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BAWDY IN BROOKLYN

Burlesque is back, and it may be what saves dance from itself

for The Brooklyn Paper
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Time to dust off grandma’s old pasties, darling. That bawdy and ribald men’s entertainment called burlesque is back in Brooklyn.

But the rules have changed this time around.

No longer is burlesque the domain of undesired old men who drool over the young lasses bedecked with glitter, mascara and feathers. Now it’s women who run the show and catcall from the audience. It’s women who found the medium languishing on dusty film reels at cult video stores, and it’s women who reinvented it as a postmodern performance art.

It’s women, and one or two men, who use its hyperactive and short format not just to show some skin, but to tell a tale, act out a post-feminist critique of sexuality or do something so absurd that it stuns and amuses the audience.

This is "neo-burlesque," says one of its stars, Selena Vixen, aka Catherine Hourihan.

For example, there’s the Bombshell! Girls, the burlesque duo of Lady Ace and Ms. Tickle. Their signature piece, called "Mirror," which can be seen on their Web site (www.thebombshellgirls.com), is a jarring, but memorable act. In it, a young woman dressed in old-fashioned pajamas holds a votive candle on a darkened stage. She’s admiring her reflection in a full-length mirror and her reflection admires her back. She presents it a rose and then slowly strips to pasties and a bikini bottom spun from flowers. Her reflection copies every move. But once she turns her back, the reflection claws her shoulder and pulls the woman through the frame, blows out its candle and goes offstage. The woman is left frozen in the mirror as the curtains close.

While cosmopolitan audiences across the city have settled into the revival of burlesque, Brooklyn crowds are the ones who see the genre’s cutting edge. For more than two years, burlesque has had a consistent home at Galapagos, a performing arts space in Williamsburg, and until recently, at Low, a lounge below the restaurant Rice in DUMBO. Promoters at both venues say they want to give burlesquers a space in which to toy with their creativity and explore the medium’s potential.

"It’s more experimental in Brooklyn," says Robert Elmes, founder and director of Galapagos, which hosts a burlesque show on Monday nights, regularly starring the Bombshell! Girls, Selena Vixen and others, and on Friday nights, a vaudeville revue that also features burlesque. Because of Brooklyn’s lower rents, venues are more laid back, Elmes says, and they don’t have to cram people in for two performances a night.

"In the city, you’re going to see something that’s right down the middle, not offending anybody, not stepping on anybody’s toes, leaving a grin instead of a smile," says Elmes.

Galapagos, with its somber atmosphere lit by a tapestry of reds, black cherry and blood orange with the occasional sapphire sewn in, seeks more to inspire. Because Galapagos’ audiences are more likely artists themselves, they seem to respond to the more nuanced and imaginative burlesque, Elmes says.

They’re the only audience for whom Hourihan performs her most conceptual piece, "Instrument," which was inspired by Man Ray’s photograph of a female nude called "The Cello."

"Brooklyn audiences are a lot more sophisticated than any of the ones you see in Manhattan," says Hourihan, a Williamsburg resident. "The Manhattan audience, I don’t know where they’re from. Maybe from Jersey, I don’t know."

Not that burlesque has grown elite or pretentious with age. Fun is still its operative word - fun for the audience, and fun for the performers to dress-up in homemade haute couture and fun to take it off.

"It’s fun," concurs Jo Weldon, who began to perform as Jo Boobs in 1998, after she saw friends take up burlesque.

"I thought, ’Oh, they’re amusing themselves. I want to do that.’"

After 15 years as a stripper, Weldon says she found something therapeutic in the less serious and less lonely world of striptease.

"There’s no money stare in burlesque," she says, referring to that salacious stare strippers wear to coax bigger tips from their patrons. "And if it’s there, then it’s a joke."

But the key to a successful burlesquer lies in her personality. Although there’s no booing in New York burlesque - that’s just impolite - it’s clear that the best acts are the ones in which the star ladles on the presence, the wit, the elan.

Some draw inspiration from burlesque’s golden era, the mid-20th century. Miss Dirty Martini’s best known piece is her fan dance. The World Famous *BOB*, of Greenpoint, who calls herself "a female female-impersonator," performs a classic act in which she plays a drag queen.

For Lady Ace, it’s something more hard rock. As layers of her gaudy green outfit slunk off her body during a recent solo show in the East Village, Lady Ace winked and snapped Polaroid photos of herself and flung them into the audience with audacious pomp. In the background boomed the trance-like "Press Darlings," by ’80s New Waver Adam Ant.

"She’s gregarious, outgoing, funny, likes to make fun of herself, overtly sexual, clever - hopefully," Anna Curtis says of her onstage Lady Ace alter-ego.

"Really, really, she’s just me," says Curtis. "Although normally I don’t take my clothes off in front of my friends when I’m talking to them."

Ariana Smart, a former Low manager, tapped that energy to drive her weekly burlesque shows, at which Curtis and more than a dozen others regularly performed.

"I wanted the burlesque at Low to kind of erupt out of the general hubbub," Smart writes in an e-mail from India. "I wanted a mad fun bar with witty and intelligent and exciting things happening quickly in the corners."

(Last December, Low cut its hours, and consequently its burlesque shows, while its management was reshuffled. Gabriele Blecher, a manager at Rice, said burlesque might return to Low if there is a demand for it.)

Meanwhile, burlesque continues elsewhere in Brooklyn, at Galapagos and at a Carroll Gardens wine bar called Boudoir Bar. And there’s Coney Island U.S.A, which throws a weekly bash in the summertime called "Burlesque at the Beach."

"Although we are not the largest or the biggest [venue], we seem to be the performers’ favorite," says Dick Zigun, director of Coney Island U.S.A., explaining that the crowds who trek out to Coney seem to "get" burlesque.

The boom of burlesque may also be linked to the decline of the traditional dance industry. Dance companies and their audiences are graying, says Elmes. Young audiences are less attracted to the studied introversion of classical dance, while fewer young dancers find opportunities in companies, he says.

Burlesque and other artist-led performance arts may be shaking up that status quo.

"The dance community is awakening from its long spell of sleep under a golden fleece," Elmes says. "The days of the austere Joyce are pretty much over."

Young dancers are now saying, "’Let’s take the reigns. This cart’s not going the right way,’" he says.

Just as women are reasserting their sexuality, they’re also asserting themselves onstage. They choreograph their own acts, design their own costumes and create their own audiences.

And with burlesque, the steps to the stage are not as long.

"It’s a way to perform, to get ongoing experience onstage, be creative and actually get paid for it," says Hourihan, who also choreographs and dances non-burlesque pieces. Most young dancers have few such opportunities, she says, and when they do, they often have to work for free. Burlesque may not rake in the cash, she says, but it can keep more performers on their feet without having to rely on service industry jobs.

But burlesque is hardly a stopover for its performers. Instead, it’s become the glue of a new community of artists who celebrate and inspire each other’s work.

"I do other things besides burlesque. But burlesque is something I have a huge passion for," says The World Famous *BOB*. "It’s a good place to sharpen your pencils."

 

Galapagos Art Space presents free Monday Evening Burlesque with Polly Peabody, Miss Saturn and others on Feb. 16 at 9:30 pm and Galapagos Floating Vaudeville, with host Von Von Von, on Feb. 20, from 10 pm to 1 am. Vaudeville admission is $5. Galapagos is located at 70 North Sixth St. at Wythe Avenue in Williamsburg. For more information, call (718) 782-5188 or visit www.galapagosartspace.com.

Boudoir Bar presents burlesque weekly. Upcoming schedules were not available at press time. Boudoir Bar is located at 273 Smith St. at Sackett Street in Carroll Gardens. For more information, call (718) 624-8878 or visit www.eastendensemble.com.

Coney Island U.S.A. will present "Burlesque at the Beach" on most Fridays from mid-May to mid-September. Schedules to be announced. For more information, call (718) 372-5159 or visit www.coneyisland.com.

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