BOMB — BEST OF THE MIDWEST BURLESK — HAS NOW EARNED ITS NAME. If you, like me, went to this annual festival two or three years ago (the festival’s now in its fourth year), and found it fun but not a must-see, it’s time to revisit that opinion. Or, more accurately, it’s time to brighten up your calendar by penciling in next year’s festival, because BOMB is already over for this year; even if it weren’t, even if I had gotten this dispatch out moments after leaving the theater, it wouldn’t have mattered, because the festival sold out. No pasties for you, sad reader! (But if that does make you sad, you can always check out Lili’s Burlesque at the Bryant-Lake Bowl, or Le Cirque Rouge at the 331.)
The question is what made this year’s festival so explosive? It’s not that emcee Nadine Dubois had any less bawdy or body charm when I saw her before, and it’s not that Sweetpea‘s motor booty was any less astonishing, and it’s not that the earlier festival didn’t have a knockout headliner, either. When I last saw BOMB, everything just felt a bit, for lack of a better word, brittle — smiles a little on the verge of cracking, costumes not cooperating, the air just a hint Minnesotan. But not any more. Now, BOMB goes down like good scotch. And the most marked improvement might be in the audience: last time we had to be coached through the etiquette of wolf-whistles (a process that leaves all applause feeling polite), but this time, people knew how to act — that is, how to laugh, clap, drink, and shout back. Sample exchange:
Nadine Dubois: I’m not going to tell you who this next performer is, but you’ll know her because she has the most amazing ass in the Midwest.
Random Guy in the Audience: It’s Brett Favre!
Rear-end jokes aside, this seems like the point at which I should cough up a hairball of theoretical justification for the ecdysiast‘s practice, but I just don’t feel like it. Besides,
- The justification is predictable: third-wave gaze swapmeet in which looker and looker (as in “she’s a real”) converge on a g-string, dragshow of femininity simultaneously refuted and affirmed by the almost-bare breast with its glitz-police pasty, etc., ad nauseum.
- When you’re at BOMB, justifications are about as necessary and useful as that ill-fated snowball that’s rolled you-know-where. It was a good time. I laughed till my throat felt all wrong. I saw a lot of T&A. So what?
So, without further ado, some things to love about burlesque in general and BOMB in particular:
1. The artists’ names: Lushes LaMoan, Switch the Boi Wonder, Lady Jack, Rhonda Vous, the Stage Door Johnnies, Ophelia Flame. Say them out loud. Make up your own, and plan how you’ll use it.
2. The inventive acts. Everyone has a gimmick. Some are minimal (shady lady, red-hot cutie), but more are full-on routines, packed with clever details and delivered (almost across the board) with great comic timing. Dancing around to “Venus,” Gina Louise strips off a glove and turns out to be holding a Venus razor; she gives her leg a loving stroke, then swipes at her pit. Trixie Little cavorts with a transparent ball (I’ll never see my physioball the same way again), then unties its cord so that her hair billows as the ball shrinks. We get housewife strip, secretary strip (complete with Xerox), diamond thief strip. I’ve found that, sadly, it’s almost impossible to retell a burlesque act — everything is timing and performance. Take Trixie Little and the Evil Hate Monkey. All I can say is this act features a beautiful burlesque star and a crazy monkey, stripping and performing gymnastic partnering tricks to “Total Eclipse of the Heart”. That’s right. Make of that what you can.
3. The sheer delight of tear-away pants. We should have more tear-away clothes. Imagine how much more interesting they’d make your next meeting.
4. The music. The Southside Aces work that old-time jazz feel, a loose swing that can take a joke, and they’re joined by not only Nadine Dubois (in a molest-the-chanteuse bit), but Karen Vieno Paurus, who belts “Feel Like Making Love” with an edge of August’s love-fever.
5. The tricks. People have asked whether I relate to burlesque as dance. No, not so much; I relate to it more as a performance and invention of femininity. That said, some of these artists perform tricks just as impressive as a triple pirouette. I’m not sure how you stand on your hands and shimmy your rear end at the same time, but Moxie Rhodes knows. And I’ve mentioned Sweetpea’s motor booty; the amount of motion she gets into or out her tuchas is truly amazing.
6. The style: Prohibition. The musical Chicago. The elaborate eyes of an original it-girl. Layers of silk, satin, feathers, fans. A Mae West swagger, a sultry side-part, a beauty mark. This is an addictive aesthetic. Ladies, you will want to get a fascinator. Guys: go for sock-garters.
7. How gay it is. “I get people wanting to know how gay this show is,” said our hostess in her caramel-bell voice. “Well it’s really gay. Is that okay?” Roar of approval from the crowd. Between the camp appeal of striptease and all its sequins and silk and the real appeal of flesh, it’s no wonder BOMB pulls a sizable gay and lesbian audience. Acts like Madison’s Sexual Chocolate, Moxie Rhodes, and Kitty LaRue, with their geeky/cheeky strip (Reeboks! neon socks! Cosby sweaters!) underline the open sexuality of contemporary burlesque. This really isn’t about men looking at women, it’s about eyes, bodies, wit, performance — and, oh right, pasties.
8. Speaking of pasties, let’s hear it for their insane variety, from your basic glitter cap to the super-shiny sheriff stars one cowgirl was sporting. You could buy your own, too, from updated cigarette girls trolling the theater during the show. What you did with them would be just your business… and while I’m at it, here’s to all the other garments you can’t buy at Target, frilly bits and pieces with no other purpose than to briefly conceal, sail or twirl gracefully through the air, and land in a deliciously disheveled heap on stage.
9. I love, too, the convention of leaving bits and pieces everywhere. These ladies (and gentlemen!) do not pick up their own laundry. They also do not huff their clothes back on, like lovers in a cheap motel; they saunter off stage, bare cheeks doing the swish-swish walk with the elegance of a queen.
10. Delight. If you haven’t grasped this by now, a whole fleet of differences separate burlesque and what they do at the Deuce Deuce, but the main one, for me, is the sheer happiness on stage and in the audience. I’m talking about laugh-till-it-hurts, wish-the-show-were-longer, absolutely therapeutic happiness. And what brings on that reaction is not just the high level of artistry among the performers, it’s their collective approach — playful, bright, saucy — to what’s so often a dark corner: the body and its desires.
Noted event details:
The sold-out shows for the 2011 4th Annual Best of Midwest Burlesk Festival took place in Minneapolis at the Ritz Theater January 27 – 29.
About the author: Originally from Tallahassee, Lightsey Darst is a poet, dance writer, and adjunct instructor at various Twin Cities colleges. Her manuscript Find the Girl was recently published by Coffee House; she has also been awarded a 2007 NEA Fellowship. She hosts the writing salon, “The Works.”