Out of the Cave: Torch Sisters’ full-length stage show tells tale of ‘mad poetess’

Hillary Bell |

hanging out. The Torch Sisters will present their first full-length performance, La Caverne, on March 22.
hanging out. The Torch Sisters will present their first full-length performance, La Caverne, on March 22. Image: Bobbi Solum

Beautiful, talented, and bringing the heat to every show (sometimes literally!), the Torch Sisters have been captivating the Eau Claire community with unique, artistic performances for years. These nine flow artists, fire spinners, and aerialists use flow props and elements of dance to create living, moving art. Coming this week, the Torch Sisters will be sharing with you a “late night, playful, and sexy” performance that they have been preparing for and anticipating – their first full-length work, La Caverne.

French for “the cave,” La Caverne pays homage to Eau Claire’s own “Mad Poetess of the Cave,” Maud Phillips (aka Violet Leigh). This evening event will feature a wide range of aerial and flow arts and will be nothing like what the Torch Sisters have ever performed before.

“This isn’t just visual entertainment,” said Kerri Kiernan, a member of the Torch Sisters and instructor at Moonrise Aerials. The team will use movement arts as a vehicle to explore the social issues and complexities surrounding Maud’s story. “We aim to put on a really fun show AND to portray elements much deeper than what the community might expect from us. A new take on some intriguing local history.”

For anyone unfamiliar with the story of the lady who lived in the cave in Eau Claire, she is a true urban legend:

There once was a woman who lived in Eau Claire around the early 1900s. Her name was Maud Phillips, but she was more famously known as Violet Leigh. She was a local poet who was regularly published in the Eau Claire Leader. Maud was married to a man named Wilbur Phillips, a musician and tradesman, and with him she had five children. After losing their home, the Phillips family sought shelter in a cave off the southside riverbank of the Dewey Street Bridge. The determination Maud had to live in a cave, her disregard for social conformity, and her outspokenness brought about the debate of her sanity. She was determined by the court to be insane and was committed twice to the Mendota Asylum. Maud lived in an era where women did not express themselves as openly as they do today, and because she lived outside the normal standards, she was thought to be a harm to society. The truth was she had grown ahead of the era in her own way.

The Torch Sisters at rehearsal. Image: Andrea Paulseth
The Torch Sisters at rehearsal. Image: Andrea Paulseth

For many of the Torch Sisters, flow arts were one of the first activities that helped them enjoy movement and dance to express themselves.

“Maud’s story is important to me because I can relate to being a creative person in a rigid environment,” said Sara Brunsell-Raehl, a member of the Torch Sisters. She moved to Eau Claire in 1997 for college after a year at the Minnesota Center for Arts Education. “Eau Claire at that time had not evolved into the hipster epicenter it is now. I felt like a fish out of water, and it fed into my pre-existing depression. I can relate to Maude being a creative force that is not understood by society.”

“Life dealt Maud a tough hand, and I think she deserves some creative celebration just for who she was as a person,” Kerri said.

La Caverne is only happening ONCE: If you haven’t seen a flow art show before, here is your chance! The fluid movements and aesthetic beauty these kinds of shows present are honestly something everyone should witness in person. This one-of-a-kind masterpiece is entirely created, produced, choreographed, and performed by the Torch Sisters.

“We want to exceed others’ expectations of us and we want to give Maud the spotlight,” Kerri said. Following the show, the Torch Sisters want to create and book more, bigger creative gigs and collaborate with other artists in the Chippewa Valley.  “We are homegrown – we started hula hooping in parks as a loose group of friends and now we are an LLC with a whole range of skills,” Kerri said. “Only time will tell what we get into next!”

The Torch Sisters: La Caverne • Friday, March 22, 9pm • Jamf Theatre, Pablo Center at the Confluence, • $20 •