A year ago, Fiona Pepe was in search of inspiration. The Seattle dancer and photographer had left a 10-year career as one of the head performers at the sultry and beloved Can Can cabaret theater. On an excursion to France, she found herself strolling through the Parisian streets one morning. Looking for any decent book, Pepe picked up a tome titled The Mistress of Paris, which would quickly change her creative aspirations.
The memoir details the life of Émilie-Louise Delabigne, a French woman born into poverty in the late 1800s. When she changed her name to Valtesse and tapped into her feminine instincts, she emerged as a countess, an art collector, and a powerful muse. For Pepe, the story was a call to action. If Valtesse could turn her circumstances on their head, so could she.
Returning to Seattle armed with these new inspirations, Pepe founded Valtesse Productions in March, first at the Conservatory in Georgetown before moving the operation in June to a lavishly decorated former private club in Queen Anne known as The Ruins. As The Ruins’s new director of entertainment, Pepe is reinventing the event space by bringing in a production team to create shows boasting a noir sensibility that celebrate fetish and kink. “Obviously today, the voices of women in their sexual power need to be heard louder,” Pepe said. “So we’ve created a space where sexuality doesn’t need to be hidden or shunned. It can be displayed in whatever way we want, on our terms.”
When you walk into The Ruins, a fresh world immediately opens before you, as if you’ve stepped into a baroque dollhouse that through some magic has grown 10,000 times its size. Wherever you turn, there’s another doorway or a room with intricate and ornate Romanesque-style artwork painted directly onto the walls. The performance room, which seats about 80 people for a dinner show, is adorned with several opulent crystal chandeliers and dozens of gold-painted chairs. On the stage—a modest, all-black area Pepe had built—members of Valtesse’s staff, which includes 20 gender-inclusive dancers and aerialists, soon appear in modern, kinky attire like red pasties or latex cat suits, leashes and all, set to perform elegant and erotic numbers.
“I just love the idea that we can have someone in a latex catsuit who’s a trained ballerina,” said Anna Urband, a dancer and Valtesse’s production manager. “Everything is well-thought-out. We don’t misrepresent or make light of our [performers]. It’s not about being cute. Instead, we present kinks and sexuality artistically. Boobs aren’t the punch line.”
“Women are sexualized whether they want to be or not,” said Cybele Olsen, head of marketing and costuming for Valtesse. “What we’re trying to do here is reclaim that feminine power.”
Valtesse put on its first cabaret show at The Ruins in June, featuring ensemble dances, contortionists, and a variety of intimate burlesque-style acts. So far demand has been high, with the weekly Friday performances, dubbed La Chambre de Valtesse, often selling out (tickets run $75–$100).
In anticipation of Halloween (the most burlesque-friendly holiday), Valtesse is presenting a week-long a new show called La Fin, which will use every inch of The Ruins’ space to engage audiences throughout the building, offering sexy surprises around every corner. Other upcoming performances include La Vie, the company’s weekly Saturday show, emceed by Seattle artist and musician Caela Bailey, which resembles a more fun, carnival-like experience.
And while Pepe hopes her burgeoning Valtesse empire will one day become a global entity, what she’s created in just a matter of months is already turning the heads of many locals. “When I started Valtesse, I wanted to create a full evening experience,” she said. “What we do here is unique, cinematic, and unlike anything else in the city. An incredible era of Seattle nightlife has begun.”