“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes…“
Where do you find inspiration? What parts of your ancestry or distant past to you bring into your current life? Why is it that so many things that are old seem new again?
As the great American writer said, there’s a certain lyrical element to the way history comes full circle. Human nature is subject to patterns, just like everything else in the natural world.
Every time we humans complete another lap around the great circle of consciousness the innovators among us magically pull novelty out of thin air. New and different have been the watchwords of humanity since the first wheel was carved.
Yet every innovation is doomed to become retro at some point in time. The millennial’s of today are destined to become the out-of-touch old fogies of tomorrow. It’s almost as if history is a compost heap of culture where nearly-forgotten themes and styles go to molder like mycelium until the time is right for some intrepid innovator to reach back and help them spring forth like mushrooms.
It’s not like there aren’t plenty of things we’d be happy to see relegated to the dustbin of history once and for all. Everything from racism and sexism to senseless wars and corruption all need to be evolved past and left behind once and for all. Mother Nature is putting us on the spot in a big way, our historical approach to natural resources and the environment simply aren’t going to work for us in the future.
But when it comes to culture, the historical record is a treasure trove of inspiration. When modern creators glean gems from the past, they’re not just recycling ideas, they’re pulling out touchstones from our collective ancestry that tug on our heartstrings to remind us of whence we came.
Case in point. This past Saturday night I was delighted to attend the current rendition of The Soiled Dove in Oakland, (see spotlight below). This multi-dimensional extravaganza is an amalgam of elements designed to create an experience unlike any other I’ve witnessed. Ingredients in the recipe include an array of aerialists, top-notch musicians, performance artists, Can-Can dancers, contortionists, torch singers, and even a sharp-shooting Old West bartender with a live chicken on her shoulder.
The ingredients are one thing, but it’s the container created by Mike and Shannon Gaines, the husband and wife team behind the Vau de Vire Society that put the icing on the cake. Starting with the physical container itself, The Soiled Dove happens inside a vintage Italian circus tent known as The Tortona Big Top, specially sourced and imported specifically for The Soiled Dove and other Vau de Vire Society-related events.
What makes this far more than simply a spectacle, however, is the web of historical narrative that provides the cultural context. While obviously playing fast and loose with the facts, the story that this show exists inside is the tale of the fall and then rise of a bordello-dwelling ‘dove’ navigating the debauched world of San Francisco’s Barbary Coast, circa the Gold Rush years of the mid-1800s.
Amidst the chaos of clowning and aerial acrobatics overhead, the same costumed characters who were mingling and serving dinner earlier bring their stories to life in one vignette after another. Designed as an environmental theater-in-the-round, the action is constantly shifting from foreground to background, on stage and overhead, to right on top of the tables.
From the hapless emcee in a top hat and tails to the powerful villain who balances ballerinas on one hand, every actor brings forth a persona rooted in the imagined history of the era. Reigning over it all are the two chanteuses in charge, embodying the feminine power at the heart of it all.
What strikes me the most in events like this is how evocative and immersive historical experiences can be when done with taste and attention to detail. There’s a resonance that echoes through the ages to touch the spirit of the ancestors inside us. When we look back across the sands of time, the distance between the degrees of separation becomes murky.
It’s easy to imagine that someone your family from generations ago might have been part of a similar scene. Every one of our ancestors was a living part of history, from every culture and corner of the world. The Old West and the Gold Rush days live large in my heritage, it’s no coincidence that besides the fact that I grew up on a cattle ranch in Western Colorado, one of my favorite books growing up was “By the Great Horn Spoon” by Sid Fleischman.
I know that for me, the idea that perhaps my great grandfather spent the last of his gold nuggets on a spree in a Barbary Coast bordello is not too far fetched. The “horn spoon” that I’m holding in my photo is my only remaining relic from my grandpa who was a prospector around the turn of the century. These pocket-sized ‘spoons’ made from cattle horns were how miners would decide where to dig or pan for gold before lugging in all of their heavier equipment.
When we bring our history and ancestry forward and use it as fuel for inspiration in our modern milieu, we touch upon something universal and authentic. It might not have been our own relatives seeking their fortune in the Barbary Coast, but it’s easy to imagine that they were friends with someone who did!
That’s one of the beautiful things about this great dance of life. The deeper we delve into our roots, the more we discover the commonalities that connect us all. When you draw upon your roots for inspiration, you bring forth the seeds of innovation. Whatever brilliance you bring to today’s culture will one day be looked upon as a distant spark from the past.
You’re playing a part in the great cycle of culture as it spirals up through the mists of time. We all have one foot in the past as we reach towards the future. Let’s live with love in the here and now so that once we are history, our future progeny will be proud.
May your week be alive with light and love!
See you next Monday!
Dance First Performance Spotlight The Soiled Dove!
Wow! Just Wow!” “Blown out!” “Off the charts!” “Next level!” “Over the top!” “Epic!”
“Insert superlative here…” Words fail the task when you’re walking out of the Tortona Big Top after five hours of dining, dancing, and debauchery courtesy of The Soiled Dove.
Brainchild of Mike and Shannon Gaines, the husband and wife team behind the Vau de Vire Society, The Soiled Dove continues to evolve and elaborate each season. Fresh off of a US tour and returned to an Oakland location in the heart of the action, the current rendition builds upon the past seasons with even more action and stellar performances.
The narrative and underlying mythology brought to life in this extravaganza is more cohesive and defined than ever, and the Old West environment of San Francisco’s Barbary Coast is fleshed out in detail inside the authentic Italian circus tent.
This is what I had to say about The Soiled Dove writing about it two seasons ago for The Alameda Sun. “The Soiled Dove is more than circus or vaudeville revival. It’s beyond your wildest idea of what a burlesque dinner theater could be. It turns the concept of a historical musical like Hamilton inside out and places you in the center of the action. When you enter the Soiled Dove you embark on a journey into a world of wonders that transcends time and space.”
Executive Producer Mike Gaines couldn’t be happier with the current cast and location. “It’s great to be right in the heart of the action in Downtown Oakland! The city has been really welcoming and easy to work with as partners in making this happen!”
Happening every Friday and Saturday night through December 7th right next door to the historic Fox Theatre at the base of Telegraph Avenue in Downtown Oakland, this is one night out on the town you don’t want to miss.
If you’re wondering what to expect when you enter the alternate universe of The Soiled Dove, first of all, prepare to be amazed. I highly recommend going for the full experience which includes a historically accurate four course meal provided by Work of Art catering.
Your first hour or so will have you face to face with the performers who cavort with the guests while serving the meal. The horn section of The Jazz Mafia provides accompaniment to the meal with brass band versions of rock-and-roll classics. The Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger and Keith Richards probably never imagined that “Paint It Black” would one day be played on a trombone by a handlebar mustachioed musician in a tux and tails.
Once your dinner is done and the show begins in earnest you’ll realize that there isn’t a bad seat in the house, since the action is in the center and all around and the aerialists are literally inches above your head.
Combine great food with jaw-dropping performances by dancers, acrobats, singers, celebrity, musicians, jugglers, and daredevils doing dangerous feats of daring-do, and you start to get the picture. There’s a narrative arc to the story, and more wild costumes and outfits than you can shake a stick at.
Your time machine takes off inside The Tortona Big Top headed straight for the heart of The Barbary Coast. Reserve your seats now and let The Vau de Vire Society transport you through time and space to the historical dream world of The Soiled Dove!
Vau de Vire Society presents: The Soiled Dove
Friday and Saturday Nights through December 7th.
Inside The Tortona Big Top, Downtown Oakland