- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 12, 2003

Gentlemen’s clubs where the strippers leave nothing to the imagination?

Admit it, guys, you’re a little furtive on entering one, even ashamed — and well you should be: They’re so yesterday.

It’s not so much that they’re sleazy, it’s more that they’re cheesy — the Dockers of adult entertainment.

Skin is out. Burlesque is back. It’s not about the sleaze. It’s about the tease.

Today’s scene makers drop into New York City’s Slipper Room or San Francisco’s Tease-O-Rama, where a Jean Harlow look-alike (with Jayne Mansfield measurements) named **BOB** does a coy striptease act that evokes a more modest postwar America of the 1940s and ‘50s, when Gypsy Rose Lee, Blaze Starr and Tempest Storm still sashayed across the burlesque stage.

In small clubs and cabarets nationwide — including the 9:30 Club, which plays host to the nationally touring “Burlesquefest” tonight — what is being heralded as neo-burlesque is plucking the G-strings of hip folk.

A cross between vintage bump-and-grind beats, kitschy lounge acts and the sight of naturally buxom (or not) women who sing, dance and tell jokes (but would never do anything as vulgar as flash a thong), neo-burlesque is what producer Lyn MacNeil calls “the art of enticement.” In other words, it’s mostly PG-13 — but should there be the occasional flash of something R-rated, just look down at your feet, guys, and try to name all the U.S. presidents in reverse order.

Yes, burlesque is back in all its feathered and fringed glory — jugglers, magicians, novelty acts, baggy-pants comedians and all. Not to mention the new burlesque queens — Catherine D’Lish, who does a faithful re-creation of Sally Rand’s famous fan dance; Evangeline the Oyster Girl, who performs a sultry homage to the aphrodisiac bivalve before withdrawing back inside an enormous oyster shell; the ivories-tickling Kitten on the Keys; and perhaps the reigning queens of the genre, the Pontiani Sisters, who don hot pants and high boots to dance to the theme from “The Godfather.”

No, these are not your mother’s strippers.

They are your grandmother’s strippers — naughty but nice.

These are strippers even Rudolph W. Giuliani could love.

“The new burlesque and vaudeville is an innocent flirtation,” says Cherry Red Productions’ Lucas Zarwell, who co-produced a sellout neo-vaudeville showcase at Washington’s Source Theatre last month that turned away more than 40 people despite its 1 a.m. curtain time.

“The tease is better because it is lighter and more fun,” Mr. Zarwell says. “This kind of work takes a very special person — someone who honestly and innocently teases and seduces the audience. There is no comparison to those strip clubs where the women look like Pamela Anderson or one of Hugh Hefner’s girlfriends. This so much better — and both sexes can enjoy it.”

Cherry Red’s neo-vaudeville night featured balloon swallower and contortionist Trey Cromwell, a cross-dressing burlesque act (with drag kings instead of queens) and a woman who performed a Spin-the-Wheel-of-Death act. Encouraged by the success, Cherry Red plans more showcases. “Burlesque and vaudeville are popular during troubled times,” Mr. Zarwell says. “People want a cheap thrill in a bad economy.”

The burlesque revival is theater and music (many clubs feature a pit band) as much as it is skimpy costumes. There also is a generous nod to history — Miss D’Lish, who will perform at the 9:30 Club, conjures images of ecdysiasts of yore with routines that include an adult-size champagne glass, a gilded bird cage and a costume made of peacock feathers.

Miss Kitty Crimson, also appearing in “Burlesquefest” (the first national tour of its kind), might look like a Vargas Girl pinup, but she eschews vulgarity. “Burlesque is an art form,” she sniffs. “It is sexy without being lurid, racy but not X-rated.”

Most burlesque evenings include stand-up and sketch comedy, singers and specialty acts. The 9:30 Club show will feature an aerial act called the Oracle Dance, which combines the circus arts of trapeze, hoop and Spanish web (ropes) with showgirl costumes and the music of Tom Waits. It’s Cirque du Soleil — minus the prim, public broadcasting notion of good taste.

The neo-burlesque movement began in 1995 with San Francisco’s Velvet Hammer revue, which is still going strong nearly 10 years later. There are few rules, except to keep it (relatively) clean and not take yourself too seriously. On any given Saturday night at the Velvet Hammer’s Great American Music Hall theater, you might see a peevish accordion player, a vast array of body types, a flamingo dancer and a fur-clad throwback to the Bond girl called Ursulina.

“The burlesque revival differs from Vegas or musicals or stripping because it is self-generated,” says Jo Weldon, a longtime burlesque historian and fan. “New burlesque performers aren’t auditioning for parts or being fitted for costumes — they create the roles, the choreography, the skits and the costumes without guidelines, just influences,” she says. “In the new burlesque, the persona each person chooses reveals more about the reality behind the glamour than any photo could ever do.”

The new burlesque queens reign supreme, but there is plenty of room for female performers beyond the bump and grind. Local performer Keri Burneston, who appeared in her stage persona of Trixie Little at the Source last month, has a routine mixing trapeze, tap dance and comedy.

“I was trained in painting and drawing, but I found the art world stifling and insular, and I wanted something more immediate that connected with the audience,” says Miss Burneston, who is the founder of Fluid Movement, a Baltimore-based troupe in which volunteers from the community collaborate with trained performers.

In the past, Fluid Movement has done Frankenstein, the life of Freud on roller skates and Cleopatra in a public pool. The troupe’s latest venture, “Go-Go Pirate Show,” a wild variation on “Treasure Island,” debuts next weekend on the venerable warship the USS Constellation in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.

“The Trixie Little idea came out of something I wanted to do with my boyfriend,” says Miss Burneston, who is 28 but cites cinematic swimming superstar Esther Williams and Lucille Ball as her greatest influences.

“We wanted something that was one-half vaudeville show, one-half tap-dancing and music. We loved the playful sexuality and the double-entendres of burlesque, so we jumped in. I started doing trapeze work at a gymnastics studio, and out of that came the idea of Trixie Little — an acrobatic superhero, 5 feet, zero inches of pure power.”

Miss Burneston has performed with Tease-A-Rama in San Francisco and at the New York Burlesque Fest. “What I like most about the new burlesque is that there is such an abundance of personality — the performers are an outgrowth, a caricature of their real selves — or who they would like to be,” she says.

Her love of vaudeville and burlesque grew out of watching musicals from the 1940s and 1950s.

“It was my movie-star fantasy to be one of those glamorous women — I would wonder why my life wasn’t a technicolor fantasy all the time,” Miss Burneston says. “Neo-burlesque allows me to do that. And it’s funny, the whole burlesque thing is so sisterly and woman-powered — the same things I responded to as a college-age feminist. Women don’t have to give up the glamour for the power.”

WHAT: “Burlesquefest,” with Catherine D’Lish, Miss Kitty Crimson, Oracle Dance, Kitten on the Keys, Empire Burlesque Follies and DeVotchKa.

WHERE: 9:30 Club, 815 V St. NW

WHEN: Tonight

TICKETS: $15, available through www.tickets.com.

PHONE: 202/393-0930.

WHAT: Fluid Movement’s “Go-Go Pirate Show”

WHERE: On board the USS Constellation at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor

WHEN: June 20 and 21, June 26 and 27.

TICKETS: $12.50, available by calling 443/742-4942 or at www.fluidmovement.org.

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