"The desire of the audience to see real stuff."
Burlesque is making a comeback.
The renowned and sometimes reviled form of Depression era performance has remained largely dormant for much of the last 60 years. But around the turn of the millennium the giddy variety shows of pasties, glitter and casual glamour experienced a rebirth, and are on the verge of becoming a major movement in contemporary entertainment.
In New York, home of what’s now known as the neo-burlesque scene, new clubs are being opened and older venues refurnished. Troupes of fresh talent regularly emerge, while more seasoned performers have been eating up the column inches of entertainment newspapers and broadsheets. It’s a phenomenon that’s been mirrored across the United States, and also in the United Kingdom and Australia.
You can even see it at a music festival. Since its inaugural event last year, Harvest has been running an intimidating programme of arts sideshows, a great many of them grounded in burlesque and circus performance.
With Harvest just a matter of weeks away, TheVine took some time to catch up with one of the festival’s major arts attractions in 2012 and a shining light of the New York neo-burlesque scene. Beatrix Keri Burneston (commonly known as Keri Burneston) and Adam Krandle have just notched up ten years together as Trixie Little and the Evil Hate Monkey – a strip-teasing, back-flipping, trapeze-swinging, love-hating duo of eye-popping strength and poise – and will be travelling to Australia to present a selection of their greatest acts, both at Harvest in Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney, and also for a five-night run at Adelaide’s Feast Festival.
It was over a shaky Skype connection to New York that we discussed the reasons behind burlesque’s phoenix-like rise from the ashes, its traction in Manhattan, entertainment as art, and exactly how long a career you can have flipping your partner about the stage.
Keri, your pre-Trixie Little history with Baltimore’s Fluid Movement performance group is well-documented. But what about you, Adam? I know you guys were swing dancing together, but what were you yourself up to?
Adam Krandle: I went to college for musical theatre and then I dropped out and started hiking the Appalachian Trail, which runs from Georgia to Maine – basically the whole Eastern Seaboard of America. I kind of caught that wanderlust bug and started travelling a whole bunch.
Then I met Trixie and we researched and found out and started doing things like dancing. I got involved in the Fluid Movement with her and the next thing you know, we started doing things like burlesque and circus skills together, and it just evolved from there.
You’re now based in New York but you guys started out in Baltimore. I read a story from a Baltimore paper in 2005 that talked about you, Keri, being the only burlesque performer in town. Is the scene still that small down there?
Beatrix Keri Burneston: No. There's a couple of troupes. There's all these venues now that weren't there before, and it's pretty crazy. I hope it's like that in other cities around Australia even, because it's definitely ballooned in America – every single city, all over the country.
Did Baltimore drive you out or did New York draw you in, so to speak?
BKB: We were just working here so much we really got to a point where we were tired of sleeping on other peoples' couches [laughs].
AK: I wouldn't say it's the allure of either city. It really came down to brass tacks and working. We love both cities. We still love Baltimore. We go there almost once a month, for one reason or another. We try to find reasons to go down there. It's such a quirky, weird town. We truly do believe in John Waters as being the patron saint [laughs]. It's a great town.
BKB: But we’ve done the majority of our work in New York I'd say for about five years, so we were really set up here before we actually moved. Because we went to circus school in Vermont, which is like three to four hours north of New York City. Then every weekend we would drive down and gig, Thursday night, Friday, Saturday, and then go home Sunday. All of our work has been there for five years.
You’re very much part of that neo-burlesque revival in New York. What kicked off this renewed interest in burlesque in the city, and in the United States as a whole?
BKB: I just remember when I was in college wanting to see more live entertainment. It was actually hard to find. For some reason there weren't even a lot of drag queens. It was really few and far between – there was one underground tavern where it happened like once a month. It was this little gem, but I just feel like I wanted to see that kind of live entertainment – something really real. I kind of think back to that feeling and feel other people kind of have that too. I feel like the circus revival has happened the same time the burlesque revival has. I feel like it's all part of the same desire of the audience to see real stuff.
AK: Maybe it has something to do with the amount of reality television too [laughs]. People are almost wanting to go see actual, real stuff, as opposed to being told what is real on TV, which is completely faux reality.
There’s that argument that modern mass entertainment has become pretty bland.
BKB: Yes, quite [laughs].
Is there a greater liberalism in New York these days compared to, say, ten years ago? I know Rudolph Giuliani came through and supposedly "cleaned up" the city during his tenure [1994 to 2001] as mayor, but is there more liberalism there now? Is there more scope for this sort of thing?
BKB: I guess it's all relative. New York is definitely one of the most liberal cities in the entire country, but in terms of was it more liberal ten years ago than it is now? I'm not totally sure. I think in some ways yes, in some ways no. It's weird because there is a lot more nudity burlesque in New York than anywhere else. That does have to do with the laws [to some extent], because here there's a theatre license that allows for nudity and smoking even still on stage.
BKB: It's kind of crazy the loopholes that people try to take advantage of. But yeah, I dunno, I guess it's hard to say because Giuliani really did screw things up again too. Some things have been restored. There's a nightclub we work in called The Box, which is very anything goes – it’s really crazy. But then everyone in New York hates The Box [laughs], so I don't know. Well, burlesque performers don’t like it because there's a lot of nudity and an expectation of nudity … But The Box doesn't claim to like burlesque at all. They want to just see something shocking.
AK: It's more true New Vaudeville, Vaudeville Cabaret.
When I think of American entertainment in general, there seems to be this taste for something a little more raw. Louis CK is a good example on the comedy side, where he seems to be able to crack that whip in an instant. There seems to be a taste – is it perhaps a post-GFC thing? – where people have a taste for something a little more real.
BKB: I definitely feel that big time in New York. People want to get to the point fast. You are constantly surrounded by so much culture, so much entertainment, the best of everything, everywhere, all the time. It really does change your expectations. The audiences here we just never take for granted. Sometimes they're not in the mood for it and it has nothing to do with you or your show. When they are into it, you feel like, "Yes!" It's a true victory.
I think the other thing that fascinates people about the rise of burlesque is it's popularity with female audiences. Why is that, do you think?
AK: It's liberating.
BKB: I think it can be very positive. I find right now in the world of burlesque there's an interesting shift – because it has been going on here for so long – between the amateurs and professionals, and where that line is, and how people start to cross over if they want to or not. It's definitely a big business for a lot of people in terms of teaching classes and giving women that experience of feeling good about their bodies, and just being very positive, and empowering.
Then a shift happens where they start to professionalise and they're like, "Oh shit, I better lose some weight and get in shape." It's a bit ironic. It starts to go down that route. For us, because we've had our one foot in the circus and one foot in burlesque, just being strong has always been our focus.
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