Texan temptress Ruby Joule shares her Alabama Burlesque Festival experience…
Huntsville, Alabama. One of the USA’s top ten cities on the rise, and home of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, but not necessarily a hub for burlesque. Last year, performer and producer Miss Ida Claire decided to take matters into her own manicured hands and created the Alabama Burlesque Festival. Now in its second year, this little festival has taken flight with two nights of exciting performances, workshops during the day, a host of charities that it benefits, and for the first time this year, crowning of the Rocket Queen!
Thursday, October 9, 2013
My plane arrived in Huntsville just in time to meet up with David Bishop, the ‘Bishop of Burlesque’ and one of the only celebrity stage managers. We took the shuttle with the giant cookie on the side to the hotel, and had a moment to take in the scenery along the way. There are no skyscrapers in Huntsville, unless you count the rockets. There are literally rocket ships along the main highway into town as a testament to the city’s legacy.
We had a moment to decompress after travelling, which for me included a hot soak in an Epsom Salts bath. I travel with my own Epsom Salts in a little plastic bag, which may look suspicious, and may explain why airport security had so vigorously rummaged through my things. In the end, they left my precious Epsom Salts alone.
That evening Ida Claire made dinner for us festival early birds in her suite; chicken tortilla soup and her famous sweet cornbread. Her partner in crime, Chief, made sure our drinks were full. Afterwards I had some time to catch up with festival headliner Perle Noire, and she reminded me of a scene in one of my favourite childhood movies, The Wiz. Like some sort of burlesque fairy godmother, Broadway star Lena Horne as Glinda The Good Witch belts out the pep-talk anthem Believe in Yourself, wearing a glittering gown of stardust. This is a YouTube video I’d recommend every performer keep close for those moments when you need a little boost of confidence. It turns out that Perle and I both cope with a condition she likes to call ‘nightophilia’, a.k.a staying up very late. So that is what we did.
Friday, October 10, 2013
Festival registration in Ida’s suite was a constant parade of performers, happy reunions and new introductions. The consummate hostess, Ida had a huge pot of queso blanco (the fondue of the American southwest) with tortilla chips ready to welcome any peckish burlesquers. River Delacour of Albuquerque, New Mexico was one of the fetching stage kittens there to claim her official pick-up artist attire for the weekend; a metallic, space- age mini dress, of course!
After everyone was checked in and had their goodie bags and festival badges, we packed up our costumes and Chief hustled us to the theatre. The Flying Monkey Arts theatre is in the top floor of Lowe Mill, an old cotton mill built in 1900. Today it houses the largest centre for the arts in the southeast; a labyrinth of artist studios, restaurants, and live performance spaces. Inside the darkened theatre, there was a giddy air of excitement as the tech team, starring David Bishop, wrapped up performer tech rehearsals and perfected sound and light cues. Just beyond the theatre entrance a table of the most tempting confections was set up, provided by festival sponsor Honeypie Bakery. Corseted brownies, adorable cookie derrieres in frilly underpinnings, and saucy cupcake stilettos were on offer.
Proceeds from this brazen bakesale went towards the festival’s many official causes, including the Nzirambi Education Fund in Uganda, Mercy in Action midwifery in the Philippines, the Pinup Angels, and the Burlesque Hall of Fame. As the lights dimmed to herald the start of the show, I clinked champagne glasses with Perle Noire at our front row table so thoughtfully provided by Ida, and we prepared to be dazzled. We weren’t disappointed as the first act exploded onto the stage. It was a group act by Knoxville Tennessee’s The Follies Girls, and a tribute to Perle Noire herself. A piece which oddly generated some controversy this year, The Follies Girls were inspired by Perle’s own choreography and, with her blessing, developed a dynamic act that did its inspiration justice. A sneak sideways glace revealed that Ms. Noire got a little misty.
Fellow Austin, Texas gal Bethany Summersizzle wowed the crowd with the beautiful sculptured knots she tied herself into, and highly entertaining dreamboat from Atlanta Chad Sanborn charmed us with his magical expertise.
We were treated to a hypnotising belly dance striptease by Los Angeles’ Caramel Knowledge, who expertly wielded a shining scimitar, balancing it on her hips and head as she teased off her layers. Siren Santina of Knoxville, Tennessee caught us in her web of seduction with a Spiderman (woman?) fan dance, and Albuquerque’s LezMerize made a relevant, cultural statement that would make Portland (or Austin) proud.
In the second half of the show, I performed my signature ‘ruby red’ act, and Perle Noire closed out the show to a standing ovation with a gorgeous classic act in an emerald green gown and duster made by the multi-talented Charlotte Treuse.
As much as I longed to stay up and celebrate post-show with the marvellous cast and crew, I had to fight my ‘nightophilia’ and turn in early, for I was scheduled to teach workshops beginning at 10AM the next day.
Saturday, October 11, 2013
It was a good thing my first workshop of the day was ‘Character Development’, because no one was much in the mood for high-impact activity that morning. We had a relaxing and cerebral session as my students and I got nerdy in a theatrical sense discussing bath salts, voyeurism, Miami fashion, and other elements contributing to storytelling through characterisation. When we wrapped up, I peeked in on the last few minutes of Sadie Hawkins’ workshop, ‘Intro to Aerial Hoop’. The Atlanta based aerial artist guided her students through the paces of several hoop positions and transitions, letting them get acquainted with the apparatus. I was jealous I didn’t get to take her class! But I did learn some energetic and dramatic choreography in Perle Noire’s ‘Perlesque’ class which followed.
After a brief warm-up, Perle taught a high-energy routine that got our pulses racing. Perle’s teaching style is gentle yet authoritative, with a good bit of humour thrown in.
My own ‘Tango Cabaret Tease’ class came next, and through both workshops I was so impressed with all of the students’ natural movement ability and enthusiasm. Classes were held in the theatre itself rather than a dance studio, so it was interesting to observe how in the absence of a wall of mirrors, everyone relied on how the movements felt rather than how they looked.
After classes were dismissed, Perle and I were famished, so Chief took us to an interesting place called Drake’s. Drake’s is part sports bar with pub fare (think giant flat screen televisions blaring college football games, fried pickles, sliders, etc.) and part sushi bar. Yes, actually quite good sushi was to be had, and with that and a glass of Pinot Grigio we retired to the hotel to rest and prepare for the night’s gala burlesque event. At the theatre that night, another festival sponsor C.O.C.A. Fashion had an elegant table with a tantalising array of bling in the form of rhinestoned necklaces, earrings, handbags, bracelets, rings, and even tiaras.
I fell in love with all of it instantly, and though she may not know it yet, proprietress Betsy Watson and I are now best friends. The prices on these fantastic baubles are incredibly affordable, and she only carries one or two of any singular item. These treasures can be found online at www.loveCOCA.com or in person at a festival near you. The lovely Bella Notte modelled a large sapphire-esque necklace.
Due to popular demand, this year’s Alabama Burlesque Festival introduced the first ever Rocket Queen Competition. Judges Fonda Lingue of Atlanta, Perle Noire and I had the insanely difficult task of scoring the contestants on qualities such as creativity, movement and showmanship. After the famously delivered ‘burlesque blessing’ by David Bishop and a delightfully naughty boy scout act by Pandorable of Atlanta, the first fabulous competitor took the stage.
With an act that would earn her a Rocket Princess title (my term for runners up), Siren Santina charmed and delighted with her homage to one of my all time idols, Miss Piggy.
Other acts in the competition included Caramel Knowledge with a sizzling classic tease, LezMerize’s comedic and innovative girl scout act, and from the furthest distance, Amsterdam’s dazzling beauty Xarah Von Den Vielenregen, whom we all referred to simply as Xarah.
We were also entertained by the incredible dancing of Albuquerque’s Parker Go Peep, who had a reverse strip tease that claimed the 1st Runner Up honour. One performer in particular had something unexpected up her sleeve; it was Lola LeSoleil of Atlanta with a theatrical and saucy ‘lady of a certain age’ routine that brought down the house. The Rocket Queen title went to Lola that night.
In addition to the competitors, the entire evening boasted a variety of highly entertaining acts, from Xander Lovecraft’s human blockhead skills to those performers known as The Boys of Salome. I was excited to reprise my ‘Night Queen’ act I recently performed at the New Orleans Burlesque Festival, as it has become one of my favourites.
For the evening’s finale, Perle Noire once again brought the house to its feet with her stunning ‘Africa’ routine, for which she was dubbed ‘Most Dazzling’ at the Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekend in 2012. On this high-flying note, awards were handed out and we all gathered on stage for a final farewell to the appreciative crowd.
It was an honour to be so involved in this festival this year. Though it is a relatively new star in the constellation of festivals, it has an earnest sense of family, integrity, learning, and sharing great talent from near and far. My prediction is that the Alabama Burlesque Festival is headed for the stratosphere in 2014 and beyond.