Thursday, January 24, 2008

Sister Act

Originally published in Pitch

by Jesi Khadivi

Getting around late at night in Brooklyn can be a drag. Things have improved over the years, but back in 2000, commuters were known to throw things out of frustration waiting for the G train. It was a total buzz kill.

Imagine my delight when I was offered a ride in a pink Buick to a Madagascar Institute party in Cobble Hill. My lovely driver was Miss Tanya Gagné, one half of the amazing Wau Wau Sisters (the other is the fabulous Adrienne Truscott). Not only did I get a ride, I showed up in style. This fantastic pink whale of a car (complete with dice on the locks) is a perfect summation of Wau Wau style: a careful attention to detail, a deep understanding of genre and retro accoutrements, and a razor-sharp wit.

In her canonical Notes on “Camp”, Susan Sontag describes “camp” as an aesthetic phenomenon, a way of seeing the world. “Camp sees everything in quotation marks…to perceive camp in objects and persons is to understand Being-as-Playing-a-Role. It is the farthest extension, in sensibility, of the metaphor of life as theater.” The Wau Wau Sisters have built a deliciously cracked myth around their personas as performers that colors every aspect of their impressively varied and physically demanding act, which includes trapeze artistry, off-kilter hipster circus routines, and country and heavy metal songs played on matching guitars.

The Sisters tell the tale of their humble beginnings in the short Super 8 film, Wau Wau Sisters Meet! According to the legend, three strangers met “…somewhere off route I-95 in 1969,” and had a romp in the sheets together. “A few months and a few cocktails later,” the sisters were born. They lived unaware of each other until a chance meeting in knee socks and hot pants exploded into an impromptu dance routine with the neighbors that could put even the Sharks and the Jets to shame.

Adrienne and Tanya really are half-sisters, but they grew up separately. “Adrienne grew up with her mum on the golden shores of New Jersey and I grew up with my mum in the Live Free or Die State of New Hampshire,” Tanya explains. Performers from day one, they both independently took a shine to dance and gymnastics, and would regale family and neighbors with their respective routines. “We would even make colorful programs, charge admission and make weird snacks to give out,” says Tanya. The sisters began circus and trapeze work in their teens and twenties, and even worked for the same two groups: Circus Amok, a political one-ring circus/theater troupe; and LAVA, a Brooklyn-based dance group. “When we both found ourselves living and working in New York as performers,” Tanya says, “AND found out that we both wrote dirty songs and played guitars, the Wau Wau Sisters were born.”

I first saw the Wau Waus perform Sister Christian, a gymnastic strip-tease chock full of lesbian innuendo, set to the Night Ranger power ballad of the same name, at Galapagos, a bar and performance venue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in 2000. Clad in Catholic school-girl uniforms and knee socks (a Wau Wau costume staple), Adrienne and Tanya naughtily read the bible, smoke cigarettes, guzzle booze from chalices and tear each other’s clothes off during a series of handstands, splits, and assisted balancing acts.

The Wau Wau Sisters may prove the exception to Sontag’s point that “…camp which knows itself to be camp is less satisfying.” Sister Christian is more than a goofy, spicy strip tease by two beautiful women: it’s a deft interplay of bold physical comedy and high concept. The Sisters purposefully undermine their gymnastic prowess with cornball flourishes reminiscent of a middle-school talent show. The cheeky crucifixion at the end of the piece pokes fun at the prurient sensuality of passion plays, a sensibility that reached its pinnacle in Mel Gibson’s 2004 film The Passion of the Christ.

The act is laugh-out-loud funny and oozing with sex appeal. But these women aren’t just hot; they could probably beat you up. As anyone who has suffered through a yoga class can tell you, it’s hard enough lifting your leg straight up in the air, let alone dangling from someone’s toes or somersaulting on a trapeze.

The subversiveness of the Wau Wau Sisters’ acts is due in no small part to the self-aware sexuality that the new burlesque movement embodies at its best. “I think the neo-burlesque movement has been a pretty amazing opportunity for women performers, women in comedy and for performance art in general,” Adrienne told me. “There is a small element of the movement that is very retro and focused on being sexy. For me, that isn't enough to keep it interesting.” Adrienne acknowledges that there is tremendous potential for burlesque; indeed, the Wau Wau Sisters’ ingenuity as pioneers of the movement in New York City is a testament to just how interesting it can be. Although classics like Sister Christian are still included in their act, the Wau Waus are always working on new material—they’ve come a long way from the Galapagos days. Constant touring has required that they hone their routines, and they regularly incorporate new elements and surprises into their act. “We refuse to become bored or content as performers,” Adrienne explains. “I think we add a lot more new material and improvisation than the average touring show.”

Throughout all of their acts (and there are over 80 of them), the sisters combine physical comeliness with jaw-dropping physical dexterity, all in a variety of perfectly turned out costumes and props. As guests on the Sharon Osbourne Show, Adrienne holds a perfect handstand for over a minute in a skirt with a bull’s eye on her butt while Tanya sings her song Easy Target. Adrienne then sings the next song, a hilarious lament about being shunned by a boyfriend’s Texan parents, which ends, “The good Lord he protects us/from girls like you/who are poor,” while perched on her sister’s feet. They regularly perform with matching guitars while sitting on each other’s shoulders. Their trapeze routine, set to rock classics like The Clash’s London Calling and Guns N’ Roses’ Welcome to the Jungle, manages to be both spectacular and funny. Who knew it was possible to be witty while dangling upside down?