Anja Keister reviews the Movers, Shakers and Innovators showcase at the Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekend 2016.
When I received word I was chosen for this task I felt truly honored because the Movers, Shakers and Innovators night of the Weekender is always my favorite night. I am a proud member of the NYC neo scene, and Thursday night at BHoF is my night for inspiration. I’ve taken a lot of time to digest the show and really think about what that night means for our burlesque scene and for the Weekender as a whole.
I spent most of this BHoF talking to people about the show and as much as it might have been fun to go to party or get up to shenanigans around the Orleans, I was more interested in having long conversations pouring over exactly what the Thursday night show meant to people, and how this year stacked up. This experience was a BHoF unlike any I had attended before, and after a few months of thinking about it, I am ready to recap and review it for you all now.
I settled into my seat in the Orleans theatre, notebook in hand, and copied down the names of all of the performers for the night. There were many I recognized either from years past, backstage meet ups at festivals, or from various forms of social media.
The opening music cues started and the hosts for the evening; Armitage Shanks and Sailor St. Claire took the stage with other members of the Seattle Burlesque scene. The opening number was an interesting mix of singing, dancing, and a tribute to Prince. I was so happy to see body diversity on the stage right from the get go. This was also the longest I had ever seen an out and identified trans body, that of the wonderful Violet Deville, get to have so much stage time.*
My only critique was the lack of racial diversity in this number. I talked with the only non-white performer in this opening number, Boom Boom LeRoux, about this. She explained that Seattle just doesn’t have a very racially diverse scene, so having just her on stage was actually improved representation in her opinion.
The closing number also felt a bit strange, weird, and out of place. This is not to say that Armitage or Sailor or bad hosts, but when I talked with others over the weekend, it was brought up several times that maybe asking hosts to do their own musical or big production numbers isn’t always the right choice or necessary, and can take time away from having more performers getting a chance to showcase their talents for all of us.
There were definitely some very fun and over the top group numbers in the Thursday night show, courtesy of some of last year’s winners doing their step down numbers.
Jenny Rocha and her Painted Ladies conquered the stage in a Disney princess style gang fight that was entertaining, slightly disturbing, and danced like no one’s business. This neo burlesque gem was a bit violent, but I was glad to see something strange like this on the BHoF stage.
Speaking of Disney, Matt Finish (2015 Best Boylesque) did a rousing long form step down number that was an homage to Disney and the Disney Park culture. Performing to a track listed directly from the Disney Parks, he was sorcerer Mickey and took us on a narrative onstage that including multiple dynamic changes in tone and lighting, a dramatic middle section with large flowing fabrics. and an ending with a large group finale with exciting costumes and confetti. This was the sort of number that I wished had ended the Movers, Shakers and Innovators night. It had all the extravagance necessary to leave you starry eyed and laughing.
This improvement of diversity, of both race and performer body types, was an overarching theme for all of BHoF this year. Two other themes that I noticed at the Thursday night show was an increase in circus skills interwoven into the performances as well as lip syncing on stage.
In New York City, there has definitely been a rise in incorporating more circus and variety skills into performance and shows, so it was definitely interesting to see this also represented on the the Movers, Shakers, and Innovators stage. With the rise of drag culture’s popularity in the past few years and with ‘draglesque’ becoming more and more common, the lip syncing didn’t surprise.
Variety infused acts like Madame Romanova‘s quick change number, and Teddy Bare‘s lyra hoop, Mista Bagalicious‘ juggling plumber. Gilbert de Moccos‘ high energy act brought out a clown-like feel, and J Von Stratton‘s act that included a long hair rope that she wrapped and manuevered around kept the night fresh and the ‘boob fatigue’ at bay.
Acts like Hazel Honeysuckle‘s comedic singing striptease hearkened back to the vaudeville aesthetics similar to Gypsy Rose Lee, and Camille Leon‘s act, a high energy classic act, included flag work that made my former colorguard nerd heart soar.
The show was enjoyable and entertaining and I only had a few drawbacks that left me questioning the show and the curation of this evening. The Brazen Belles had such a fun cowgirl inspired act, complete with spinning stools, that I would have loved to have seen them compete for the group title. The Duet that Do It (Scarlett O’Hairdye and Bolt Action), whose fun robot act was comedic in all the right ways, would have been a great addition to the Saturday night lineup. The same rings true in my mind for Valerie Veils and Vyxen Monroe‘s number. Their act was wonderfully danced and beautiful, but why was it not included in the small group performance competition?
I also feel it is important to address something that bothered me early on in the evening. Yelling is not always appropriate during an act. The first performance of the evening was a beautiful duet by St. Stella and James and the Giant Pasty. I had shared my excitement with James prior to arriving in Vegas about being able to see this act on such a monumental stage, but this was tarnished for me by the audience yelling and screaming sassy remarks during the opening of the number which is done in silence. Please take some time to remember that when we go to these shows we are there to see the performers do their acts, not to draw attention to ourselves.
I don’t want to end this article on a sour note though, so I have saved these ending remarks to discuss some of my favorite acts from Movers, Shakers and Innovators. I thrive on the creativity and inventiveness of acts that move burlesque forward in positive ways, as well as the playful jealousy of, “oh man, why didn’t I think of that!?!” Here are my top five favourite acts, in no particular order, using that criteria:
Corvette LeFace. Pop culture burlesque, or as it is more commonly called, Nerdlesque, has become more and more prevalent over the years, but it hasn’t had as much of an impact on the BHoF stage. Luckily, Corvette Leface’s act as Jesus from The Big Lebowski is one of the few this year. This act is amazing for many reasons, but the major driving force is LeFace’s stage presence as she lip synced along to quotes from the movie. This act walks a great line between draglesque and burlesque with Corvette still dancing in a typically sexy manner, but also giving off a comical machismo vibe. The only downside to this act is that it had to be shortened to fit the BHoF time limit, obscuring, slightly, the brilliance of LeFace’s wonderfully weird act.
Peekaboo Pointe. This act was a pretty straight up, expertly performed, sexy classic act. What made this specific performance innovative was that Peekaboo performed to a track mixed live by a DJ, Dr. Israel, giving this act a modern twist on performing to a live band. This trap remix made the act exciting and kept me on the edge of my seat as I darted back and forth between the performer and the DJ. By the time Peekaboo displayed her disco ball outfit that caused a mesmerizing display all over the Orleans auditorium, I was in love.
What Surname. Oh my goodness, this act was hilarious. Vancouver’s got a treasure with this performer who brought the house down as Celine Dion pumped through the speakers. This act was great for so many reasons – body diversity on the stage, a great grasp of comedic timing, a performer who knows how to work an electric fan for optimal cheesiness, and very clever costuming. This act is a great to show the mastery of combining a more classic concept with a healthy dose clowning and humour.
Mista Bagalicious. There are so many things that make this act amazing for the Thursday night show: It had a great neo theme of a sexy porn plumber, it had circus skills that complemented the strip, and Bagalicious’ acting was spot on. All of this aside, one aspect of this act that made me so overjoyed was his costume because it was not rhinestoned to the nines or elaborately fancy. He was so entertaining as a performer it didn’t seem like a detraction in any way that he was in a jump suit. Presence like that is worth applauding.
Bon Bon Bombay. This act left me stunned. It combined dance skills, a warped narrative, creative costuming, and the use of a scrim and projector so artfully executed I was left speechless and on my feet! This act is textbook what I would hope to see on a night called ‘Movers, Shakers, and Innovators’ as it combined all of those superlatives to bring true brilliance to the stage.
So, what would be my overall take away from this, my fourth Movers, Shakers and Innovators? I have recently returned from my second time performing in the Alternatease Festival, an all neoburlesque festival. This winter I also got the chance to perform as part of the Bagel Expo, Montreal’s first ever all neo burlesque festival. These two festival experiences have shown me that you can have evenings of all neoburlesque and draw a crowd, please an audience, and showcase burlesque people would otherwise not get a chance to see.
When I was swimming around the pool at the Orleans, asking people their thoughts about the Thursday night show, one person commented that, “It was a really good show considering it was the people who weren’t deemed good enough to compete.”
This breaks my heart to hear, when so many of the acts performed Thursday night filled me with such inspiration. These were my people, and, in my opinion, if you are going to name a show ‘The Movers, Shakers, and Innovators’ I want to see acts that are being performed by people moving the scene forward, by performers who shake up our notions of what burlesque can be, and with acts that use creative costuming, props, or staging to innovate and elevate the art form.
So this is my plea to the neoburlesque masses – let’s continue to keep it weird and funny and strange. Let’s make sure those acts make it to the festival stages. Some audience members just want to see sex and glamour, but others want to laugh their head off or have their jaws drop open in surprise and shock.
Soon it will be 2017 and it will be festival application season again. Let’s make sure neoburlesque isn’t just seen as an afterthought or as “not good enough” to win the main titles, but rather as a way to set the tone for what burlesque can be in all it’s forms.
I eagerly look forward to seeing more of that at the Burlesque Hall of Fame and what you all can bring next year!
*Violet and I spent some time discussing and trying to research this. Of course, we don’t know the history of trans persons at BHoF because not everyone is out and gender identity is becoming a much more nuanced and grey area. Nonetheless, as a producer who works hard to bring more trans and gender non-conforming bodies to the burlesque stage, I was very happy. [Check out the phenomenal Rose Wood! Ed.]