The New York nights were sultry when H. L. Mencken coined the term "ecdysiast" to describe Gypsy Rose Lee, a star of Minsky's Burlesque during the Great Depression. Lured by promises of the bump and grind, they packed the joint, but what made the stage door johnnies succumb was a sly thing — a wink and a smile. But the subtlety of her performance was lost on reform-minded city officials. Raids on Minsky's and other establishments soon killed burlesque in the Big Apple. By the 1970s, it was gone from the rest of the country, too.
With tassels a twirling, panties flying, and boas sailing, the First San Antonio Burlesque Festival launches this weekend, inaugurating an annual celebration of the underground art form that has seen a resurgence and found new respect in recent years. The brainchild of Rose Muñoz, aka Gaige of the Devil Bunnies, the two-day fest is a convergence of the energies of the Bunnies with the talents of other SA burlesque troupes: the Pastie Pops, Stars and Garters, Napalm Cherries, and Scarlet Darlings — with international Neo-Burlesque stars Coco Lectric and Perle Noire as headliners, and the participation of dozens of invited burlesque and variety acts from Texas and across the country.
Emerging in the mid-1990s in parallel with the London-based cabaret revival that looked to the dark charms of Weimar Germany, the Neo-Burlesque movement began in New York with performers like Dita Von Teese and was pioneered in Los Angeles by Michelle Carr's The Velvet Hammer Burlesque, whose performers modeled themselves on Lee and other classic burlesque stars like Tempest Storm, Dixie Evans, and Lili St. Cyr. Radiating with the golden light of Southern California and displaying a liberal range of feminine pulchritude exemplified by women of all sizes, Carr's group embraced the bewitching ecdysiast version of striptease — setting the standard for the movement. Focusing on the tease more than the strip, and incorporating elements of vaudeville comedy, Neo-Burlesque is an affirmation of self-empowerment that soon moved out of (pre-smoking ban era) haze-filled rooms to spawn a festival circuit linking cities across the globe from Finland to Japan. New York began its annual burlesque festival 10 years ago; the Texas Burlesque Festival began in Austin in 2008. But before you say,
"Here's San Antonio, late to the party as usual," know this: "It'll have a San Antonio Hispanic vibe that none of the other festivals have," says Muñoz. "We're going to mix it up a bit more, make it more entertaining."
Muñoz was dancing salsa when she met a choreographer at Calle Ocho five years ago and decided to try burlesque. Her first troupe was Noir Vamp, a cabaret-style troupe that sang and danced. "We didn't go down to pasties," says Muñoz. "I discovered that's not my forte." She soon joined the Devil Bunnies; now a group of six, they were originally three performers. "We took a sideshow approach — fire eating, fire dancing, grinding, stuff with blood, and just random stuff," she says. As DB performer Gaige, Muñoz is known for making sparks fly from her metal costume with a die-grinder. The sideshow gambit has worked well for the Bunnies — along with fellow DB performer Kassy Luvjoy (also performing at SABF), Muñoz will be doing a tour with acclaimed heterodox gypsy caravan Revolution Circus beginning this October. And though her personal future as a performer looks bright, Muñoz felt that the Bunnies' circuit of club performances, at venues such as Nightrocker, Limelight, and The Korova, needed to grow. With four other burlesque troupes in town facing the same situation, and having the experience of staging two festivals — Fight Fest and Viva Vaudeville — Muñoz decided to launch SA's first national-level burlesque festival.
A card that SA holds that eludes the grasp of other Texas towns is the presence of male burlesque performers. "There are four boylesque performers in San Antonio," says Muñoz. "The festival will present three of them."
Take a look at the lineup at the New York Boylesque Festival — you'll see plenty of the muscle boy and swimmer body types of the sort styled at Hardbodies on North St. Mary's Street and at gay strip clubs cross the country. But large men like Jasper St. James of the Pastie Pops? I don't think so. Well, so much for New York — world leader, indeed. St. James uses his statuesque (though hardly huge, by SA standards) frame to ribald effect in a number of peeling acts and a trademark routine with popping balloons. Even when done by a petite woman, the balloon show is hilarious because it burlesques stripping. Yes, burlesque can be a verb, and it's high time we defined our terms in this story, and looked further back in history. First known use in 1667, burlesque means comic, droll, in French. Most likely from the Italian burlesco, SA residents not afflicted with English mono-lingualism will hear the Spanish word burla: joke. Elizabethan playwrights like Thomas Dekker (1570-1632) wrote burlesques to parody social mores, and more often, as in his Satiromastix, society figures like competing writer (and sometimes ally) Ben Jonson. Fast-forward to the 1860s, when Lydia Thompson brought her British Blondes across the pond spoofing (once again) legit theater. She introduced a bit of erotic drag as well, with scantily dressed women in men's roles. America, the great meat grinder of traditions, threw another British import, the music hall, into the blend, along with homegrown minstrel shows and that everyman necessity — striptease.
A man doing striptease is — even given the now tiresome (and false) supposition that the audience is male — engaged in drag. SABF presents a twist on the British Blondes with a slightly different viewer in mind with Queertini Time, comprised of Shelby Mine and Eaton Johnson, a gender-bending couple on stage and in life who began performing in Austin's Kings N Things. At SABF they will perform a duet involving, says Johnson, baking.
Held in three venues over two days, the fest begins Friday at The Korova with a pin-up and car show, live music by Mr. Lewis and the Funeral 5 and the Flametrick Subs, a burlesque show featuring Ruby Lamb of Austin's The Jigglewatts Burlesque, and a salon-style fashion show featuring costumes by Jennifer Gonzalez, aka Jupiter Moon 3, the SA-based corset maker of international renown. Over a dozen performers, including SA's Zombie Bazaar Belly Dance, will be on hand during the night. Day two begins at Calle Ocho with Intro to Burlesque and Big Bad Boa, classes taught by festival headliner, founding member of Jigglewatts, and Headmistress of The Austin Academy of Burlesque, Coco Lectric, followed by Costuming 101 taught by Black Mariah of Dallas. The main event is The Saturday Night Spectacular at the Woodlawn Theatre, hosted by Camille Toe of the Pastie Pops and Foxxy Blue Orchid of Stars and Garters (Jump-Start Performance Company's Dino Foxx), who will guide the audience with comedic repartee through more than two dozen acts that span classic and Neo-Burlesque performance to the night's finales by past Queens of Burlesque Coco Lectric and Perle Noire.
Perle Noire (the Black Pearl), from Dallas now based in New Orleans, has traveled the world and performed in many festivals doing her tribute to expatriate American dancer Josephine Baker, whose banana dance scandalized Paris in the 1920s. Baker took the exoticism that black performers were cast with at the time, flipped it upside down, and just owned everything. Though not striptease, her dance was thought to be highly risqué — perhaps more for her sheer sexual exuberance, rather than the lack of dress. More than paying homage, Perle Noire's performances are acclaimed as the very embodiment of Baker's genius. "Dita Von Teese is a great artist who has really mastered the art of tease," says Perle Noire, "whereas my fans really enjoy my act because I am the complete opposite. I just come out there bursting with energy and passion, and I just dance."
Coco Lectric has also toured the world to much acclaim. Here is Coco's bottom line: "Burlesque, the art itself, is sort of jabbing at, poking fun at something — social norms, for example. Even in classic burlesque, we are often winking and smiling at how seriously people take the idea of sexuality, or teasing; how serious people are about how women are supposed to be when taking their clothes off. Are we supposed to be shy, and coquettish? It can be a dialogue about, 'Let me show you something.' ... Even at its simplest, it reads almost like a short story. You climax at a certain point, and then you just enjoy the fruits of your labor and are happy that everyone's happy. Or happy that you've maybe opened up a couple of neural pathways with someone in the audience. They're just like, 'Ahh, I don't know just what to think about that right now,' You know? It is good to think about. What we are bringing is positive: What we believe in, and what we want to share. ...If somebody looks terrified, that is that one person who I am going to blow kisses to, and look right at while I am doing a peel.
Absolutely. Because I want that person to feel a little bit more comfortable. I want them to know that I am inviting them to watch my show."
San Antonio Burlesque Festival
Friday Night Teaser
9 pm, Aug 3
107 E Martin
Saturday Night Spectacular
8 pm, doors open at 7pm, Aug 4