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Oh Virginia!

Virginia West yells out to an ensemble of 20 dancers as they work through a dance sequence to “Who Loves You?” from Jersey Boys. A couple of Red Bulls sit on a table nearby, intended as fuel for the long rehearsal ahead for West’s latest drag creation, “Oh, What A Night,” a tribute to golden [...]
Laura Dachenbach

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Virginia West yells out to an ensemble of 20 dancers as they work through a dance sequence to “Who Loves You?” from Jersey Boys. A couple of Red Bulls sit on a table nearby, intended as fuel for the long rehearsal ahead for West’s latest drag creation, “Oh, What A Night,” a tribute to golden oldies and the sounds of Motown.

West pulls a few trademark Four Seasons moves into the up-tempo sequence: lots of shoulder work, bouncing, and grapevine steps that quickly have everyone sweating, even in the air conditioning of the Axis Nightclub stage.

“See … it’s like Jane Fonda,” she explains to the group.

“Who?” asks a young dancer. West can only shake her head. It’s one of those moments where a person, particularly one who’s been in the business for two decades, feels a bit dated.

“I originally said growing up doing drag, ‘I will never be a 40-year-old drag queen.’ That was my quote,” said West. “And now, I’m a 40-year-old drag queen.”

But the upshot to being dated is being legendary. And talking with a Columbus drag legend is everything I hoped it would be—the energy of an ultra-large stage persona combined with a sweet and genuine modesty. When I tell her I’ve heard her called the Godmother of the Columbus drag scene, West nearly blushes with pleasure.

And like any godmother, West is still making the magic happen. She’s doing her best stage work, bringing new performers into the scene, and continually giving back to the community.

“I think people might think … I’ve done this for so long that I wouldn’t want anybody else to come in and do this as well,” said West. “I’m completely the opposite. I love to meet new people. I love to talk to people, and I love to get new entertainers on stage.”

That’s kind of how it happened for West two decades ago when she started her drag career at Union Cafe’s (then called Union Station) Turnabout Show, an employee drag night. Despite feeling ridiculous, she stuck with it.

“I kind of fell in love with it. It was a way for me to get on stage,” said West, who’s a conservatory-trained musical theater major. “All my life I was in the theater, and it just kind of transcended into drag.” West next teamed up with Mary Ann Brandt, who mentored West in drag performance in her Axis Nightclub show and remains one of West’s inspirations.

“[Brandt] did these really funny comedy shows with just a little bit of choreography, but mainly just really funny things,” West reminisced. “And from there when I was offered my own show about a year after that, I thought, ‘You know what, I could have backup dancers and I could do these really big-scale productions.’”

Thus began West’s venture into drag theater—fully rehearsed, conceptual productions found in only a few parts of the country. Her cast has grown from ten to 30, and boasts a diverse range of performers: straight female dancers, lesbians, drag kings and queens, femme queens, and trans male and female drag characters, boosting both the production values and the audiences.

The expansion of drag entertainment in Columbus testifies to its popularity in the Capital city, but West credits “drag daughter” Nina West with putting Columbus drag on the national map.

“Once Nina won [National Entertainer of the Year in 2008], she was really our first entertainer that became a national pageant winner,” West explained. “From her it kind of branched out that our [drag] family became recognized.”

West also dismisses any assumed rivalry between  and her “drag daughter” and confesses the competition is a good thing.

“Before [Nina], I didn’t have to push myself as hard,” said West. “She pushes me to be a better entertainer. We have this really great onstage presence together, and then offstage she’s actually my best friend.”

It’s an example of the generous spirit that extends through West’s drag franchise. Over her 20 years of performing, she’s raised over $2 million for individuals in need and for charities such as BRAVO Ohio, Planned Parenthood, Equitas Health, the ACLU, Meals on Wheels, and even Pets Without Parents. West also admits her shows have taken a decidedly more political turn over her career as she champions for social justice.

“I have a voice because I have a platform with drag,” says West. “So I’m able to use that voice to help different communities that aren’t necessarily being fought for … whether it’s the trans community or the community of people of color. They need people to stand with them.”
And they need people to dance with them, too. A West family show is home for the LGBTIQ community, but guests are always welcome. If you’re new, West might even buy your first drink.

“The Youngstown State football team, years ago— one of my buddy’s brothers was on the team—would bring the team in to see my shows. So it was always these really hyper-masculine guys for some reason being able to let loose. They didn’t care that they were in a gay bar or that there were drag queens on stage. They just wanted to come and have fun,” said West. “And I think that’s what’s really happened in these shows. People come and they just let loose. And I think that’s what’s made it so big. There’s no judgment.”

Is she ready to stop and go out on top? West doesn’t think so. Despite suffering a major knee injury requiring surgery and rehab last year, West is still ready to go for another 10 years.

“I don’t foresee me slowing down a lot,” said West. “It’s just so much fun.”

Virginia West presents

“Oh, What a Night!”

Axis Nightclub,

8.11-12, 8.18-20, 8.25-26

superdragqueen.com

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Arts & Culture

Arts Fest Preview: See BalletMet live outdoors!

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BalletMet’s Friday night’s headline performance at 8:30 p.m. at the Arts Festival is sure to be a highlight of weekend. One of the nation’s top 20 largest professional companies, BalletMet consists of dancers hailing from across the nation and the world and boasts a premiere academy for aspiring professional dancers, one that’s been recognized as an institution of local and national stature.

Since 1978, BalletMet has brought incredible dance to theaters in Central Ohio and beyond and their commitment to bringing dance to the Columbus community, especially in underserved areas, is unparalleled.

Art of War Photo by Jen Zmuda

From in-school programs to theater field trips, scholarships and free performances, the company is dedicated to making dance accessible to all. More than 10,000 children attend the company’s Morning at the Ballet field trip performances each year. And thanks to a grant from PNC Arts Alive, BalletMet’s second company, BalletMet 2, has performed at free events at the King Arts Complex, Franklin Park Conservatory and more, throughout the 2018-19 season.

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In addition to the free performance at the Arts Festival BalletMet will perform at Dance on Dakota on Friday, May 10, from 5 to 8 p.m. in Franklinton. This performance is also free.

Dance on Dakota, co-hosted by Franklinton Arts District, is part of a weekend-long block party in Franklinton and features free food and drink and a collaborative performance with TRANSIT ARTS. The event will take place at Dakota Ave. and Town St.

Dancers Grace Anne Powers and William Newton Photo by Jen Zmuda

BalletMet’s Columbus Arts Festival performance will include a mixed repertoire of shorter pieces from its past productions and will be preceded by music from DJ Donnie M. of Damn Girl.

And if these performances capture your interest, the company recently announced its 2019-20 season, which includes ALICE, based on the later stories of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland author Lewis Carroll, Twisted 3, a collaboration with the Columbus Symphony and Opera Columbus, and, of course, The Nutcracker.

More info at www.balletmet.org. For all your Arts Festival details visit www.colubmusartsfestival.org

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Arts Fest Preview: You wood hate to miss local crafter

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Woodworker and Art Makes Columbus featured artist Devon Palmer has been working with his hands since his upbringing in northeast Indiana. His mother a wood carver and his father a carpenter and cabinet maker, Palmer took a more mechanical route by obtaining his pilot’s license and attending Purdue University to pursue a career as an airplane mechanic.

But as his career transitioned from maintenance to the tech field, he yearned to work with his hands again. Originally he considered pottery, before a class he planned to attend got canceled. But a trip home the weekend before Thanksgiving led to his father introducing him to woodturning.

That was more than 15 years ago. And though he is largely self-taught, Palmer also credits local woodturners from the Central Ohio Woodturners (a chapter of the American Association of Woodturners) for taking him under their wing. In 2005, he opened his first studio just north of Downtown, and in 2007 he began teaching woodturning at Woodcraft Columbus.

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Today, Palmer does a bit of mentoring of his own. He teaches classes in blade and bowl turning, resin cast pen turning and more advanced projects like hollow vessel turning in his studio at the Idea Foundry. He is also adding a series of LGBTQ date night pen turning classes to his growing schedule of classes, shows and demonstrations.

Palmer says his work represents “family and connectedness” with work ranging from salad bowls and laser engraved pens to funerary urns and ornaments. The details in his hand-crafted tableware and home goods manage to invoke a warm sense of community, fellowship, and hospitality.

Devon Palmer works in internet technology and is also a pianist and ordained minister.

Make your own wood turned pen with Devon Palmer at the Columbus Arts Festival, June 7-9, at the Big Local Art Village located at the Festival’s Franklinton entrance. Learn more about Devon at www.columbusmakesart.com/stories/devon-palmer and get all your Arts Festival details at www.columbusartsfestival.org

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Arts Festival Preview: Dr. E uses voice to overcome adversity

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Dr. E, singer-songwriter and author Cleveland-born singer-songwriter Dr. Elaine Richardson — known by her stage name Dr. E — has used her voice to detail the incredible circumstances she encountered while overcoming great adversity. Born to a musician father and Jamaican immigrant mother, Dr. E begun tapping into her talent while singing in church, her school’s choir, and in girl groups.

Dr. E continued to sing despite the difficult path she faced. As a teen, she became a sex trafficking victim and fell into addiction. In her recovery, she pursued higher education at Cleveland State University and Michigan State University. During this time Dr. E also began performing as the frontwoman for a number of cover bands and placing her original music on various TV shows. She recorded her first album, “Elevated,” in 2010.

Dr. E’s introspective song lyrics reflect the often difficult process of healing while defending those who share her experiences or face exploitation and discrimination in other ways.

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On her sophomore album, 2017’s “Songs for the Struggle,” she gives a soulful retelling of her journey from sex trafficking survivor to university professor, Ph.D., author and advocate. Blending elements of soul, rock, funk, rhythm and blues, and jazz, Dr. E sings with an astonishing amount of hope and positivity; Though the album details the trauma and exploitation experienced by Dr. E during her teen years, her power message ultimately expresses affirmations of self-love and acceptance employed with an equally powerful and joyous voice.

Dr. E is currently a professor of literacy studies in the College of Education at The Ohio State University. She has written a number of books on African American literature as well as a memoir, “PHD to Ph.D.: How Education Saved My Life.”

See Dr. E. perform at the Columbus Arts Festival, Saturday, June 8 from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. on the Big Local Stage on Rich St.

For hours, artist listing and all Festival information go to www.columbusartsfestival.org

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