Arts & Entertainment

Lucha VaVoom brings wrestling and burlesque together in downtown LA

Li'l Chicken leaps onto his opponent.
Li'l Chicken leaps onto his opponent.
Mike Roe/KPCC

Joey Ryan stood on the outside, taking a breather in the middle of his match. Suddenly he looked up and saw a man in a giant chicken costume ready to come crashing down on him from high above.

The chicken flew, flattening Ryan. The Crazy Chickens' theme song pounded through the sold-out auditorium on Wednesday night as Lucha VaVoom thundered back into town as part of an annual Valentine's show at the Mayan Theatre in Los Angeles.

The chickens danced. The crowd roared and Joey Ryan was rolled back into the ring for his last trouncing of the night.

Lucha VaVoom's motto is "sexo y violencia," and they bring together Mexican lucha libre pro wrestling, burlesque, and comedy. "It teases but never delivers either sex or violence," said lucha libre expert Steve Sims.

Lucha VaVoom brings together Mexican pro wrestling, or "lucha," with the tradition of the burlesque show, which gives the promotion its, well, "VaVoom." They ran their annual Valentine's Day shows at their Mayan Theatre home as they start their eighth year of entertaining Los Angeles with one of the most unique shows you'll ever see.

VaVoom has expanded its demographic in recent years beyond the hipster crowd. The Hispanic community has begun to embrace the promotion.

"It took a really long time for them to respect what we were doing and realize that we were respecting their culture," said co-producer Rita D'Albert.

As writer N. Khan put it, "To me, it's clear they love lucha libre, and the silliness they do is meant as a satire and not a mockery."

"Lucha VaVoom seems to draw a mostly casual audience with only a slight familiarity with it," Khan added. "I don't think that changes for most by the end of the night, but I do think they come away from the show with an appreciation for the wrestlers themselves and for their style of action."

Lucha VaVoom has been entertaining L.A. crowds for over seven years at its Mayan Theatre home. The group has also gone on tour, traveling to Las Vegas, Chicago, Amsterdam, and New York's Webster Hall.

Comedian Blaine Capatch hosts the show and does live commentary during the matches. Other comedians are brought in as well, including Howard Kramer on Wednesday and the voice of SpongeBob, Tom Kenny on Thursday. Other comedians who've participated have included Patton Oswalt, Dana Gould, and Fred Armisen from "Saturday Night Live."

The show pushes sexual boundaries, with burlesque dancers entertaining between wrestling matches, gay wrestling characters like Cassandro goosing his opponent to wild cheers from the crowd, and androgynous lightning-fast hula hooper Karis.

Cassandro is an unlikely hero, but "he has the respect of all the wrestlers in Mexico and here," said co-producer Liz Fairbairn.

"They love him," Fairbairn said.

He's been wrestling for 20 years, from L.A. to an event at the Louvre against Mexican wrestling legend El Hijo del Santo.

Cassandro is part of the lucha tradition of "exoticos," gay wrestling characters.

"A lot of the moves in his arsenal involve using the other wrestler's homophobia as a weapon," said D'Albert. "I like how much less testosterone-fueled [lucha] is. It's got much more of a sense of fun."

Unlike most American pro wrestling, the wrestlers don't do much talking.

"We don't let them get on the mic and yell like this!" D'Albert said. "Their characters are well developed, so through their style of wrestling, you get what they stand for."

Lucha wrestling features "rudos," the bad guys who use a rough, brawling style against "técnicos," the good guys who use a technical style with more high flying.

Fairbairn brought "lucha libre," or "free fighting" in Spanish, to the United States after she began dating a Mexican wrestler.

"The first time I went was in Ensenada," said Fairbairn. "I just couldn't believe my eyes. It was the best thing I'd ever seen and I just thought everybody should see it.

"Since the early days of punk rock, I have never seen anything that cool."

Part of Fairbairn's desire to bring lucha to the United States was to find work for her Mexican wrestling boyfriend. In her day job as a costume designer, she was working on a burlesque show, where she met partner D'Albert.

D'Albert had been part of a modern burlesque revival beginning in 1995. D'Albert and friends had discovered burlesque in old magazines.

"Strip clubs are OK, but this is like a theater," Fairbairn said. "These are a little bit higher concept."

It was also a natural extension of what was already there in lucha libre, as wrestlers in Mexico are often accompanied to the ring by scantily-clad women who sometimes dance between matches.

D'Albert helped to introduce the burlesque side of the concept, and Lucha VaVoom was born.

"It's just fun," said Fairbairn. "You know, people can kind of let their guard down. There's nothing ironic about it. It's action. People can scream, and yell, and cheer, and get drunk, and make fools of themselves, and it's OK."

D'Albert also performs in the shows as Ursulina, inspired by 1960s icons like Ursula Andress and Sophia Loren.

She's opening this week's events with an original song about Lucha VaVoom. Other burlesque dancers on the show, or "buxoticas" as they're known in Lucha VaVoom, include Harvest Moon, who does a contortionist act in a giant bird cage, as well as a wide variety of dancers and the classic burlesque tassel twirlers.

There are midgets, called "minis," who perform some of the most spectacular stunts on the show. The Crazy Chickens have a midget counterpart, the irreverent Li'l Chicken.

The producers have big dreams for the future of Lucha VaVoom, seeking to land a residency in Las Vegas and expanding their touring operation. They've also launched a new promotion, "The Girlie-Girl Catfight Show," at the El Rey in L.A.

They're also looking to land a TV show.

"I've actually left meetings – Comedy Central – where they go, 'I don't know if wrestling would work on TV.'" D'Albert went on to point out the history of wrestling on television and its continued success.

Lucha VaVoom will perform at the Fillmore in San Francisco on Friday night. They return to L.A. in May for "Cinco de Mayan," and again for an annual Halloween series in October.