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March 14th, 2008

THE ART OF THE PEEL TAKING IT ALL IN—AND MOST OF IT OFF—AT THE FIFTH ANNUAL NEW YORK BURLESQUE FESTIVAL

by Chip Maloney

If you were to assume that the fine art of burlesque has been dying a languorous death for the last half century and relegated to the desperate domain of a few gnarly, decaying swingers performing it in tattered and dirty costumes amidst the salty squalor of Coney Island, your assumption would be vastly incorrect. Burlesque is very much alive and well, and judging from the surging and enthusiastic throngs who attended this year’s four day long New York Burlesque Festival, it is more popular than ever. For the past five years, hundreds of burlesque performers from around the world have descended upon New York City to celebrate the art of the peel to an evergrowing legion of fans and devotees.

This year’s event was produced and presented by Thirsty Girl Productions and sponsored by a variety of companies, ranging from purveyors of super cool lingerie Secrets in Lace to The Burlesque Hall of Fame, Twirly Girl, Hendrick’s Gin, Original Sin Cider, The Museum of Sex and Go Magazine, just to name a few. Kicking off the four-day spectacular were two excellent pre-show parties on Thursday and Friday night at another of the event’s major sponsors, Soho’s own Corio Restaurant and Performance Space at the corner of West Broadway and Grand. The Friday night affair, hosted by Miss Astrid and entitled, “Filthy Gorgeous Burlesque,” was very wellattended by a hip, (but not annoyingly so) nicely-attired crowd with a higher ratio of gorgeous, young females than usually attend such sex-themed events in New York City. The party featured both great live music and the stylings of DJ Success, and several performances throughout the night from such local New York City burlesque legends as Jo Boobs and Angie Pontani. Free hooch from one of the sponsors and Go-Go performances from Amber Alert, Precious Little, and Pookie Patootie also helped to ensure that the festivities were a rousing success.

The main event, “The Saturday Spectacular,” was held at Chelsea’s Highline Ballroom and was filled to the rafters with a capacity crowd composed of every type—from rowdy, bloated fratboys to black-hearted, opiate-addled S.V.A. vampires, tatted-up rockabilly greasers and blue-lidded, Sajak-watching pensioners well into their seventies. To say this crowd was, um, diverse, would be an epic understatement, but everyone managed to get along well with each other despite their differences, and this of course can only be attributed to the power of pussy. It is a scientific fact that pussy can tame or turn a potentially unruly mob almost as effectively as baton-wielding riot cops, and with some 35 burlesque acts from all over the globe on tap that night, the vibe in that room was thankfully almost as calm as “oatmeal & puzzle night” in the lobotomy ward at Bellevue. Well, maybe not quite that mellow, but not the powder keg one would expect from such a varied crowd.

The ecdysiast acts ranged from solo peelers to groups, and the performances from classic burlesque— Gypsy Rose Lee, Sally Rand, Tempest Storm, and Lili St. Cyr—to innovative and modern acrobats of the Cirque du Soleil variety, such as Gravity Plays Favorites. This duo from St. Louis, otherwise known as Katrina Dohl and Michelle Mynx, literally brought the house down with their show stopping and gravity- defying pole dancing routine that simply has to be seen to be believed and has garnered them plenty of attention and fame on the international burlesque circuit. They earned the longest and most boisterous applause of the evening, and even though these two lovely ladies brought their own cheering section from back home, they well deserved it. Don’t be surprised to see these girls break through to the mainstream in the very near future. Panty Raid, a troupe of 12 dancers from Nashville who were recently rated one of the country’s best attractions in burlesque by America Online, also thrilled the crowd with their sexy and tightly choreographed number that contained elements of vaudeville, can can and go-go, and Trixie Little and The Evil Hate Monkey, a bizarre duo from Baltimore, got lots of laughs with their extremely lowbrow but extremely hilarious act. Other fan favorites, such as Australia’s Tigerlil, Los Angeles’ Lux La Croix and London’s Gwendoline Lamour, also took the stage to great fanfare along with performers both well known and—as of yet—unknown. The show’s emcee was Murray Hill, a Drag King and comedian who looks like a vintage Wayne Newton, and he kept the show moving along seamlessly while keeping the crowd in stitches between acts. The New York City Blues Devils provided the live music and DJ’s The Meat Mistress and Jack Fettermen kept the crowd pumping with the canned tunes.

Sunday Night was the climactic event of the festival and brought another dozen or so assorted acts and the “Golden Pastie Awards & Early Bird Dinner.” The Golden Pastie Awards maintained the lighthearted and comic approach of the entire festival and featured both categories like “Best Newcomer of 2007” and more humorous entries like the inspired “The Performer Most Likely To Become A Scientologist.”

Of course, and as it was in the late 19th century when burlesque was born, more emphasis is placed on the “tease” than on the “strip” in today’s burlesque acts, but this still ain’t your greatgrandfather’s brand of burlesque. For one thing, the PG-13 (but still sexy as hell) antics on stage are now considered completely acceptable couplesoriented entertainment by modern standards, and in fact, there were many couples in attendance all four nights of the show. For another, modern burlesque performers are much more fit, attractive and more skilled than many of the old stars were, and with the growing popularity of burlesque events such as the New York Burlesque Festival, the performers now regularly tour the world to packed houses, and in top venues.

The modern stars of burlesque also embrace an entirely different and sexpositive attitude about their careers and do so with a very healthy sense of humor about it. This much lighter but much smarter perspective about the game is undoubtedly why burlesque has made the major comeback it has in the last few years, and most likely why it will continue to grow in popularity in years to come.

For more information, and for details about the 2008 New York Burlesque Festival, visit their website.

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