On the main stage of the Somerville Theater, “The Slutcracker” tech crew gives last-minute instructions to the dancers draped over the seats in the house. It’s this year’s first rehearsal onstage, and it’s critical that the whole cast be aware of the sets and scenery.
“It’s 10 feet tall, and it wobbles a little bit,” announces a crew member, his voice serious. “I will try to drive safely. But if you see it coming toward you, get out of the way.”
He’s referring to the second act’s central set piece, a giant, red-and-green-striped candy cane penis. Earlier, director Vanessa White told me this was the third iteration of the piece—the first was made of mere chicken wire and plaster, while the one on stage before us was constructed out of fiberglass, using “shipbuilding technology.”
“This thing is practically seaworthy,” she says.
White, also known by her stage name, Sugar Dish, launched “The Slutcracker” in 2008—so the traffic patterns of the phallic candy cane are committed to her memory. The raunchy burlesque parody of Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” was an instant hit, earning rave reviews and a dedicated fanbase. This year’s show opens on Nov. 30, and will run through Christmas Eve.
“The Slutcracker” may be the show that launched White to local fame, but her schedule doesn’t slow down even after that leopard-print curtain closes on Dec. 24. The rest of the year is dedicated to the Lipstick Criminals, White’s troupe that, in addition to starring in “The Slutcracker,” straps on eight-inch heels to host classes at the Dance Complex and performs at burlesque shows throughout the year.
White is determined to bring greater diversity to the dance world through Lipstick Criminals—a mission she has been passionate about since she was young. White grew up taking classical ballet classes in the suburbs of Boston, and even starred as a tin soldier in her dance school’s rendition of “The Nutcracker.” White’s relationship with ballet became more complicated as she got older, however. She still remembers the report card from her ballet school that made a shocking announcement: She was getting demoted from the A track classes to the B track. The justification was White’s weight. She was 10 years old.
“They’re trained to identify what your body’s going to look like as soon as it starts developing, and they were like ‘OK, she’s going to have curvature in her body,’” White says. “They crushed a little 10-year-old’s ballerina dreams that day.”
Dance still lingered in the background of White’s life—she taught classes here and there throughout high school and college—but she put her dreams of professional ballet on hold. She experimented with part-time jobs, and in 2006 spontaneously applied to model for Boink, a now-defunct Boston-based erotic magazine. She was writing and editing for the magazine when her dance background was discovered, and suddenly she was tasked with putting on a burlesque show to promote the publication.
With only six weeks to pull a full show together, White quickly wrangled a group of five dancers, some with burlesque training and some without, from Craigslist. They pieced together costumes from their closets and “discount stripper costume websites” and performed at the Middle East Downstairs as “Babes in Boinkland.”
“It got a really good response,” White says. “And then a year later, all the same people were sniffing around, being like, ‘I kind of want to do that again. You guys want to do that again?’”
So the Babes did it again. And again, a couple months later. Soon, to White’s disbelief, there wasn’t a single weekend when the group wasn’t booked.
White changed the name of the group to Lipstick Criminals in 2014, long after Boink magazine had gone defunct. Now, the company is up to 12 dancers, one of whom was among the original five dancers from Craigslist.
The Lipstick Criminals host many shows throughout the year in addition to “The Slutcracker,” from their annual David Bowie Black Friday Burlesque to their new “Church of Slut” series—variety show style performances that allow some of the other Criminals to showcase their skills and choreography. Many of the shows sell out, including “The Slutcracker,” which is performed at the nearly-900-capacity Somerville Theater.
Dancers join Lipstick Criminals by way of “The Slutcracker.” White hosts open auditions for “The Slutcracker” every year, and observes cast members throughout the show to determine if she should extend them an invitation to the company.
“I get into some difficult territory with this work,” she says, “and it’s important that I’m with people who are on board with that and who I trust.”
White’s careful selection results in powerfully effective performances. The group is diverse in many ways, including race, body shape, sexuality, and even dance training.
This inclusivity does not go unnoticed by the audience. Watching the Lipstick Criminals dance feels liberating—they display their bodies proudly, and actively reject the notion that dancers need to look and move in the exact same way. White says people have stopped her on the street to tell her that the Lipstick Criminals inspired them to return to the dance world after they were criticized for their appearances, much like White once was.
For White, this is the Lipstick Criminals’ ultimate mission—to provide a welcoming space for the dancers like her who were told “No,” and to show audiences what dance is missing without diversity onstage.
“What comes onstage is people who are scantily clad and happy and covered in glitter and dancing well … People in the audience can look on that stage and see themselves,” White says. “And that’s not something most people can do at the ballet.”