Creatures of the night: “Artistic circus” troupe Vamps de Feu hopes to open eyes to Greensboro’s diversity as well as entertain the rabble

by Daniel Bayer

The floor of Chaunxie Neam’s apartment in northeast Greensboro is littered with ribbons, bolts of cloth and scraps of fake fur as Neam and fellow members of the circus/burlesque troupe Vamps de Feu (French for “Fire Vamps”) prepare for a chilly, very un-fiery January photo shoot at Center City Park.

“I’m sorry we’re running late,” says Neam, operating a sewing machine on a coffee table, while another member of the troupe, Kevin Kearns, runs out to a nearby store to pick up some much-needed accessories for their costumes. Brittany Clark, the troupe’s dominatrix, sits on the floor lacing the legs of her pants with purple ribbons that match the bustier she’ll be wearing for the shoot.

Neam, an aerialist and dancer, formerly performed with the Greensboro Burlesque Collective, whose show last April at Lyndon Street Artworks seemed to kick the ‘boro’s performance art scene into high gear for the summer of 2006. Firedancers and performers were everywhere, particularly Greensboro fire-dance pioneer Patika Starr and her Emberellas, who could be found most Wednesday evenings dancing to the sounds of Global Repercussions at the Lager Haus on Tate Street, as well as performing at the “Elements” dance concert last June at Festival Park. Things seem to have calmed down a bit since then, perhaps due to the change of seasons (exotic, fabric-challenged costumes and winter temperatures don’t mix well, as the Vamps and I discover during our photo shoot), but Neam, along with Clark, Kearns and another performer who calls herself Morella Moon are preparing for their debut show at Rumrunners on Elm Street on Feb. 12.

The new group won’t be quite as provocative as the Burlesque Collective, which tended to be dominated by the self-proclaimed “filthy mind” of Alistair McQueen and his alter ego “Zelda Foxworthy,” according to Neam. “What’s different with the new group is…”

“We rock balls,” injects Sage. “I’m not saying the others don’t, but we’re a special flavor of ball rocking.”

“Exactly,” says Neam.

“The organization is a lot different,” Kearns says. “It’s a different view on how to organize a show, so we approached it in a different manner.”

“We also cater to the older or younger crowds,” Neam says. “We try not to keep it too burlesque, but just burlesque enough so it would be a nice show to have. I have more of a Cirque de Soliel-type of circus theatrical performance aspect of it, and Alastair was more of the traditional burlesque – it’s all about the tease and stuff. I’ve always wanted to be in a circus, so after the burlesque [show] I felt like there’s something missing and I figured out it was me not being able to perform.”

First, though, Neam had to find like-minded people to perform with him. One of the first he met was Morella Moon.

“I was coming through her store and one of our friends was like, ‘Chaunxie does fire dancing,’ and she was like, ‘Oh wow! I wanna learn!'” Neam says. “When she said that I started thinking harder about putting on a show, but with an actual troupe.”

“It all began with fire for hair,” says Morella. “I’ve always wanted to do poi [fire twirling] and stuff like that, but I couldn’t find anyone who did anything like that in Raleigh. I moved here, and I really don’t like Greensboro at all, and I was like ‘Yes, something interesting actually happens here!'”

“She would do my hair if I taught her fire, so we did that and we started to get more and more girls together and trying to figure out who would be right,” says Neam. “We’ve been through maybe two or three girls who didn’t know if they wanted to be in it and dropped out.

“We’re not trying to let people know what the show is going to be about, but there will be some going out in the crowd and whipping people and people reacting,” Neam adds.

“Some crowd interaction,” says Ms. Moon.

“We don’t want anyone to be like, ‘I’m scared!'” says Neam. “During the last part of the show we’re going to pull people out of the crowd and up onstage to dance with us.”

“We’re kind of like a variety show,” Moon says. “There’s fire, there’s dancing, there’s all-around fabulousness… I like that word. I’m going to use it every day in every sentence.”

” [An] artistic circus,” adds Kearns.

“We’re definitely an artistic circus, because if you look at all of us, we’re all different, and we come from different parts of Greensboro,” says Neam. “The reason we put this troupe together is to have people understand that even though we’re different, we’re still people. That’s pretty much the big thing. If people understood that even though we’re different, we’re all still people, it would definitely be a better place in Greensboro because we get hassled all the time for being weird or being different, or even being gay. Maybe us doing what we’re doing will open up a few more eyes, or a few more brains, to say, ‘Hey, they’re still people.'”

Despite recent efforts by city leaders to cultivate an image of tolerance and diversity in the hopes of spurring economic development, Greensboro can still be a hard place to express one’s sexual orientation openly, according to Kearns.

“[Chaunxie and I] are gay, and it’s really hard for us being gay,” he says. “I work at the mall, and when I kiss him, it’s like being in another world. I just want to raise gay awareness and try to bring it out a little bit more, and make people more aware of it, that hey, it’s going on, and you might as well get used to it, because we’re here, we’re queer, and we’re going to stay awhile.”

“If it were Raleigh, it would be okay, because Raleigh has this huge gay scene,” says Moon. “It’s just ridiculous.”

“We’re hoping to open eyes with this, that, for one, we’re weird, we are our own people, we’re individuals,” says Neam.

“And we’d like other people to think of us as individuals,” says Kearns.

“And two, the government is really messed up, and maybe we can really bring some humor to the lifeless – what would we call them? – conservatives,” says Neam. “In downtown Greensboro there’s a lot of people that love to hang out with us, but they feel that we’re too weird. They feel that they’re going to get looked down upon just because they’re hanging out with us. In all actuality, if they hang out with us, they might learn a thing or two about not being like everyone else. We’re not Christians trying to make people turn into whatever, but we’re trying to help them understand that you can hang out with this bunch and it’s okay.

“That’s what this show is about,” he adds. “We’re going to be catering to older people, people our own ages, eighteen to twenty-four, and maybe some of the older community will come out and say, ‘Hey these kids aren’t that bad, they put on a really good show. They’re not bad people anymore.'”

Neam is already working on getting further gigs for the Vamps.

“I’ve talked with a few people about performing at the Broach Theatre, to actually have a place to perform and have practice time, somewhere that’s spacious enough to do that,” he says. “We want to do benefit gigs if people wanted us to come in and help kids out. I would definitely want to do that myself, personally.”

“Or animal rights or something like that,” says Moon.

While the group may tone down the burlesque to attract a wider audience, they plan to eventually perform material that addresses issues of inclusion and tolerance.

“In the future we may [be more overtly political], but right now we’re trying to get our name out there,” says Neam. “We’re definitely going to have some political things, such as skits, but we’re in the process of working them out. They might be too out there because, quite frankly, our government kind of sucks right now.”

If Greensboro can still appear unfriendly to people who don’t fit Pat Robertson’s definition of normal, outlying areas can make the city look like a gaping hole of tolerance in a moldy donut of stereotypical Southern illiberalism. In September the Emberellas, a tame group compared to the Burlesque Collective, were asked to leave the city of Eden following a performance at a street festival after some in the audience claimed to have been offended by their dancing. It may play in Peoria, as the old vaudeville saying goes, but in some areas of the Triad anything that smacks of sexuality, or even the exaltation of the human form in all its semi-clothed glory, is going to draw the ire of the local bluenoses.

Tonight, however, as the Vamps cavort around the fountains in Center City Park for the camera, the only cold reception seems to come from the winter air. A Hispanic family taking their own photos asks the group to pose with them, and pedestrians generally restrict their reactions to a few odd stares and catcalls directed at the more outrageously dressed members of the troupe. Perhaps, as if under the spell of some magic pixie dust left by these urban sprites, the stuffy city of Greensboro is already beginning to loosen up.

“Beware,” says Neam about the group’s future plans, “because anything can happen.”