In the tiny, crowded, and sweat-humid dressing room of the Can Can Cabaret, a dancer named Rainbow Fletcher grimaces in the mirror, frantically blow-drying her nipples while the crowd outside claps and cheers. Noticing my puzzled expression in the glass, she turns and smiles: "I'm drying off the sweat so the pasties will stick." She applies the pasties, rubs some glitter onto her bosom, and rushes back out the door for her next act.
Just an elbow's length away, a dancer named Faggedy Randy is adjusting his white unicorn bodysuit—a triangle of fuzz on his crotch, fuzz on his shoulders and calves, and a short mane he can shake like a heavy-metal mullet. "I gotta make sure my unicorn butthole is in place," he says, pulling at the bottom half of his suit.
The unicorn number, a brief interspecies romantic comedy, is an audience favorite at the Can Can: A burly dancer named Jonny Boy—heavily muscled and extraordinarily powerful, even by professional dance standards—enters in a leather gladiator costume to the Zeppelin-ish chords of "White Unicorn" by Wolfmother. Randy prances onstage in his unicorn outfit, and Jonny Boy swoons while lip-synching the chorus: "And I know it's on your mind/We've been drinking on the wine/That we drank from the serpent's vine/Now we live in another time/We could live together!"—big, thundering chords—"We could live together!" The two chase each other around the stage, tangle in lightly raunchy pas de deux, and finish with the gladiator astride the unicorn as it gambols across the stage on two legs. The audience goes crazy.
The Can Can is a unique phenomenon in Seattle, and maybe in the country: a tiny lounge where people come night after night to drink and watch modern dance. They don't necessarily know they're watching modern dance. The Can Can Castaways have been pegged as a burlesque troupe, but only some of their acts include stripping, and even those aren't in the neoburlesque style (much of it formulaic and dull) currently rampant citywide. In burlesque, elaborate costumes and their removal is the whole point—there are only so many ways one can wink while pulling off a glove. For the Castaways, dance is the point and the occasional stripping is just a punch line, a trick to fool their audience into thinking they're watching something other than modern (sometimes even the dreaded interpretive) dance.
You could describe the Castaways as a gateway drug.
The Can Can feels like an intimate club from turn-of-the-century Paris—candlelit tables cluttered with wine and cocktail glasses, just feet away from the tiny stage. The audiences at the Castaways shows don't look like the kinds of people who fill modern dance venues like On the Boards or Velocity. In fact, they're too heterogeneous to fit any kind of typical audience profile: older couples, young punk rockers with spray-painted Mohawks, goths, nerds, rock 'n' roll dandies, slightly tipsy girls'-night-out gangs, young men in Oxford shirts who look like frat boys just starting to go to seed.
Sometimes, whole families show up. Last week, an 11-year-old named Severin, a devoted Castaways fan who comes with his parents, barely touched his plate of macaroni and cheese. He was too busy gawking at the stage. "Every time that kid comes, I like to call him onstage and give him a present," Jonny Boy said back in the dressing room. "The first time it was a baton. Then I gave him some nunchakus." Later that night, Jonny Boy pulled Severin onstage and gave him a little overshirt with sewn-on muscles. The kid flexed, grinned, and growled playfully like a baby Hercules.
Owner Chris Snell—an unendingly enthusiastic dude who wears glasses with hot pink frames and a baby blue baseball cap—started the Can Can about five years ago with the idea of running a place that could host everything from punk rock to opera. He grew up in a music family, studied classical voice training on scholarship at a Presbyterian university in Spokane, played in rock bands, and worked at a variety of places, from homeless youth shelters to the Lyric Opera of Chicago to his own entertainment production company. He bought Patti Summers Lounge, a faltering subterranean jazz club near the Pike Place Market, and hired waitstaff who could periodically go onstage and dance the traditional cancan.
On the Can Can's first night of business, it hosted a burlesque show. On its second, it hosted a rock show with Mark Pickerel (of the Screaming Trees and, later, Mark Pickerel and His Praying Hands). "But as we got busier, the serving-and-dancing thing became a hindrance," Snell says. So he let the dancers be dancers and the servers be servers and hired Rainbow Fletcher, a Cornish graduate who danced with Donald Byrd's acclaimed Spectrum Dance Theater (which fuses modern and ballet techniques into rigorous, often severe-looking dance), as a choreographer. She wanted to nudge the choreography away from traditional cancan and burlesque into new, weird directions of her own imagining, set to a wide spectrum of music from rock to electro to cirque-pop: Wolfmother, the Dresden Dolls, the Kinks, MGMT, Rasputina, Prince, M.I.A., Hot Chip, the White Stripes.
"One of my basic philosophies in producing art is to get the fuck out of the way," Snell says. So he got the fuck out of the way and let Fletcher and the Castaways mutate into their unique form of modern-pop-cabaret dance. And the crowds kept coming, paying the door fee and buying drinks, giving everyone involved an excuse to push forward, both financially and artistically.
The Castaways run their business like an old Elizabethan/Shakespearean company. They perform five shows a week, rehearse when they're not performing, and split their profits—taken from the door fee and audience tips—evenly. (Fletcher gets a small stipend for her choreography.) They haven't organized as a nonprofit company and barely have a website because they're too busy rehearsing and performing. "I worry that we're going about it backward," Fletcher frets. "We don't have much of a website and everybody else does." In fact, it's just the opposite—the Castaways have got their priorities correct, putting rehearsal and performance before marketing, web presence, and 501(c)(3) status.
The five full-time Castaways don't have day jobs—rare for performing artists of any kind—and handle almost all of their technical work themselves, including props, costumes, and built contraptions. (They perform all kinds of elaborate numbers using elastic suspension rigs, oversized potter's wheels that rotate slowly, and swinging platforms suspended by chains.) If one of the dancers is injured and cannot perform, he or she still gets paid out of the collective take. Unlike some dance companies who rehearse for months to perform just a handful of nights each year, the Castaways work it, performing and performing and performing several nights each week, combining great skill with comedy, sexuality, and a deep awareness of how important it is to keep their audiences entertained. They have to, or they're out of a job—another thing they have more in common with Elizabethan theaters than their more rarefied modern-dance contemporaries.
Fletcher has brought on some fellow Cornish grads to join the Castaways (Jonny Boy, Ezra Dickinson) as well as people with more theater and acrobatic backgrounds. But they all dance with a power and precision not only unusual for burlesque groups, but even unusual for more critically acclaimed dance companies. And they're starting to make moves into that universe.
At this year's Northwest New Works at On the Boards, Fletcher and Dickinson designed a piece using some of the Castaways called The Buffoon, based on Edward Gorey's book The Doubtful Guest. The Gorey story is about a creature that looks like a hairy penguin in Converse high-tops that upends the lugubrious tranquility of an aristocratic family: "At times it would tear out whole chapters from books,/or put roomfuls of pictures askew on their hooks./Now and then it would vanish for hours from the scene,/but alas, be discovered inside a tureen."
Buffoon was a playful, acrobatic, and oddly emotional piece about ostracism and eccentricity. One dancer wrapped in white (Dickinson) drew the puzzlement and disapproval of the other dancers, dressed in dark and stylized formal wear. The audience at On the Boards went nuts, giving them a standing ovation that other, more venerable performers didn't get. Buffoon had a warmth other dance pieces so often lack—the Castaways' relentless performance schedule has taught them how to connect with audiences, and how to simultaneously challenge and entertain them.
One could read The Buffoon through the lens of the Castaways' career: a unique—and some might say eccentric—dance company that has eschewed the stuffiness of the traditional modern-dance world to experiment with its own flavors, drawing both puzzlement and occasional disapproval from the veterans of the dance world. But Fletcher, always sunny and optimistic, puts off this critical interpretation.
"There was only a hair of that," she explained one night last week at the Can Can, when asked whether she'd encountered any snootiness at Northwest New Works. "There's such a gap between us and them—the worlds are separated. I don't think they've even seen enough of what we do to judge us."
It won't be that way for long.