New Burlesque

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A few years on into the revival of Burlesque shows, there's a community of performers who have loyal audiences in clubs and bars. Increasingly dancers and performance artists are reinterpreting the traditions of burlesque cabaret and variety. WNYC's Judith Kampfner checks into the scene and finds that it has even infiltrated the classroom.

KAMPFNER: Fishnet stockings and feather boas aren’t usually the subject of a lecture but today students are taken back to the turn of the twentieth century and topless showgirls.

DR. LYNN SALLY: the naked girls hanging from the chandeliers..

KAMPFNER: The room is packed with would be performers. NYU’s drama department has taken the huge step of offering a History of American Burlesque.

SALLY: The tableau vivants of the Ziegfield Follies, the slightly disrobed women shall we say who became part of the set…are like mannequins – right?

KAMPFNER: This is the story of what was called the illegitimate theater. It began in America in the 1860’s and continued through to the bump and grind striptease acts of the fifties. In the last few years, it’s come back with a new twist – performers of all shapes and sizes play with the stereotypes of striptease to communicate ideas about sexual politics and gender identity..Burlesque now includes styles of performance from belly dancing to Butoh explains Dr Lynn Sally.

SALLY: There’s this neo burlesque going on right now and people don’t really have a historical or conceptual context to place this.

KAMPFNER: These students will develop their own acts and if they are confident enough, perhaps take part in the upcoming New York Burlesque Festival.

MEGAN GEORGE: My name is Megan George. If my father found out I was performing in a burlesque show, he would probably be very frightened. When he found out I was in the class he said what’s the value of that? I don’t think people of my parent’s age see any very real theater in the burlesque movement.

KAMPFNER: Perhaps she should tell her dad that the last Whitney Biennial honored a burlesque performance artist. Or she could say that many burlesque performers are college graduates. Take Lynn Sally her professor who performs as “Lucky” in a self contained act which she presents at the elegant Galapagos, a converted factory in Brooklyn..Robert Elmes who’s the director here has been presenting variety for four years

ROBERT ELMES: The creativity doesn’t have limits. It’s a beginning art form, it’s reinvigorated, it’s something that’s come back.

KAMPFNER: Striptease used to be dumbed down, like a bad movie says Elmes – now the work is often both intelligent and from people who are highly trained in dance and physical theater. . He describes a favorite performer.

ELMES: Selena Vixen she performs Man Ray’s cello.. to wonderful music.. she occasionally shows an arm. Any time you have sensuality on stage.. you are giving a gift to the audience.

KAMPFNER: The audiences at Burlesque showcases don’t venerate the performers and the mc sets the mood.

ELMES: Some audiences need a spanking and some a caress.

KAMPFNER: On Friday nights at The Slipper Room on Orchard Street, Miss Saturn is the MC. Before the show she goes over to the dj with her blue leather cat suit provocatively unzipped. Once on the creaky tiny stage, she tries in vain to make the curtains meet. We get a sneak peep..

(Miss Saturn from the stage)

KAMPFNER: Miss Saturn holds out her martini glass and people oblige her by pouring in beer.. Men and women, when the spirit moves them, dance up to the stage and tuck money into the performers costumes.. One woman’s persona is of a desperate housewife ironing each piece of clothing as she disrobes. Another opens her routine with some stand up.

New burlesque acts range from the raw to the highly rehearsed . A troupe called The Bindlestiff Family Cirkus looks at types of sexual behaviour using routines from novelty acts. They mock the seriousness of the S and M scene in a skit where blindfolded performer Stephanie Monseu is tied up by skinny balloons.. Her partner pops each balloon with a cigarette.. slowly…

MONSEU: I’m unable to figure out which direction this taunting is coming from . I’m finally released from rm bondage and get my revenge by giving him a good stiff kick but I’m titillated and we end up exchanging rubber through the mouth and nose.

KAMPFNER: Nothing is taboo. The British band Tiger Lilies, who are currently on stage in New York, sing about venereal disease, bestiality, child sex and gas chambers. And they even have a crucifixion song which singer Martyn Jacques delivers in his androgynous voice. The look of their act is inspired by the classic era of cabaret – the thick white pancake and bowler hats of Weimar Germany...Jacques and Adrian Stout – who plays bass explain.

JACQUES/STOUT: From Berlin, where cabaret comes from. …There’s a dark seedy quality , it’s risqué - something of the underworld, an undercurrent.

KAMPFNER: Now the Tiger Lilies perform on stage with actors and puppets. Their show called “Shock Headed Peter” is based on macabre nineteenth century German poems for children.. Each naughty child dies a terrible death. A high profile cabaret inspired show like this is a big departure for the new burlesque environment says Robert Elmes of Galapagos. It’s proof that it has bubbled uptown and is having an impact on mainstream audiences.

ELMES: If burlesque evolves into a full theatrical evening, with theatrical through lines, then you have the possible evolution back to cabaret and that’s the curious thing, it can influence Broadway and it can improvise traveling shows.. to Peoria and Columbus Ohio.

KAMPFNER: What’s delightful about this kind of theater is its mischieviouness. When the Tiger lilies came to the studio, we only had a piano.. so I rustled up some spoons for the percussion. And they recreated a charmingly innocent ditty.

(Suicide Song )