their performances.
“We have such a good time doing the show that it just comes out for the audience. We’re having such a blast that you can’t help but watch us and have a blast,” Cohen said.
Similarly to the burlesque/cabaret-style show, the choir’s next concert will celebrate the strength and power of women.
For its Viva La Diva concert in May, the choir will tie in the burlesque-themed song such as “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” from Gypsy, which choir members will perform as Patti Labelle, Madonna and Bette Midler.
The spring concert on May 29 and 30 will be centered around female and male singers such as Gloria Estefan, Lady Gaga, Stevie Wonder, Pink, Elton John, Elvis, Miley Cyrus, Barbra Streisand, Judy Garland, and Demi Lovato.
In the show, a young girl wanting to be a diva learns about the triumphs and tribulations of legendary singers that came before her.
“We do a journey through different divas, talking about the hardships of it, the glory of it … through performance, we are showing what it takes to become a diva,” Clark says.
Following the show with Voices of the Desert, Spellbound Burlesque will also be busy with shows in April and May.
The group hosts a regular second Sunday show at the Womack and larger performances at the Grand Ballroom at the end of each month.
The April show at the Grand Ballroom will showcase student and emerging burlesque performances, and the May show will be in-the-round and feature seasoned burlesque performers.
During these shows, the burlesque dancers often engage with the audiences. Millions said this connection is a major part of burlesque.
“That is probably my favorite part of burlesque — letting the audience know I can see them, and I can see they are enjoying it, letting them know that we are in this together,” Millions said.
The shows highlight performers of different shapes and sizes and promote the idea of body positivity.
Millions hopes that through different kinds of shows, audiences will get a broader picture of what burlesque is.
“It can be beautiful and sexy, but it can also be riveting and emotionally charged. It’s always been political. Burlesque started as a way to subvert societal norms. It’s always been political for women to take charge of their own sexuality and take agency of their bodies,” Millions said. “Burlesque can be funny. It can be sad, and it can be beautiful. To me, it’s such a broad medium. That’s why I love it.”
Visit voicesofthedesert.org and spellboundburlesque.com for details.