A short emcee in a suit sings an off-key version of “A Lot of Livin’ to Do” while three brunettes in glittery bustiers with fringe bottoms dance around him, fluttering their false eyelashes. There is wild cheering, and then the emcee, Mr. Murray Hill, who is actually a woman, greets the audience, points to someone in the front row, and says, “Ladies and gentlemen, Rosie O’Donnell is in the house.” The crowd quiets and looks around. Hill frowns in confusion and says, “Oh, I’m so sorry, sir,” to wild laughter. Welcome to the world of neo-burlesque, where bump and grind comes with pop-culture jokes and irony is par for the course.
Whether for reasons of politics or prurience—or simply because of the cheap tickets—neo-burlesque has become a fixture of New York nightlife, with events almost every day of the week at venues like Fez, the Slipper Room, and Marion’s Continental. The occasion for this particular show is the second annual New York Burlesque Festival—which had to turn away so many people last year at the Knitting Factory that this year its producers (and stars), the World Famous Pontani Sisters, booked the multilevel Avalon, the former Limelight. On a rainy Saturday night, as Troy plays big at the multiplexes, a thousand souls have trekked out to watch more than 50 enthusiastic women (and a few men) from all over the country and world as they shake, shimmy, and bare it all.
“I think this is sexier than strip clubs,” says a well-dressed music executive, Athan Maroulis, 39, “because less is more. I like the panties. Nowadays, they look like two Band-Aids. Panties should hide things and be more mysterious.”
The panties are indeed full-coverage, ruffled boy-shorts-style, but the bras are better—flowered, strapless, conical, and cupping breasts of considerably larger size than those of the average Penthouse Executive Club stripper. Some acts are ironic—a troupe called Through the Keyhole Burlesque does a southern-themed number set to “Sweet Home Alabama” that involves wriggling out of gingham halters and prancing around with hoes. Others are even campier (there’s a mechanical “Safety Dance” routine with a jumbo body condom), and some flat-out arousing (petite bikini’d performer Bunny Love takes a slow, standing bubble bath in a kiddie pool).
As New York strip clubs get more upscale and the dancers grow more homogenous and interchangeable, neo-burlesque is an arena where individuality rules. Performers are motivated less by money than by love of the art form and desire for fame, however small. As the voluptuous and Mansfieldesque World Famous *BOB* puts it, “Strippers make money, and burlesque dancers spend the little they make on their next costume.”
“Strippers may look interchangeable, but in neo-burlesque, individuality rules.”
Though most trace the New York burlesque revival to 1993’s opening of the Blue Angel Exotic Cabaret in Tribeca, what’s surprising is that the scene has continued to grow—and now spans the globe. Women find out about other women interested in burlesque, create troupes, and hit the road. German stripper Ute Hanna opened the Blue Angel to provide an atmosphere where strippers could do as they pleased. As Bonnie Dunn, 43, producer of the weekly “Le Scandal” at the Cutting Room, recalls, “Ute wanted to open a club run by women where women would feel comfortable. She really just sat back and let girls do whatever they wanted. There were regular strippers, and in between them, they would sandwich in girls that could never really work in the gentlemen’s clubs. They were atypical bodies, a 70-year-old magician, and an acrobat. We came in as the rejects.” The show became hugely popular, and in 1998, when Mayor Giuliani began cracking down on strip clubs, theatrical striptease remained a protected form of bawdiness.
Of course, the success of the Blue Angel may have been in its unique combination of high art and low. “Ute was really breaking the law, because she was serving liquor and she had total nudity,” says Dunn. “Women were doing lap dances.”
Since then, the genre has evolved into something closer to performance art; though almost all the acts at the festival are entertaining, few are straight-out erotic. But what they lack in sensuality they make up for in research; these girls do their homework. Dirty Martini, a full-figured New York performer known for her re-creations of classic burlesque dances, moved to New York in 1993 after graduating from SUNY-Purchase with a B.F.A. in dance. “My Mark Morris dream never panned out,” she says wryly. She wound up joining a theater troupe and was asked to develop a fan dance. So she went to Kim’s Video and began renting old tapes in the Cult section. “The first dancer I saw had my body shape,” she recalls, “and I realized, ‘Holy shit. That’s all I need to present myself.’ ” Soon after, she began performing at “The Red Vixen” at Flamingo East—and today, she’s a minor celebrity.
Martini thinks people are hungry for light entertainment these days because of the national mood. “People just want to go out with other people,” she says, “be entertained, have fun, and forget about all the shitty things that are happening.” And in a city where Broadway tickets are $100 a pop, burlesque is a live event that’s affordable—and a more dynamic, smiling alternative to a glum-faced Strokes imitator strumming away at a rock club in Williamsburg.
As the culture gets more desensitized to sex, neo-burlesque remains a sensual delight—with humor. “Everyone is so sick of these overproduced TV shows,” says Angie Pontani of the Pontani Sisters, “and all the overt sexual stuff in movies. It’s synthetic, contrived, and mass-produced. Burlesque is raw and human, and there’s something in it for everyone.”