The sun sets over the Red Line on a quiet side street in Chicago’s Ravenswood neighborhood as dancers wait to be buzzed into a loft building.
There’s less than a month to go before the dancers — who perform as The Fly Honeys — will stage a four-night show at Thalia Hall, and they’ve been practicing at a rotating list of studios, from Lululemon’s Clybourn Corridor space to tonight’s converted loft.
Self described as a “radical reimagining” of the classic cabaret, The Fly Honeys are an all-gendered, yell-it-outloud celebration of community and queer expression that challenge what you think burlesque can be and do. The dancers have always taken the itinerant nature of the city’s underground performance scene in stride, eschewing stages for “in the round” performances, often at clubs or small venues, where they enter from all corners of the room.
But this year, they’re feeling more empowered than ever, with their biggest platform yet upcoming Thursday through Sunday.
Photographer and WBEZ contributor Brittany Sowacke stopped by a recent rehearsal to capture the group on the precipice of a leap from club shows to the series at Thalia Hall. The jump, which translates to about 500 more audience members per night, means more pay for the dancers and more visibility for the Honeys, said creator, director and choreographer Erin Kilmurray, 38.
Still, Kilmurray is doubling down on her dancer mantra of “staying true to thyself” by encouraging each individual to find their own way through the choreography and truly make it their own. “The project is rooted in pleasure and playfulness,” said Kilmurray, “as much individuality as possible is where the magic comes.”
Among the first to arrive at practice on this night is Mary Williamson, 37, of Logan Square, comedian and host since day one. While most of the performers in The Fly Honeys rotate year to year, with hundreds of dancers since the inaugural 2009 performance at The Inconvenience, just two others have worked with Kilmurray since the ensemble’s birth in 2009: band leader John Cicora, 37, and writer and performer Shannon Matesky, 35.
Since then, more than 1,000 Honeys have performed with the group. As the dancers themselves will tell you: “Once a Honey, always a Honey.”
One of the draws for dancers is that Kilmurray’s process is highly collaborative. For the Thalia Hall shows, Kilmurray spent months of development with another dancer, Kasey Alfonso, 34, and they ultimately invited a trio of performers — Deandra Alaba, 31, Kara Brody, 29, and Alyssa Gregory, 36 — to help complete choreography. “The five of us sculpted the moves that are now folded into the whole show,” said Kilmurray.
At rehearsal, the group practices the opening number where all 22 performers will be on stage, following Alfonso’s lead. After breaking into groups, they come back together for one last group dance to a remixed version of “Good Puss” by COBRAH — among the dancers in the room, it’s a favorite.
Alaba, of Des Plaines, was asked to join the cast after attending a workshop lead by Kilmurray in 2018 and has been a part of the show ever since. Raised in the Philippines until 2007 by a mother who owned a dance company, she left the islands for high school. As a young ballroom dancer, she realized she did not align with her assigned gender at birth. “I always wanted to be the woman dancing, not the man, but that wasn’t accepted.”
Alaba said dancing with The Fly Honeys has felt truly authentic. “I feel like me the whole entire time, from being in the studio to on the stage and there is no BS. In dance we call it our ‘authentic movement’ and I feel that most working with her,” said Alaba. “Yeah, there is choreography but you know it’s me dancing, that’s why I always come back.”
For three hours, the troupe learns new moves, including a human pyramid-esque portrayal of human reproductive anatomy. And while the three-hour rehearsal follows some traditional dance techniques, much of how the Honeys operate is a departure from the mainstream dance world.
Inspired by the relationship between bands and audience, Kilmurray challenges the way viewers interact with dance and live performance, skewing expectations and societal norms. Screaming and cheering at a Joffrey Ballet performance might get you tossed out sans refund; doing the same at a Fly Honeys show, one cast member says, might get you a date for the night.
The performers also choose all costumes themselves so they control how risqué they get. The only rule is to wear black. They are also not divided into gendered roles as the majority of the dance world still does. Artists of all genders come together to create the whole that is, in Fly Honeys speak, The Hive.
Finally, where other ensembles seek perfection in execution and repetition, creating a performance to be an exact replication of the night before, the Honeys pursue individuality loudly and no show is ever duplicated. “Imperfection is going to happen whether you see it or not,” said Kilmurray, ”so let’s just make that part of the performance.”
For the first time, too, Kilmurray has commissioned six original songs, some by local artists. A remix was made of “Thotty Dysmorphia” by Thair, who doubles this year as vocal director and was a featured artists last year. Peggy Lee’s classic “Fever” is getting the same treatment by Panterah, as is a song by Chicago rock duo Finom. City expats GLITTER MONEYYY also contribute beats.
Audiences can expect to see a rotating list of guest artists each evening, which adds to the buzz. Ariel Zetina, who is an up-and-coming DJ who just performed at Pitchfork and opened for Beyoncé’s Renaissance Tour at Soldier Field, will perform Friday. Irregular Girl, a drag artist who has partnered with the Honeys since 2017 and hosts the perpetually sold-out Sapphic party STRAPPED plays Thursday’s opening show.
“It’s an opportunity to interrogate how sexuality and how perception of self and how self expression impacts you,” said Kilmurray. “Each year we’re in a completely different head space, we’ve evolved, we have different pronouns, we have different bodies, different desires.” Expect to see all of it — part camp, part sex- and body-positive movement, part glitter bomb — unfold onstage under the lights.
Brittany Sowacke is a photographer based in Chicago.
If you go: The Fly Honeys will stage a four-night run from Aug. 31-Sept. 3 at Thalia Hall, 1807 S. Allport St. The show will feature 22 dancers, pole art by Dalton Rhodes, three rotating performers, plus live music from nine band members. Tickets from $50.
- Thursday’s show will feature guest performers Eunji Kim, Adam Ness, and Irregular Girl with DJ TRQPiTECA.
- Friday’s show has guest artists Mila la Morena, Ashwaty & Abhijeet, and Harlem Nyte with DJ Ariel Zetina.
- Saturday brings guest artists Fabulous Freddie, Christian Aldana, Bambi Banks-Couleé with DJ ctrlzora.
- Sunday features guest artists, Angelíca Grace, Elise Fernandez, J Bambii, and Queer Dance Freakout with DJ VITIGRRL.
Correction: This story was updated to correct the spellings of Angelíca Grace and Bambi Banks-Couleé as well as dancers Kasey Alfanso and Shannon Matesky.