New Burlesque: Old enough for a look back

Museum of Sex, others, are keepers of the racy flame

The current burlesque revival has been blossoming for over fifteen years now, which makes for pretty convincing evidence that this racy performing art form is back to stay.

Burlesque evolved in the late 19th century as an outgrowth of the racy saloon entertainment that was beginning to be impinged upon by burlesque’s family-oriented cousin, vaudeville. Burlesque went through many phases and incarnations over the years. Its heyday in New York may have been the 1930s — after vaudeville had died and before girlie shows were banned by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. In those days, burlesque meant large and lavish stage extravaganzas featuring full pit orchestras and Broadway-sized theatres.

By the middle of the century, burlesque became increasingly seedy, with the girls taking more and more off, the comics working progressively bluer, and the jazz combos becoming smaller. In the 1970s, competition from porn reduced what was left of burlesque (now with piped-in dance music) to entertainment found mostly in topless bars — a sort of performing arts branch of the sex industry. The rehabilitation began in the 1980s, when performance artists like Annie Sprinkle, Karen Finley and others began displaying their bodies in their art.

In 1993, Uta Hanna started the Blue Angel — which wed performance art to the art of the stripper. By the mid-90s, the movement had evolved into full-on neo-classicism, when performers like Miss Bonnie Dunn, Dirty Martini, Kate Valentine (a.k.a Miss Astrid), World Famous *BOB* and others came onto the scene and stayed. Since then, there’s been an explosion, with hundreds of old school, traditional burlesque dancers performing in NYC alone, and thousands more across the country and around the world.

A true catalog of all the burlesque going on in New York at the moment would look something like the telephone book. Some of the key players and shows (in no particular order) include: the Slipper Room (a Lower East Side nightclub now under renovation but still producing burlesque shows all over the city “in exile”); Miss Bonnie Dunn, a New Orleans native and new burlesque pioneer who produces “Le Scandal” at the West Bank Café; Galapagos Art Space in DUMBO, which presents burlesque shows almost every night of the week; “Gotham Burlesque” at The Triad on the Upper West Side; Coney Island USA’s annual “Burlesque at the Beach” series; Johnny Porkpie and Punchbottom Burly; “Rhinestone Follies” at R Bar; “Revealed Burlesque” at Under St. Marks; “Wasabassco Burlesque”; Juliet Jeske’s “Wham Slam Bam Variety Hour”; and dozens more.

If this were not enough, there’s the New York School of Burlesque run by Jo “Boobs” Weldon; Dr. Sketchy’s Anti-Art School, Molly Crabapple’s salon for drawing burlesque dancers; the annual New York Burlesque Festival (and it’s sister festivals all over the country, including the mother of them all — the Miss Exotic World pageant in Las Vegas). Recent chronicles of the scene include the documentaries “Dirty Martini and the New Burlesque” (by Gary Beeber); Leslie Zemeckis’s “Behind the Burley Q”; and Liz Goldwyn’s “Pretty Things: The last Generation of American Burlesque Queens,” which is both a book and a film.

Where the new burlesque is at the moment is a matter of perspective. One certainly encounters jaded night people who feel the whole burlesque revival is “over” — that it’s dead, that they can’t stand another second of it. On the other hand, the aforementioned burlesque shows continue to enthrall seemingly endless crops of ticket buyers who seem to be discovering the novelty for the very first time. And I have certainly encountered a disconcerting amount of people, even in the theatre, who profess to be completely unaware that the revival has been taking place (this in spite of the hundreds of articles in the New York Times, Time Out New York, New York Magazine). Personally I am somewhere in the middle. I dearly hope it is back to stay. I never want the world to be without it. But I hate being surrounded by rubes, Johnny-Come-Latelies, and show-offs. Go back to Kalamazoo, man!

This limbo status is definitely manifested in the Museum of Sex’s new exhibition “The Nudie Artist: Burlesque Revived” (museumofsex.com). The exhibition seems geared to all three groups (the newbie, the sophisticate, and the solid fan), though I can’t imagine it would be fully satisfactory to any of them. In reality, it’s more like three or four exhibits strung together. One part gives a very brief (too brief) overview of historical burlesque from its early days in the 19th century (and precursors in Paris and London).

Highlights include an 1896 Edison film of “Fatima” doing the muscle dance, an actual costume belonging to classic-era burlesque dancer Blaze Starr, clips from the aforementioned Zemeckis film and Mara Gaye’s actual dressing table. These bits and pieces provide some interesting context, but not enough to truly be much of an education.

Following this, we get two separate gallery-style exhibitions by two contemporary artists (out of hundreds) who make burlesque a principle subject in their work. Luma Rouge has gained notoriety for her pastel quick sketches of burlesque artists in performance. They are hastily rendered, generally graceful and full of movement and not particularly rich in detail. Leland Bobbé, on the other hand, has done a series of large-scale crystal clear color photographic portraits. Again, the artist is thorough — having captured most of the major players in New York’s contemporary burlesque scene. The work is cold and formal, not so much “come hither” as “go thither.” This is an odd approach to take in capturing subject matter that is notoriously “hot.” The exhibition wraps up with documentary footage of contemporary burlesque performers in action, for those who have apparently never seen it, or simply want their money’s worth of thrills from the museum.

Any way you slice it, the New Burlesque movement is now old enough that it can’t rely on intrinsic novelty alone any more to automatically satisfy more seasoned audiences. It’s on the producers and artists to find new ways to reinvent the form, to amuse and surprise even as they titillate. While there’s never been any shortage of bodacious beauties in this town, it’s the craftier ones who’ll keep the burlesque revival shaking in the years to come.

Article BY TRAV S.D.

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