In the first of a new series, Alek Palinski – principal dancer, choreographer and rehearsal director for Dita Von Teese and her touring burlesque shows – walks us through a typical show day. Alek got his start in burlesque in 2016, selected at an audition from over 800 candidates for Dita’s Strip, Strip, Hooray! tour. Seven years later, he’s the dance captain in Glamonatrix, which has just completed a tour of the United States.
My day typically starts early – by showbiz standards at least – around 9 AM, show day or not. I like going out to experience the city; we visit some of the most glamorous, historic, stunning places in the world on these tours. I find a local cafe for my morning routine: coffee, breakfast, a little reading and people watching. Then it’s off to explore, be it cruising by the Eiffel Tower on the lazy Seine, watching the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, visiting the original Coca Cola factory in Atlanta, listening to street musicians at the French Quarter in New Orleans, or visiting the countless museums and art galleries around the world. My parents were always very passionate about travel and definitely kick started my interest in other places, people, and cultures. To this day, it is still one of my favorite things about touring.
Arrival and Setup
I head to the venue early in the afternoon, giving myself some time to learn about its architecture, history and the iconic artists that performed here before us. We perform in some of the world’s most famous, stunning theaters: from Los Angeles’ Orpheum and New York’s Beacon Theatre to London’s Palladium, Opera de Monte-Carlo and Paris’ Folies Bergère. Sometimes there’s an occasional, impromptu photoshoot, but at 3 or 4 PM it’s time to get to work!
At this point our amazing technical crew has been working for hours (probably since 6 or 7 AM), unloading the truck and setting up the stage. When they’ve finished, I start going through all of Dita’s show numbers one by one, spiking the props on stage (marking a spot where a particular prop or set piece will be placed during the show) for each performance with the help of the crew. Many of Dita’s numbers involve large props and multiple set pieces, and every tableau we create matters and has to be just right. Misplacing even one small element can create issues during the performance.
Then I check the sight lines (is each prop/set piece visible from all the ticketed seats?), the placement of the elements in relation to one another (are they close – or far enough – to not cause any issues while being danced on, with, or in between during the performance?), the depth of the stage and the apron’s size (which is also crucial for our lighting designer, who needs to be able to light all the elements correctly), and finally the small but extremely important details: is the Martini Glass rotated and placed correctly, are the stairs too far from or too close to the Glass, and so on. However, after working with Dita for a long time I know how she likes things and I’m usually pretty confident with this.
After this setup, which takes about an hour, there’s a cast meeting on stage. This is when our stage manager tells us about the potential backstage and onstage dangers, as each theater is different from the last. What’s the emergency way out? Is it safe to pass behind the backdrop curtain? Are there any obstructions to watch out for? Are there any uneven surfaces on stage? Finally – where are our wardrobe catches? (It’s a strip show after all!)
Tech and Rehearsal
We will typically spend the next half hour working with the lighting designer on lighting focuses for each performer and number, marking the performer’s placement for the most important moments in each number – starting with the opening position.
Then there’s rehearsal. As dance captain and one of the choreographers, I ensure we perform at the same, consistently high standard. It’s easy to become too relaxed or complacent at times when you’re traveling a lot and doing the same numbers over and over. To prepare for this, I watch videos of the previous night’s show and look for any mistakes or potential improvements. I make a list of notes to discuss with the cast, and choose which (if any) numbers need to be brushed up. Those are the numbers we run on stage in the early evening. I’ll watch the dancers as they rehearse and make sure they’re implementing the notes, while I continue looking for any other ‘hiccups’. You want to highlight and encourage individuality and character, but keep everything clean and cohesive.
At 6 PM there’s a dinner break, and it’s time to set up my dressing room. This involves going through all the costumes and making sure nothing is missing. There are many elements to remember. Costumes in Dita’s show consist of many beautiful layers, elements, jewelry pieces, and so on. While most performers make one or two appearances during the night, as a principal dancer I’m featured frequently throughout the show and dance next to Dita every time she appears on stage. I have a number of complex costume changes, and I keep a checklist of all the costume elements for each look, which helps me learn and eventually remember them all. As an example, my ‘Cake’ act costume has 10 pieces of wardrobe, while the ‘Tuxedo’ costume has 14 pieces.
Now the doors are open and things really speed up from here. Quick hair and makeup, getting into the first costume, and before you know it, we’re on stage. Cold opening. The curtain goes up. Audience roars. We’re bathed in a stunning showbiz potion of lights, fog, the music and applause. We’re doing our thing. To me, there’s something so special about performing live. You lose yourself in it. Your worries, joys, failures, successes, plans, hopes and dreams all disappear.
Before I know it, we are in the finale number with Dita, doing a variation of her signature, iconic Martini Glass act. My heart is filled. Seeing faces in the audience beaming with joy and excitement – and sometimes calling out my name – never gets old.
The show is over. It’s now 10.30, maybe 11 PM. The costumes are packed and neatly put away. Our tech crew is tirelessly breaking the stage down. Sometimes I and the other cast members will come out to the foyer and meet the fans. We take photos and answer questions. This part of the night – realizing the impact that we have on people – is just as fulfilling (if not more) as creating the show and performing it. It’s a perfect end to this show day – one of many in a dream job that, years ago, this little boy from Poland could never have imagined.