Sunday, November 28, 2010
Art of Exhibitionism
By Amanda Schoenberg
Journal Staff Writer
It is 11 o'clock on a Friday night in Albuquerque when burlesque performer Kitty Irreverent starts working the crowd.
Dressed in very little — apart from five purple balloons — Kitty makes her way around Low Spirits, a Second Street bar, offering patrons a chance to prick her balloons with a safety pin.
Back at the front of the room, now balloon-less and stripped to her undergarments, she offers the crowd a quick twirl of her tassels and struts off.
Welcome to the world of burlesque in Albuquerque, which has gained popularity in recent years among audiences and performers inspired by its vintage appeal and sassy exhibitionism.
It is a world far from the Hollywood version of "Burlesque," the PG-13 movie starring singers Cher and Christina Aguilera, which opened Wednesday. In the movie, Aguilera plays a small-town girl who stumbles into a burlesque club and works her way from waitress to singer and star performer. If the trailer is any indication, the movie version of burlesque is glitzy, glamorous and leads to a lucrative career on stage.
In Albuquerque, burlesque performers have 9-5 jobs and many are do-it-yourselfers who rig their own lighting, construct their own props and sew their own costumes.
No curtains? No problem, they make do with sheets, says Holly Rebelle, director of the Albuquerque troupe Burlesque Noir.
No dressing room? Burlesque solo performer RiRi SynCyr says she has changed in kitchens, hallways and once under a tarp in the rain.
"We have a long history of dressing in the kitchen," says Irreverent, 31, who has performed for seven years and will organize the Fifth Annual Southwest Burlesque Festival in February. (Irreverent and other local performers are represented in this article with stage names.)
Many new performers don't realize the cost of costuming, says SynCyr, 32. Her first fan dance — the classic popularized by burlesque performer Sally Rand in the 1930s — cost her $500 worth of ostrich feathers.
"I think, all told, I've made $100 this year," adds Irreverent.
At her Albuquerque home, a long green velvet dress Irreverent is sewing for a Scarlett O'Hara costume hangs next to the kitchen table, which is covered with corsets, sequins, dresses and two handmade orchid pasties— one of which her dogs, Sancho and Scarlett, have already nibbled.
To finish her new costume, she has 720 green rhinestones ready to glue. And that's just for the bra.
Irreverent and other local performers admit they will see "Burlesque" but worry that it will give audiences the wrong idea about their art form. Unlike the athletic cabaret dancers and elaborate sets she expects to see in the film, Irreverent says her version involves "a lot of hot glue and rhinestones."
Back to boas
Burlesque, a form of adult entertainment that mixes sexuality and parody, has a long history in the United States but reached its heyday from 1910-1960, says Denver burlesque performer Michelle Baldwin, author of the 2004 book, "Burlesque and the New Bump-n-Grind."
When former burlesque star Dixie Evans performed in the 1940s, "audiences didn't just pay to see a woman take her clothes off, they came to burlesque shows to be entertained," she writes in the introduction to Baldwin's book. Audiences came "to forget the drama of their "real" lives, and lose themselves in a glittering fantasy of live music, beautiful girls and slapstick comedy."
By the 1960s and '70s, the playful tease of burlesque disappeared from many shows, leaving only nudity, says Baldwin, who has performed since 1998 as Vivienne VaVoom. The line between burlesque and stripping grew blurry.
While burlesque never disappeared, it re-emerged in the 1990s with the Miss Exotic World competition and performers like Dita Von Teese who adopted the classic boas and sequins look. Rockabilly and swing fans also rediscovered burlesque, says Baldwin.
The first new burlesque troupe in Albuquerque, Lonely Hearts, was organized in 2003 by Nan Morningstar, owner of the Nob Hill clothing store Free Radicals, says Irreverent. Drawn to burlesque's vintage roots, Irreverent and others then started Belladonna Burlesque Revue. In 2005, Irreverent left the group and began producing the annual Southwest Burlesque Showcase.
Baldwin, who has performed at the showcase, says she is impressed with the talent and variety of burlesque in Albuquerque.
One difference between older burlesque and what Baldwin calls "neo-burlesque," is the creative freedom performers have now. Some veer toward performance art. Others go goth or adopt the look of raven-haired pin-up icon Bettie Page.
"It gives you terrific freedom," she says. "Anything you dream up, you can make it."
While Kitty Irreverent and RiRi SynCyr opt for a vintage look, Rebelle has a modern approach as the director of Burlesque Noir, a troupe that includes eight to 10 women of all shapes and sizes.
In their signature piece, T-36 DD, the women perform robotic dance moves to Kanye West's "Stronger." As they start to strip, a black light turns on and the audience sees only their white pants, glasses, gloves and pasties. The troupe has performed the piece in Boston, Denver and New York.
The verdict is out on whether burlesque artists must strip, although many do, says SynCyr. Classic burlesque often included cabaret-style dance and some artists today tease without removing clothing, she says. But most performers do agree that there should be some sort of "reveal," she says.
Unlike stripping in a gentleman's club, burlesque typically involves more costuming and theatrics, says Baldwin. Burlesque artists may add naughty satire and share a bill with comedians and contortionists.
"Burlesque is a choreographed number," says Baldwin. "It's not going to change if someone stands at the edge of the stage with a dollar bill."
Burlesque appeals to local performers for many reasons but making big bucks is not one of them. Albuquerque supports a growing scene but no one is making a living off of her art, says Irreverent.
RiRi SynCyr works at a local non-profit organization. Kitty Irreverent works in health care administration. Holly Rebelle, 30, is married with one son.
"We're not doing this for the money," Rebelle says.
From her first show, Rebelle has loved the thrill of live performance, whether there are 20 or 700 people watching.
"That's the closest I'll ever be to feeling like a rock star," she says. "I felt like Mick Jagger. It's pretty amazing."
Burlesque is not for everyone, but many fans are empowered by what they see as a celebration of female sexuality.
"Women walk up to me afterward and say, 'I saw a woman who is the same size as me and I heard an entire room cheering for her,' " says Baldwin.
Many burlesque performers are curvy and tattooed, and some well-known stars are in their 30s and 40s, she says.
For SynCyr, showing women they can be beautiful and sexy when they are larger than a size 12 is a powerful, and political, act.
RiRi SynCyr started performing burlesque in Phoenix, where she lived before moving to Albuquerque in 2007. She was inspired by the glamorous women at the Burlesquefest National Tour in 2003.
"Anyone could be beautiful, at any size, in front of any audience and be appreciated for who they are and what they're doing," she says, about that first show. "I was sold. I said, 'This is what I want to do.'"