Spotlight Series: Meet Costume Designer and Educator Halei Parker Who Makes Art a Part of Her Everyday Life

This Spotlight focuses on Costume Designer and Educator Halei Parker, who I first met in the dressing room at the Clark Library when she showed up with a wonderful variety of cleverly designed costumes for the publicity photo shoot for Lady Windermere’s Fan when I was the publicist for Chalk Repertory Theatre. Halei really opened my eyes to the possibilities for character interpretation that a costume designer can bring to a show.

Shari Barrett (SB): What would you like readers to know about your theatrical background?

“Lady Windermere’s Fan” with Chalk Repertory Theatre and the Clark Rare Book Library

Halei Parker (Halei): I’m a freelance costume designer for theatre, opera, dance, immersive experiences, and film. I’m also an educator, and think of myself as a storyteller and world creator. The projects that excite me the most are deeply collaborative and are usually highly stylized and a little weird, especially since I love mixing ideas from disparate sources to create something magical and new.

(SB): What production(s) were you involved with when word went out it needed to immediately be either postponed or cancelled?

“Gallery Secrets” with Chalk Repertory Theatre and the Los Angeles Natural History Museum

(Halei): I was mentoring students and beginning to source and fabric shop for a production of Sweeney Todd at Cal State LA when we were shut down. I was also beginning the design phase for the Getty Villa summer show. This year the Troubies (Troubadour Theatre Company) were going to be performing our new original musical LIZAstrata (think Los Vegas Liza Minnelli meets Aristophanes’ Lysistrata meets the Troubies). Thankfully I had just wrapped shooting on a film and closed the show Earthquakes In London at Rogue Machine right before the world turned upside down.

“How The Princh Stole Christmas” with Troubadour Theatre Company

(SB): Here is the link to my review of the multimedia “Earthquakes on London” at Rogue Machine which examined the effects of global warming.

How were the shutdowns communicated with the cast and production team?

George Takei in “Allegiance” with East West Players and the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center

(Halei): For Sweeney, we heard in our production meeting, two days before the Stay-At-Home order. The Liza news came at the end of March. We all saw it coming, but I was really hoping it would still manage to go on. The world could really use some more Troubie joy about now. It was pretty crushing. At this point, we are looking at postponements for both of those, and thankfully not cancellations.

(SB): I really loved all the outrageous costumes you designed for the Troubies “A Christmas Carole King” which I saw at the El Portal last December.

What future productions on your schedule are also affected by the shutdown?

(Halei): The whole rest of my year is now in flux, since no one really knows when we will be allowed to gather together again to experience live theatre in a group setting. I’m just trying to keep all my fingers and toes crossed that we can make stories for the world again before the year is out.

“Hairy Ape” with Odyssey Theatre Ensemble

(SB): How are you keeping the Arts alive while at home by using social media or other online sites?

(Halei): Art is always alive in my home. More than half of my apartment is actually a costume shop, so I’m surrounded by fabrics and my tools. I’ve been able to keep busy by making hundreds of masks from my eclectic stock of fabrics, and have done a few costume challenges that have proven to be quite fun. I’m trying to curb my use of social media…. somewhat. That is especially true when I am designing and creating costumes for shows.

I’m also feeding my need to make Art for others right now by making a mural for my building on the wall of our little garden.

(SB): What thoughts would you like to share with the rest of the L.A. Theatre community while we are all leaving the Ghostlight on and promising to return back to the stage soon?

(Halei): Chin up, loves. The world is going to need us more than ever when we are allowed to meet again. Just keep that passion alive in your heart.

You can find my work on Instagram HaleiParkerDesign and me at HaleiPie.

This article first appeared on Broadway World.

Fire, Glass-Walk With Me: A Revealing Interview With Vixen DeVille

Fire-eating, glass-walking, circus aerial, magic, burlesque, costume crafting, comedy, and acting—British actress Cat LaCohie fits all of these skills into her life and her new solo show “Vixen DeVille Revealed”, coming to the Hollywood Fringe Festival this June.

Originally from Newcastle, LaCohie began her career in London, with appearances at Cafe De Paris, The Ritz Hotel and at the Charing Cross Theatre in West End, since relocating to Los Angeles.

Having performed regularly at The Viper Room, LA Convention Center, The Roosevelt Hotel, Harvelle’s Santa Monica and Long Beach, and at The Orleans Casino and Hotel in Las Vegas, and with multiple television appearances like “Masters Of Illusion,” she also teaches her craft both privately and in group workshops with classes that range from “Introduction to Burlesque & Body Confidence”—where she teaches you to “embrace the freedom to express yourself…the good, the bad and the wobbly!”—to full “Solo Act Development”, along with “Costume Crafting” and specialty performance skills that include fire performance, aerial and more.

Also currently performing with the Doll Face Dames, where there are over 30 people in the troupe who perform in rotation throughout LA, LaCohie often serves as a form of host—or Mistress of Ceremonies—a position she found through her unique use of comedy, burlesque, and having the additional benefit of a British accent in Los Angeles.

In that, she works up the audience in preparation for the show to come, laying out the rules and restrictions with charm.

“We want you to be loud and rowdy, in certain ways!,” said LaCohie. “So as the host we’ll get people up and shouting. We’ll tell you what the rules are—don’t touch the girls, don’t do this, do this, don’t do that—It’s kind of like a stand-up comedienne.”

Starting her career in burlesque in 2006, she performed for nearly eight years in the U.K. When coming to Los Angeles, she only brought three burlesque outfits, just in case she needed them, because her idea and goal was to focus on acting.

“I figured, if I need to, I can make some money doing burlesque,” she said. But ultimately, she simply missed it as a performance artist and decided to continue her style of burlesque performing in Los Angeles, which then lead to teaching.

Photos by Monique A. LeBleu
Cat LaCohie, Vixen DeVille, teaches burlesque technique, style, confidence, personalization at Madilyn Clark Studios, in Burbank, Calfornia, April 9, 2018.

She began teaching basic burlesque routine moves for a company, which she found pedestrian at the time. But in conversations, people expressed fascination and a desire to perform themselves, but had reservations varying from body confidence issues to disbelief that they could ever learn the skills or master the courage.

“I met people who said ‘Oh, I could never perform burlesque!’ or “I could never do … but, want to do it!,'” said LaCohie. “If you have anything in you that wants to do this, then why are you talking yourself out of it?”

In teaching, she then began focusing not on the dance moves, or the technique of it. “Looking at your confidence, looking at your character, what pleases you, and what you’re going to have fun doing in front of an audience … do you want to show your dark side, or your fun side, or your sexy side,” said LaCohie.

Aside from burlesque, LaCohie is trained in fire performance—including fire eating, fire fans and fire spinning, and body burning—aerial performance, and glass walking, the latter of which she incorporates a dance where she rolls in glass and experiments with ballet. But her experimentation has not been without dangers.

From minor injuries to her knee and legs while performing in an acting class in the UK, to more serious injuries while focused and teaching after coming to Los Angeles.

Early on, while training in the Meisner Acting Technique, she thought to incorporate the new skill of glass walking into a scene with another student. After smashing a bottle in the scene, while focused on the scene, she knelt into it – a risky transaction for the yet fully trained glass walker.

Cat LaCohie, Vixen DeVille, at Madilyn Clark Studios, in Burbank, Calfornia, April 9, 2018.

“[during the scene] I thought, ‘Why is it cold?’ And there’s blood dripping all over me. And my teacher goes. ‘Whatever hinders you is your task, continue with the scene!,'” said LaCohie, so she did. “So then the guy with me in the scene is helping me mop up the blood. So I thought, ‘Well I guess I can’t kneel down in it!'”

Another incident, in a distracted moment while teaching, LaCohie leaned back into preset broken glass, cutting deep enough into her hand to tear tendons. Once again, she quickly made temporary self-ministrations to her wounds so that she could continue while teaching in the moment, leaving a lengthy and costly recovery for a future time.

Encouraged after speaking with friends who’ve participated in the annual Hollywood Fringe Festival, LaCohie has now decided to pull her skills into a solo show. For the annual festival that brings Hollywood smaller theaters to the forefront of attention each summer, she will premiere “Vixen DeVille Revealed.”

Incorporating burlesque, circus, magic, comedy, LaCohie promises to reveal “the truth behind her multi-talented Burlesque persona, VixenDeVille’”, and invite you to “discover your own inner Vixen.”

With a limited VIP Experience, she will even teach you to eat fire or walk on broken glass, live on stage as part of the show.

In the meantime, LaCohie will be teaching a two-hour workshop at The Lounge Theatre on Saturday, May 19, 2018, at 11 a.m. with an introduction to the Basics of Burlesque Performance.

With plans to return to Newcastle and London sometime soon after the Hollywood Fringe Festival, LaCohie plans to bring Vixen DeVille Revealed home.

Vixen DeVille Revealedopens June 1, 2018, at the Lounge Theatre, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd, CA 90038.

Go here for more show information and tickets.

For more on Cat LaCohie, listen to the podcast:

Female Fusion: The Intersection of Art and Activism Invertigo Dance Theatre’s Laura Karlin

Laura Karlin, the visionary artistic director of Invertigo Dance Theatre, shares a sunny Culver City home with her partner Isak Ziegner, an artist and woodworker. There is a converted garage serving as the dance company office with room for 2 full time staffers in addition to Karlin, gorgeous wood throughout the remodeled kitchen, a bountiful garden, an older ailing rescue dog (who sadly passed away between the interview and publication) and a friendly, surprisingly vocal rescue cat. The entire atmosphere is open and welcoming, inviting collaboration and conversation. Even the post person is treated daily to freshly clipped flowers!

Karlin grew up in Southern California and in England. Her parents are both British and as a result, she has something approximating a Mid Atlantic accent, popular among the upper class denizens of stage and film. She has wild red hair and porcelain skin and the combination of these traits gives her a sort of elfin 1940s movie star quality. It is entrancing. It is also, as are physical descriptions in general, deceiving. Far from a fragile fairy, Karlin is a very modern, highly educated, determined and effective leader. She graduated summa cum laude from Cornell University with degrees in Choreography/Production and LGBT Rights, spending one of those years attending the London School of Economics and Social Sciences. After graduation, she returned to London, deepening her dance and choreography experiences by studying with such luminaries as Akram Khan and working with Snapdragon Dance and Synergy Dance Theatre.

Karlin returned to Los Angeles in 2006 to work on a commission with Los Angeles Contemporary Dance Company at the invitation of founder Kate Hutter. Though she planned to stay for only three months, she kept getting work and stayed because as she says with a laugh, you are not going to say, “Sorry actual people offering me actual things with actual money but I have a hypothetical career in another city that I have to scratch out of nothing in a city with a ton of gatekeepers….” She founded Invertigo Dance Theatre in 2007 because, “I’m not really phenomenal at waiting for other people to allow me to do something.” She always envisioned herself a choreographer and began at the tender age of eight; creating her own compositions and filling notebooks with stick figures, overhead views and movement phrases set to such 90s classics as Seal’s eponymous first album and Enya’s greatest hits. When she started her company, her office consisted of a laptop on her bed, but she initiated it with the same core values that continue today: the creation of community, of original work, of connections and a strong commitment to paying her dancers for their invaluable contributions all corralled by a dogged work ethic. Her community engagement was originally part of the vision, but there has been a learning curve and an institutional growth period to arrive at the multi-dimensional, in terms of artistry, management and community engagement, company that exists today. She acknowledges that everything from stubbornness, to “immense luck” to various forms of privilege account for the fact that over ten years later, Invertigo not only exists, but thrives in three distinct but interlinked components; Invertigo Dance Theatre Company, Dancing through Parkinson’s, and Invert/ed, the community exchange educational program.

Invertigo Dance Theatre presents timely, vivacious and important work. It is kinetic, beautiful, thought provoking story-telling. Karlin runs the company as what she slyly refers to as a “benevolent monarchy.” Though there is a great deal of give and take in the process, Karlin is the decision maker. Dancers are brought on not because of what they look like or their physical virtuosity, but because of who they are. Her choreography and storytelling centers around various types of transformation: internal, emotional and in journey. “I like arcs…In any Invertigo show I want you to start one place, go to a lot of other places and then end a different place or end in the same place, but changed.” Karlin approaches physical objects with the same whimsy. She likes “when things can be other things….I think that the reason that transformation is so fascinating to me is that it is ultimately hopeful and it also acknowledges the absolute spectrum of possibility that we have. It allows for nuance and change, which are two threads in the work that I really strive for. I don’t want to put anything black and white out there because I think that there are very few things that are without nuance. I like that Invertigo lives in in-between spaces. That it allows people to come to the work as they are and to be changed or to return to where they were but to see things through a different lens.”

Karlin is a politically and socially active person. She identifies as an intersectional feminist and works with many organizations as a private citizen. When asked how this affects her work, she is deliberate and thoughtful in answering. “I am not creating work that I would say preaches a particular viewpoint. I personally have many firmly held political or personal views about things. There are artists making incredible work coming more from a place of advocacy and activism. Where I seem to function as an artist is allowing situations and characters and contexts to be what they are and to look at things from different angles and different perspectives and to present things as I wish they were or I wish they would be treated.”

Photo Credit: Interior Design by Cheryl Mann Productions

Karlin works with a wonderful group of artists, both regular company members and an extended group for additional performances. She is constantly rethinking and broadening and questioning. She has always had a diverse racial makeup of dancers and doesn’t hire to fill a rainbow, but is highly aware and active in terms of audience, community engagement, the cultural landscape and representation. She is constantly expanding language in casting, for example, “casting dancers of any gender classification”. She is specific that gender roles are fluid in her pieces, everyone lifts everyone else and she has couples of every combination. It is all in service of storytelling. The work often grows out of the dancers cast. 2014’s Reeling, set in a bar, has both a Lesbian couple and a bi-sexual character, but their sexual identies are not the focus of the dance, their relationships and the situation that they are in are what is paramount. Interior Design, choreographed in 2017 tells the story of an interracial couple because Jonathan Bryant and Hyosun Choi are Black and Korean American respectively and they were the dancers cast. The story line grew out of those dancers’ identities. Other elements of the story (which I won’t spoil here!) are more universal. The combination of specific and universal is part of what makes the company so accessible. It comes down to “a rich variety of stories told by a rich variety of people.”

Family is important to Karlin and to the development of her company. Her partner Isak is integral to the evolution of it, from early set design, to catering benefits to the back and forth that comes from working in close quarters. Karlin has a close family, and describes her parents as lovely people. Her mother, a company board member, is active in the Dancing with Parkinson’s baking cookies, taking classes and keeping everyone happy. Her brother Toby Karlin is “an insanely talented” musician and has composed numerous pieces for the company in addition to accompanying some classes. And her father, while loathe to describe himself as an artist, is supportive of those who are. This warm family dynamic carries over into the company, instilling a cohesive dynamic into the mix which is also embraced by Executive Director Tara Aesquivel and Brittany A. Gash, the Director of Marketing and Development, both of whom share the open office space.

In addition to collaborating with her dancers, Karlin has a symbiotic relationship with the mercurial dance community in Los Angeles and is quite a wonderful ambassador for it. She trained here, prior to college and then again after, and lists numerous Los Angeles artistic directors and choreographers as pioneers and inspiration; First is of course Kate Hutter, who brought her back to Los Angeles. Deborah Brockus, Lula and Tamica Washington, Ana Maria Alvarez, and Pat Taylor are all on the tip of her tongue,

and she has specific compliments for each. She admires Brockus’ lovegevity, will and pursuit of vision. She is in awe of the family spirit that Lula, Erwin and Tamica Washington share and revel in. She is immensely grateful to Hutter. She laughs as she notes that they are all women, saying that there is something in the homegrown, grassroots landscape of Los Angeles that allows all of these brilliant self-created and self-motivated artists to thrive. These are powerhouse dance companies, yet there is a persistent outside vision of Los Angeles as a desert wasteland of dance. When asked about it, Karlin acknowledges the existence of the idea and posits that there could be an element of misogyny in the lack of national recognition for the heavily female led Los Angeles scene, but for the most part Karlin refuses to be distracted by negativity and remains “inspired by the amazing tapestry of arts” in the city. She also spends much of her time seeing these other companies, and promoting them, giving concrete action to the creation and maintenance of a solid dance community in the Southland. “I really believe in acknowledging the people around you and the exceptional work that they are doing and I believe in having a strong palate, a strong cultural landscape.” It is imperative to see (and support) other people’s work. “You don’t have to like it and you don’t have to wish that you were making the same art….There is space for all of us to be saying what we need to say.”

Photo Credit: Joe Lambie

Dancing Through Parkinson’s was founded in 2011, modeled upon the same program that is run in New York by the Mark Morris Dance group and Brooklyn Parkinson’s Group. It consists of dance classes that are structured around the dancers present each day. This is “a real dance class. It is challenging.” Most classes start in a chair and progress to across the floor sequences and finish in a big circle. Dancers, caregivers, friends and family are all invited to dance together and everyone is encouraged to go at their own pace. Individuality is encouraged with the phrase “there are no mistakes, only solos.”

Even before founding Dancing Through Parkinson’s, Invertigo and Karlin began cultivating a relationship with Inner City Arts, eventually creating Invert/Ed. This is a multi-disciplinary program bringing arts and storytelling workshops to numerous city venues. Examples include public programs for tots at Descanso Gardens and the Annenberg Center for the Arts, school residencies, both short and long term and The Storytelling through Movement workshops that are for performing artists as well as kids and other laypersons. Invertigo Dance Theatre, Dancing through Parkinson’s and Inver/Ed are separate but related entities. When asked about the connectivity of the programs, Karlin brought up legendary choreographer Liz Lerman and her theory of vertical ranking. People are traditionally assessed in a vertical continuum, with “elite” dancers and athletes at the top, then weekend warriors, “regular” people, and at the bottom of the pole, those who are differently abled or confined to wheelchairs. What if instead, the line was horizontal and everyone were just different but on the same playing field. It is a brilliant concept and can be applied not only to movement, but to research and vision statements as well. Invertigo seems to work very much on the horizontal in the approach to theatre, education and community exchange, with no one aspect outranking the other.

“Dance theatre is an incredible lens and that lens can either be a mirror into which you look and you see yourself and then you are then able to see yourself a little bit differently or it is a window that you can look through and see the world in a different way or see a different part of the world, like both of those are really equally valid….and I think that art can really do both.”

Invertigo Dance Theatre is busy and performing next at The Palm Springs Dance Festival. Go and see this vibrant and important company.

Featured image photo credit: James Foote

Inside the Creative Minds Behind MEMORY 5D+ – A Harmonic, Yet Explosive Experience

I had the pleasure of sitting down with four of the creatives of MEMORY 5D+ – AN IMMERSIVE MUSICAL ODYSSEY TO A DISTANT PAST at their satellite production offices in Alhambra – from China, its creator Ulan Xuerong, musicians Erkin Abdulla and Lucina Yue; and from California, writer John Hughes.

With the wonderful assist of Eileen Cheng who translated for the three Mandarin artists, we were able to get noteworthy insights into the makings of MEMORY 5D+, which will be having its world premiere at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium May 26 and 27.

Ulan, the founder and current general manager of her production company China Film HuaTeng Movies & TV Culture Company (CFH) shrewdly sought out contributors familiar with Western tastes in entertainment to introduce the Yin-&-Yang-rooted, classic Mandarin arts to non-Asian audiences. Quite evident in the round table interview, just in first-impression appearances, the cultural mix from traditional Mandarin to blended Chinese and Western to Americanized Western – a perfect example of Yin & Yang in everyday life. Ulan (the total female Yin) carried a lovely air of guarded formality dressed most stylishly from her striking jade jewelry to her shiny silver oxfords. Lucina and Erkin possessed a open ease in their respective smart, fashionable attire. John (the total male Yang), accustomed to working behind the scenes as a senior visual effects artist at Dreamworks Animation, attended in comfortable casual jeans and a Oakley-logo-ed tee. The words ‘harmony’ and ‘love’ (and the ideas behind them) were brought up repeatedly in their descriptions of MEMORY 5D+.

The Tao philosophy of Yin & Yang serves as the basis of MEMORY 5D+, with complementary opposites, that when combined, fuse to form a stronger unit of cosmic strengths.

Yin’s attributes include qualities of darkness, softness, femininity, being cold and wet; and is associated with water, earth, moon and nighttime. Yang – hardness, masculinity, being hot and dry; and is linked with fire, sky, the sun and daytime.  Results are harmonic against the background of universal creation, the opposing forces combining to form the mountains and rivers and other harmonic elements of nature.

The title itself MEMORY 5D+ refers to Ulan’s recollections of her beloved Chinese cultural heritage, presented in five dimensions via creative designer Tom E. Marzullo‘s multi-dimensional, immersive, state-of-the-art concert production techniques (including high-def digital video and lighting, surround sound, lasers and aromatic sensory technology). Don’t worry, no 3-D glasses needed to be worn. But do expect show-stopping visuals from Tom (whose own impressive resumé includes designing and directing international tours for Justin Bieber, Prince, Luther Vandross and KISS).

Ulan trained as a child to become an actress. “Acting is in my blood.”The beginning seeds of MEMORY 5D+ came to Ulan decades before, but she finally started working to realize her vision just three years ago. Ulan wanted to share her centuries-old Chinese tradition via music, dance and visuals. Ulan founded CFH to implement her worldwide delivery of her proud, creative histories. Ulan chose the specific musical instruments in the show with their very distinctive sounds as to how they fit into enhance the MEMORY 5D+ story line. Ulan’s hoping the Pasadena audiences like the show. “It would mean we did it right!” Afterwards, CFH plans to tour MEMORY 5D+ internationally.

John credits yun-qi (Chinese for ‘luck’) and networking (between friends and friends of friends), that put him together with Ulan. One day, John came home to find his wife (who’s Chinese to his Liverpudlian lineage) chatting with Ulan in their living room. After hearing Ulan’s passionate, very clear description of what was to become MEMORY 5D+, John made the easy choice of signing on to script and shape Ulan’s vision. “Although it’s a show focused on traditional Chinese music, it’s also highly visual in a way that I haven’t really seen before.” John has sharpened his experienced eye for visuals working on big Hollywood productions (including Kung Fu Panda 2, Moana, I Am Legend, Spider-Man 3). Actually, the choice wasn’t that easy as he had to decline work on the Wreck-It Ralph sequel, Ralph Breaks the Internet: Wreck-It Ralph 2.

John describes MEMORY 5D+ as immersive. “You’re in the environment embedded in the visual performance of the show, a visual experience that’s larger than the stage, surrounding you, above you, behind you, filling the auditorium.” In the process of adapting this unique Chinese show for Western audiences, John changed as little as possible, instead adding visual touches throughout to clarify the communication of the eastern Taoist philosophy of Yin & Yang for Westerners’ more accessible comprehension. In MEMORY 5D+, Yin and Yang transform into competing characters for the affection of a young maiden. The ‘good guy’ and ‘bad guy’ don’t ‘win’ in the absolute sense. In MEMORY 5D+, love and harmony remain the prominent through-line with no winners or losers. John commented, “My job was quite simple.” He made simple adjustments to the order of the twelve segments of the show. “Lots of the elements were already in place and worked very well.” Despite also being the visual effects artist for Oscar-winning animations Frozen and Big Hero 6, John left all visual effects decisions to Tom and his live concert expertise.

Ulan credits John with making her original ideas more dramatic, more striking; making the storyline more consistent in reaching the hearts of the audience.

The 43-member cast of MEMORY 5D+ will most skillfully demonstrate examples of Chinese performance arts – Chinese acrobatics, Dolan Muqam (an integration of ethnic group Uygur’s singing, dancing and music), Khoomei (Tuvan throat singing), Shadow Play, Suzhou Pingtan (storytelling and ballad singing), Tibertan folk songs and Urtin Duu (Mongolian Long Tune).

As part of this four million dollar production, seventeen of China’s revered musical performers (considered national treasures) will perform their artistry on rare traditional instruments. Test your own musical instrument acumen on how many of these musical devices from Chinese history you have heard of. MEMORY 5D+ will include guqin (Chinese zither), ‘cowboy’ flute, gijak, guzheng, konghou, morin khuur (Mongolioan horsehead fiddle), pipa (Chinese lute), Tuva drum (Shamanic drum), and two chordophones – Topshur and Yekele.

Lucina Yue will be playing the Konghou (Chinese harp). Lucina has mastered four different types of harps – the modern Konghou, the old Konhou, the western harp, and the triple harp. A former actress, Lucina’s virtuosity of the contemporary Chinese Konghou has led her to many firsts – performing at the Lincoln Center, at the United Nations headquarters and at New York Fashion Week.  Lucinda also has the honor of being the first Konghou performer to appear on Chinese stamps.

Guitarist Erkin Abdulla will be performing his original compositions in MEMORY 5D+, combining his Flamenco proficiency with the essence of Uygur’s Dolan Muqam, Turkish folk songs and hints of Brazilian samba and Southern American Blues. Erikin continues striving to make folk music more inclusive, more modern integrating additional international musical elements and ancient Chinese musical forms into western styles. Erkin entertained with a sampling of Turkish folk songs at the press round table.

For an insight to where in the Yin & Yang scale you yourself might fall in, come with an open mind to MEMORY 5D+ – AN IMMERSIVE MUSICAL ODYSSEY TO A DISTANT PAST at the Pasadena Auditorium May 26th or 27th and let it be filled with new knowledge of a culture you might have thought you’ve known all about. For an unique exposure to centuries of Chinese culture, concise and abridged, combined with an immersive light and sensory show experience, log onto and all Ticketmaster outlets for available tickets.

Mr. Gazillionaire On Delivering His Intoxicating ABSINTHE to Your Laps

With an award-laden, six-year run in Caesars Palace in Vegas; ABSINTHE, hosted by its incomparable master of ceremonies Mr. Gazillionaire, will be playing at LA Live starting March 22, 2017 for a limited engagement. Better Lemons and I were fortunate enough The Gazillionaire could find a couple of minutes to answer our probing, tongue-in-cheek queries.

Hello there and thank you for taking your invaluable time to answer these questions. Should I call you Sir Gazillionaire? Mr. Gazillionaire? Or just Gaz?

The Gazillionaire or Gaz is fine. 

To the uninitiated and the unwashed, please describe the Number One Greatest Show in Las Vegas ever, ABSINTHE.

The show features the hottest, most talented and provocative performers in the world and is hosted by me, which is an extra treat. Imagine your wildest wet dream, add nine more people, three goats, a yacht, 15 bags of cocaine and a ton of lube; and you might be close to how great this show is. 

I’m sure you would say that ABSINTHE is incomparable to anything out there. But how would you draw analogies to some revered acts that people might already know?

Cirque du Soleil as channeled through the Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Did you originally drink gallons of absinthe in the name of research for this show?

I actually use absinthe to rinse my mouth out in the mornings. Gives me a good kick in the dick first thing in the morning. There was an old gypsy woman I met in Istanbul. She showed me the magical elixir and how it can be used to coax money from wealthy businessmen. They just open their wallet for you. So…

How did you initially come up with your distinctive look?

I was born this way. When you’ve got it, you’ve got it.

If someone wanted to copy your look, how would you instruct them in styling their hair on top of their head? And on their upper lip?

Ugh, I’m actually sick and tired of people trying to dress and act like me. There are thousands of them walking around Vegas and Lithuania. Be your own person. 

How often do you change your fabulous outfits?

Change outfits? What do you mean? I’ve just got one.  My idiot assistant Dotty cleans it for me multiple times a day. 

How long have you and Penny Gibbets been partners?

Penny was my old assistant. I fired her ass! Lazy bitch! My new assistant is Dotty Dibble. Just as annoying and possibly even stupider. Hard to find good help these days. 

Can LA LIVE audiences expect lots of costumes? Or lots of skin?

Lots of costumes that come off to reveal lots of skin.

Would you encourage those attending ABSINTHE to sit in the front rows for a better tactile experience?

Sitting in the front row is definitely a more testicle experience. Get in there!

Aside from the self-described “offensive” lapdances, what other visuals will the ABSINTHE audience be seeing? (i.e., girl in balloon, roller skating)

Lots of hot sweaty bodies in motion. Guys and girls, there’s definitely something for everyone in this show. Aerialists, contortionists (famous head-inside-vagina move), back flips and a couple guys swinging around on horizontal poles. You might even see a peepee tip!

BTW, how many millions is a Gazi?

More than you can count.

When and how did you make your first million?

Producing a show when I was six.

You’ve been producing and hosting ABSINTHE at Caesar’s Palace for six years now. What easy ‘in’ do you have with the centurions?

Man, those guys love to fuck! Just take them some sheep and you can have anything you want!

Since you have endless amounts of money, name your dream celebrity-filled cast and what they would do (trapeze, hula hoop, slip on a banana peel).

Neil Patrick Harris – Host

Dave Grohl – Musician

Ivanka Trump – Contortion (head inside vagina!)

The Rock – Bodyguard and stripper

Channing Tatum – stripper

Helen Mirren- Stripper pole

Betty White – flying trapeze

Kim Kardashian – clean up

I’m sure you and your troupe are all total professionals and never let your audience see you sweat (Unless you want them to!). Share with us an incident that didn’t go as planned during a show, that was seamlessly covered up without the audience noticing the mishap. 

Dotty constantly fucks up every night. Other than that shit, the show is perfection.

But, seriously now, don’t you ever get hot and bothered with all the sexiness surrounding you?

Yeah, I guess. But I’ve fucked all the performers already, the ones I want to anyways. That’s how they got their jobs.

Have you been ABSINTHE-ing so long that you never get nervous?

Why would I get nervous? People are idiots and I’m not.

What is the best compliment you have ever received as Gazillionaire?

I’d let you fuck me with all three of your dicks!

What would pleasure you more, to have your ABSINTHE audience leaving –  Laughing? Titillated? Awed? Wowed?

Opening their wallets and dumping whatever cash they have left into a bucket.

Thank you, Mr. Gazillionaire! I look forward to feeling all kinds of emotions from experiencing your ABSINTHE.

For further info and ticket availability through April 23, 2017, visit

The 7 Fingers’ Shana Carroll on Jumping Through Hoops & Hanging From the Rafters To Make the Tastiest Banana Bread

Montreal-based Les 7 Doigts de la Main (The 7 Fingers) will be appearing at the Eli & Edythe Broad Stage February 16 through 18 with their latest creation CUISINE & CONFESSIONS. Better-Lemons and I had the opportunity to chat with Shana Carroll, the co-founding artistic director of The 7 Fingers. We touched on The 7 Fingers’ beginnings from Cirque du Soleil, some of her and her husband Sébastien Soldevila’s most memorable creative moments, and, of course, CUISINE & CONFESSIONS.
Shana, thank you for taking the time for this interview with Better-Lemons and myself.
What inspired you to create CUISINE & CONFESSIONS?
My husband and I co-created the show. Prior to creation, we were in our own kitchen, brainstorming on possible themes for the show. He was cooking as we were speaking — he is incredibly passionate about food, cooking — so I looked at him and said, “What if we do a cooking show?” We laughed, wondered if that was even possible, to cook on stage, to combine circus and cooking. I remembered a book my grandmother wrote called Young and Hungry. It was a memoir and a cookbook, marrying recipes from her childhood with accompanying anecdotes. I thought this could be an interesting approach for our show. So often, our shows have these strong autobiographical angles, as it’s a big part of the vision of our company to humanize the acrobatics, to ensure the audience really gets to know the performers and care about them. So, we thought of this notion of food memories: combining confession-like moments of storytelling, both physical and verbal, with childhood recipes.
Acrobats and dancers are not known for indulging in sweets or desserts. Do you all work out so much that you can eat whatever you want?
Hmmm… I can’t say I notice any across-the-board difference in an acrobat’s approach to food. It is true that the physical work is so intense that there is less “weight-watching,” and more assuring their bodies get enough sustenance to do what they need to do. There are peculiar things of timing — very hard to eat before the show, which is often standard dinner time. So they tend to eat large meals very late at night. But other than that, I would say their relationship with food is, in general, just like non-acrobats. 
What can your audience expect to experience in CUISINE & CONFESSIONS?
It was interesting, when we created the show, we began with intense storytelling sessions with the cast. They went up, one by one, took the microphone and told extensive biographies of their parents, grandparents, linking them to food memories, etc. It just happened, with this particular cast, there were so many really tragic stories! Many of them had lost one or more of their parents, had grown up in harsh environments… We really wanted to share these intense stories, but it’s true at one moment I thought: My god! This show is gonna be a downer! Partly for that reason, we put a lot of effort on also capturing the joy and beauty and humor and love that also characterize our kitchen memories, and our joy and love of food and cooking… In the end, I find the overall tone of the show is quite light, joyful, playful; but embedded within are these very deep, intense stories that sometimes catch you off guard, and (without revealing too much!) make you contemplate some more pertinent social and political issues.
Also I’d add, circus is, by nature, celebratory, empowering, even triumphant. By its very nature: we are attempting to do seemingly impossible “tricks,” and then (hopefully :)) succeeding! So that is inevitably a factor, and theme, as well: the life-affirming power of circus.
You co-founded Les 7 Doigts de la Main in 2002 in Montreal after seven years as Cirque du Soleil’s original solo trapeze artist in SALTIMBANCO. Were all seven of you (Isabelle Chassé, Patrick Léonard, Faon Shane, Gypsy Snider, Sébastien Soldevila and Samuel Tétreault) originally members of Cirque du Soleil at one time or another?
Yes, all seven of us at some point worked at Cirque du Soleil, for varying durations. Faon and Isabelle, for instance, began performing there when they were children! (At the time we founded the company, Faon was the artist to have worked longest at Cirque du Soleil, having started at the company’s inception as a young child). However, some of the “Fingers” I originally knew more through my years at circus school, or in the case of Gypsy; we were childhood friends from San Francisco. (I started at Pickle Family Circus, and she is the daughter of the founders.)
You performed with San Francisco’s Pickle Family Circus when you were 18 years old. What initially got you interested in performing?
I was a theatre kid, and at the age of 18 wanted to pursue an acting/directing career. My father was a columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle, and he wrote a book on the Pickle Family Circus, and subsequently, became quite involved with them, was on their board of directors, etc. He had been encouraging me for awhile to come check it out, but I was a serious theatre kid. 🙂 However, I did need a day job while I was pursuing acting and, again he suggested I work at the office at Pickles. At least it was arts-oriented, and I would learn valuable lessons about administration, non-profit, etc. But then I walked into work and saw a trapeze artist 15 feet away from me and everything changed on a dime. I instantly fell in love with it, abandoned everything else and said, “That’s what I’m gonna do!” It was certain in my mind; there was no turning back.
What type of technique classes did you first take – Ballet? Gymnastics? Trapeze?
As I mentioned, I did mostly theatre. Within my various theatre programs, I had some minimal movement classes, stage combat etc., and I tap danced for many years as well, but other than that was completely un-physical. I couldn’t touch my toes, or do a pull-up, when I first decided I wanted to do trapeze. For everyone who knew me, it was the most shocking and incongruous career choice. But I was so passionate and driven about trapeze, I just trained and trained and trained sometimes not really knowing what I was doing! I left my office job at Pickles to become an apprentice. Paid $300 a month to basically do whatever it is they decide they need you to do, on stage and off (often jumping on the other end of the teeterboard while other people flip into the air), but you get to learn alongside them, in every respect. How to tie knots, how to set up bleachers, how to stretch, tumble, sell t-shirts… I set-up a mini-trapeze off the boom of the bleacher truck and would just play around on it until it was too dark to see anything. That’s pretty much how I learned.
When did you decide you wanted to be a choreographer?
Well, it was funny that kind of came by accident before I really understood what choreographing was. I think because I came from theatre, and that it was the artistic qualities of trapeze that drew me to it. From the start, my main interest was in creating pieces, finding arcs and characters and storylines, alongside learning the tricks. When I got to National Circus School in Montreal (when I was 20), I discovered this was more of a rare thing, and I started creating acts for the other kids at school. There was our end-of-the-year show, my first year at school, and for that one year, it was student-directed. I was on the “choreography” team. I ended up choreographing 90% of the show, and realized this was something I loved. So I always tried to maintain that side of my creativity. When I was at Cirque, I was hired also as Dance Captain, so was in charge of maintaining all the choreography in the show. Sometimes, if there were new numbers joining the tour, I got to choreograph them. Then I would do little side projects, cabarets and things, to have the chance to create new pieces. So by the time I left Cirque to start The 7 Fingers (at 30 years old), choreographing had begun to eclipse trapeze as my main passion.
Do most of the troupe have ballet training, as well as acrobatic?
Most of the cast went to circus school. Professional circus schools, particularly the one in Montreal, have very good dance programs the students are required to take. It is, of course, only for a couple years and not every day. But since it is so similar to acrobatics — physical expression — they tend to assimilate the dance very quickly. Because, in school, a circus artist is working towards creating one act, quite often their dance vocabulary is really individuated and limited. They are very expressive in one certain manner, but would have a hard time walking into dance class and just picking up a choreography.
Jumping through square frames is quite impressive. Does looking at common-day objects inspire you to think up interesting visual challenges?
Yes, definitely! It’s one of my favorite exercises, I even have my students do it when I teach. I tell them to just look around and find ten items and then brainstorm on how they could use them creatively/acrobatically.
What would a typical pre-show warm-up be for The 7 Fingers?
Actually the warm-up time for CUISINE & CONFESSIONS is fantastic! They need to stretch and warm up certain tricks, also play around with each other to relax and bond and get centered. AND they have to cut vegetables and grate cheese and preset all of their props and food items. It’s so great to watch people tumble and chop just inches away from each other, alternating which activity they’re doing!
The 7 Fingers have performed all over the world? Would you share a memorable story you remember from some of your many cities you visited.
For me, my most memorable moment was when we performed in Wellington, New Zealand. It was with our first show LOFT, which I was still performing in. We did our final bow and then the audience broke out into a “Haka,” the traditional Maori tribal dance they do. It’s like a kind of percussive war cry, but also used to show appreciation. So we were just standing there on stage and then, suddenly it was like the audience was performing for us. So much energy. And it went on and on, tears just streaming down our faces… incredible!
Do you gear or tweak your show according to your different regions or nationalities of your audiences?
Yes. Well, most of all, we always try to perform in the local language. In the case of CUISINE, we’re fortunate as the cast combined speaks about eight different languages, so we can reorganize who says what lines. And the others study the lines they have. It is quite a feat — we even performed the whole show in Russian — but really worth it. Also, there are small jokes here and there we try to adapt to the cultures we’re in. 
In 2014, your husband Sébastien staged one of the three scenes of the Sochi Olympic Opening Ceremony. How much of his creation excitement did you get to experience? It must have been pretty spectacular, yes?
I was involved in the initial stages of creation of Sochi, so it was a great deal of fun, brainstorming and attending those meetings. When it came time to the on-site creation, Séb went to Sochi alone (I was involved in another project then), though I was brought over for one week just before the opening to tweak. It was exciting!
How did that feeling compare to you choreographing a number for the 2012 Oscars? 
Oh, the Oscars was maybe one of the best memories of my life! It was just so much fun, and such a great team. I can’t even express what a fantastic memory that was. One of the moments that stuck with me… When our number was going to perform, they brought me to watch from the centre “island” where all the cameras are. When the performance was finished, one of the cameramen in the aisles high-fived me. It was kind of surreal.
How about for choreographing Cirque du Soleil’s IRIS in 2011? 
IRIS was also a great experience. Actually, I think what was most special for me about IRIS was the chance to live in Los Angeles again. I grew up in Northern California, but after the divorce, my dad lived in Santa Monica for many years. So they did the joint custody thing, and I had a double life down there. I had a strong sentimental attachment to LA, but hadn’t really been back. So living there for four months, with my 2-year-old daughter, and so close to family, was just wonderful.
Your troupe must be a close-knit family, always being able to second-guess every move, every jump, every catch. How did the idea of living together in a renovated convent in Montreal come about?
Well, we all reached the same point in our lives at the same time: wanting to settle down, grow roots, have families, tour less. We all were hitting our thirties, and the nomadic life-style was starting to wear thin (which was incidentally also one of the reasons we founded the company). So we were all looking to buy a house at the same time in Montreal. Patrick found this crazy convent and had the idea we could all buy it together, renovate, live communally etc. Now we spend so much time together, between company and home, that we live less “communally” and more like very, very close neighbors. It’s really great for the kids, they have this crazy fluid expanse of houses they can run through, neighbors that are like siblings.
Aside from leaving The Broad Stage with a tasty morsels of banana bread in their stomachs and banana bread crumbs on their hands, what feelings would you want your audience to leave with?
To feel transformed! That it was cathartic. That they cried, and laughed, and ooh-ed, and aah-ed, and got to know these nine people like new nine best friends that they will remember forever! That they will think about their own food memories, their own parents. That they will go home and cook a family dinner, call their parents, share with their children some childhood memory. That they will decide to go swing on a trapeze or whatever risk-taking life-affirming equivalent, having had the glimpse that anything truly is possible if you just work hard enough, care enough, put enough soul into it. That they leave a little more hopeful, hearts (and bellies!) full.
Merci beaucoup, Shana! I look forward to tasting your banana bread and being wowed by The 7 Fingers’ acrobatic visuals.
For tickets and curtain times for their February 16 to 18, 2017 performances at The Eli & Edythe Broad Stage, log onto

Heather Lipson Bell

Heather Lipson Bell

Heather Lipson Bell is a genuine Los Angeles hyphenate; dancer, choreographer, actress, educator and entrepreneur.  She has carved out a successful career by following her heart and soul, connecting experiences and collaborators and weaving them together to create a tapestry of creativity, artistry, education, altruism and family.

Bell is a force in the world of dance and opera, especially as it intersects with young people and both children and adults with different needs. A quick rundown of her current job titles illustrates her lifelong love of music, dance and activism.  She is the founder and creative director for Performing Arts For All, providing arts opportunities for and specializing in working with those who have special needs and limitations. She is a lead educator and the managing director for KIDS/IQUE, a division of, an organization which provides artistic opportunities for those in foster care facilities, at-risk youth and those with additional special needs. PAFA partners with LA Opera, LA Ballet, MUSE/IQUE, Center Stage Opera and is Fiscally Sponsored by the 501c3 Dance Resource Center. Her programs are unique in that they do not separate nor isolate participants by challenge. Rather, all dancers work together and use their different strengths and weaknesses to create a stronger whole.

Bell has worked with the LA Opera since 2008 as a teaching artist, choreographer and assistant director for their in-school and community programs.  She is a dancer and choreographer who works consistently.  She has performed in over ten concerts with the New York Philharmonic, two of which she both choreographed and danced and which will be kept as part of a new online platform, She performs regularly and has film and theater pieces in all states of production. Recent work includes dancing at the Ford Theater, at the Pageant of the Masters, choreographing and co-producing the short film Halfway, which she and her partner Christine Deitner (They also created the award winning “Freeze! Try Again) are now developing for presentation at the Hollywood Fringe Festival. Finally, with co-artistic director Tom Dulack ( she is planning on touring their concerts and also in development on 2 other theater projects: Extravaganza (based on the life and work of Vivaldi) and Aphra (a play he’s written about the fabulous Aphra Behn that Bell would choreograph).

Lastly, Bell is a mom who home schools her two young children and also serves as their audition chauffeur. Final note: Heather Lipson Bell is busy.

We met for hot drinks on a rainy Thursday morning for a freewheeling conversation that circled around the ideas of art as a source of inspiration, community and service, making it as a freelance artist in Los Angeles and the immense value of the support of friends and family.

The phenomenon of dance as a tool for work with differently abled people is relatively new to the general public but has been part of Bell’s career path from early on. Her first major foray was her senior showcase at Boston Conservatory, with a project that involved blind and deaf dancers. Although the artistic director was “completely not on board, she thought it a terrible idea…,” Bell and her creative partner stayed committed to their idea and eventually found an enthusiastic mentor in their Laban professor. They focused on research, teaching classes and small workshops at both the Perkins School for the Blind  and Caroll Center for The Blind.

“For me it was specifically a movement inspired thing. How do different people move? How do they understand movement?” She continues, “it became really interesting because we met people who were born with different levels of disability. Then also those who had lost their vision – one man who had so much anger but agreed to do our little movement class, and he was able to find movement, spacial awareness and comfort in this new sightless world.” Eventually they combined sighted dancers into the project and her path, curvy and indirect though it would be, was set. “It was this huge vast world that I had never been exposed to…..that kind of sparked my interest in movement study.”

Bell and PAFA at The Hard Rock Cafe in 2016

Bell moved to LA in 1999 “not to dance, but following a boyfriend.  I thought I’d hang out for a year and go back to New York.” But she she stayed, “I was lucky when I came to LA – to meet a really good group of people right away who were not competitive in the typical sense of what I grew up with, but really supportive and were like, well if I don’t get the job, it’s good because you got the job and we all kind of came up together.” She adds, “To this day – I find this a really unique group of women and that has been a great support under everything I do.” Her circle of friends and collaborators continues inspire and support her. When casting dancers for a short film she recently choreographed and co-produced, she invited people to simply take part, without telling them exactly what they would be doing. “I expected five or six people to show up and over 25 beautiful dancers came to give of themselves.”

Bell and Gary Franco dancing with City Ballet of Los Angeles at the Ford Theater in a piece that she choreographed.

Bell talks a lot about community and friendship; of the give and take of this industry. She credits much of her success to friends looking out for one another and mentions job after job that she earned after a recommendation from one friend or another. The path to creating Performing Arts for All started with a job vacated by a friend who went to go dance on a cruise. Bell was hired as a dancer by Zina Bethune and Bethune Theatre Dance, a company that created work with both traditional and differently abled dancers. When Bethune later saw Bell’s resume, she hired her as an educator which led to 10 years of teaching dance to people with all kinds of challenges. After Bethune was killed in a tragic hit and run accident, some parents approached Bell because they missed her classes. This inspired the creation of PAFA.

What stands out when listening to Bell speak is the fluidity with which she adjusts the focus of her work. There is equal value given to performance, teaching, choreography and activism – all fueled by a constant search for new and inventive ways to create movement stories. Each feeds the other. For example, when choreographing a film scene with Marines who were uncomfortable with the entire premise of dancing, she drew upon what she had learned teaching those who were blind, having them do movement they were already familiar with, then guiding that movement into patterns to create dance. In this way, she essentially allows her dancers to make their own dances. She sums up her philosophy by saying, “there was never a break, I started teaching at 15, following the concept, from an Ailey dancer, of; I am not your teacher, we teach each other.”  She is also vocal in visualizing, setting goals and manifesting what she wants. For example, when auditioning for a beer commercial she asked in the moment if they had a choreographer. They said no. She got the job.

Bell is pragmatic about the ups and downs of the industry. She revealed her disappointment in coming to the realization that she had limits as a choreographer; that creating new movement vocabulary was not among her skills. Initially she mourned what she considered a failing but then turned that liability into an asset. Becoming an expert at research, she studied organic movement and approached her work that way instead. Her work for the NY Phil was based in flamenco, a dance form that she was unfamiliar with at the beginning of the process yet by the time she came to the performance, the world renowned musician with whom she was partnered thought her an expert.

How does she get through the downs? “In regards to fighting depression, a simple thing to do is find one thing, one small thing a day to be joyous about,” says Bell. “We all experience depression and feel stuck or powerless. For me, it seems my nature is to be happy – I am drawn to laughter and beauty and stories of strength and resilience like many, and shy away from darkness and evil and blood and guts.” For example, “I choose not to go out for roles playing parts of victims, etc.” Adding, “I am drawn to other projects and have been lucky to have opportunities that support this. For me I try to always:  Explore. Learn. Play. Move. Connect. I’ll continue to set goals, and take on too much, and procrastinate and enjoy my craft and community and family more than I could ever express.”

Bell is quick to credit her family for their ongoing support. Her parents, her husband, even her young children all support and participate in her process. “I was a performer when I met my husband. He knows that it is not about the money.” She recounted her dad’s reaction when she turned down an opportunity to create a health oriented business when a much less lucrative but much more artistic performance opportunity arrived. “He was like, of course you’ll go dance!”

“We seem to all strive for this ‘balance’ or even for ‘perfection’ – and it is a fleeting thing. If it wasn’t I’m sure I’d be bored by the stillness. I have always been grateful for the language of dance, for experiencing and appreciating on a very deep level the impermanence of what we do. And for the voice and opportunities it has given me. Balancing creative work, work, a marriage and motherhood is a dance. I am constantly reminded what a gift it all is and that I’m not perfect – and that is perfect.”

“What I’m doing now, who I am –  was present in me as a very young child. I really have always been an artist and activist and as I’ve been thinking the examples go so far back. I’ve always loved human movement and storytelling and history and music and art and elephants and trees and collaboration and community and the connections of it all and just the complexity of this world.”

Performing Arts For All has a full schedule for 2017.
Two 6 week workshops culminating with a showcase.
Session 1: 1/7/17 – 2/11/17, Session 2: 2/25/17 – 4/1/17
Additional inclusion workshops at Olive Middle and High Schools (Baldwin Park)
KIDS/IQUE outreach visits us: 2/11/17 & 4/1/17
MUSE/IQUE Concert Field Trips: 2/12/17, 4/2/17
Performing with LA Opera – Community Opera Noah’s Flood – shows 5/6/17

To keep up to date on Bell’s work, visit her Website