Siobhan Atomica guides you through the Show Me Burlesque Festival 2014. Link to Part Two below…
The Show Me Burlesque Festival is undoubtedly the rowdiest festival in the Midwest but its party nature is always second hat to the dazzling and grandiose productions that attract talent from all over the world to smother the Show Me state with glittery tits, grinding hips and amazing tricks. Show Me is an experience that evolves every year to encompass a plethora of debaucherous shenanigans while simultaneously reaching new levels of spectacle and integrity that push our beloved art forms of burlesque and vaudeville variety to new heights. 2014 marked the fifth year of the festival, produced by the incomparable Lola Van Ella, artistically directed by Sammich the Tramp and adding powerhouse Jeez Loueez to the roster this year as an associate director. In the three years I have attended Show Me this year was by far my favourite.
I arrived in St. Louis on Thursday afternoon, already running on adrenalin due to only having a few hours of sleep during the five hour car ride to St. Louis, after staying up all night to settle all my affairs that coincide with the hectic schedule of my daily life as a full-time burlesque hustler, with my friend Mary in tow. Mary, a young lady who grew up in a religious family and who was sheltered from most of the world in rural Kentucky until recently, was excited at the prospect of our trip. I met her earlier this year through a mutual friend, and she had only seen one burlesque show (a small cabaret put on by The Kentucky Burlesque Society in Louisville starring Paco Fish) and one sideshow event (The Swing Shift Solution Sideshow Tour that came through Lexington) before Show Me. I tried to explain that Show Me was a whole new can of worms and that she would be blown away, but I knew she would have to experience it first hand to fully understand the bad-assery that is Show Me, and experience it she/we did.
I was very low-key that evening; I dressed for comfort in my normal uniform of all black, minimal makeup and glasses. I took the assignment of writing this festival diary seriously so I made sure to really watch and evaluate each act. I didn’t want to attract any unneeded attention to myself; I wanted to fade into the background and experience the festival as an observer. I told no one about my diary assignment (except Mary) because I wanted to give the most non-biased review of the festival possible and not be brown-nosed by the unscrupulous looking for a shout-out. I felt like the Hunter S. Thompson of tits. This was gonzo journalism revitalised for the glitter tribe.
The first soiree was the performer meet and greet at the Van Ella Studios. Performers from all over the world assembled in the boutique-style studio. Memphis and Chappy, the beloved hounds of the Van Ella Compound, skittered about the studio as people gathered, embraced, laughed, and pre-gamed for the Thursday night show. The highlights of this event were Sammich the Tramp taking selfies with an inflatable Mermaids-era Cher doll, free champagne from the awesome caterer of the entire festival, Roland, and Paco Fish’s snazzy tux. Mary, being a quiet creature by nature, seemed to enjoy the people-watching as she sat on a chaise lounge waiting for our next objective. I reclined beside her, occasionally petting one of the loveable dogs, trying to rack my brain for how in the hell I was going to translate the Show Me experience into prose.
After the meet and greet we all migrated down Cherokee Street to 2720, the venue for the opening night’s show. I made sure to grab a program and an ink pen for note-taking. I’m sure I looked like some kind of loon that was either taking notes during the shows to A. be a snarky asshole throwing passive-aggressive shade in my burn-book, like some kind of technologically-challenged uber-bitchy weirdo, or B. plagiarise act themes, but honestly I knew I was in for a long-haul with this weekend and if I didn’t write down notes all my memories would be gone with the free champagne that flowed like sweet, sweet milk from the teat of our lady of bump and grind. I have the short-term memory of a goldfish. It happens.
The Thursday show was split into three acts, each emceed by different hosts. The first act’s featured host was Jeez Loueez, who pumped up the crowd with her unique brand of bawdy, ballsy and bad-ass humour that endears and entrances everyone in her wake. The second act’s host was Siren, a St. Louisian drag queen so beautiful that she makes me feel like a hobbit, and with her quick wit and edgy humour as an emcee I fell even more in love with her character. The last host of the evening was Foxy Tann, one of the most professional and in-your-face women I have ever met. Foxy Tann means business, and her business is burlesque, and business is so, so good.
The stand-out acts for the evening were vast and varied. Red Rum‘s masterpiece of neo-burlesque blew me away: it was a politically-charged striptease that referenced the 80s cult movie They Live to a Metallica song, an act so good it made everyone in the audience squeal, cheer and holler in glee and joy with every single reveal. Aalim Silk Veil, a local St. Louis belly dance group, presented a number that was a perfect fusion of burlesque-inspired movements and cabaret belly dance while serving to the audience a playful, confident, fierce energy (something that many belly dance groups lack in an effort to distance themselves from being too ‘sexy’.)
Dark Angel proved that sexy knows no age boundaries with her sensual pole dance routine to Pony by Genuine; it was announced that she was a grandmother before she performed, and holy moly, I hope I’m half as sexy as her when I’m a grandma. Scarlett Sinferno displayed a perfect combination of burlesque striptease and fire performance, complete with flash paper incorporated into her costume to make for impressive reveals. Femme Brulee shut us all down with her AMAZING act that included an ingenious loofah costume and cheesecake-meets-hip-hop striptease to a mix of I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out Of My Hair from South Pacific and Jay Z’s Dirt Off Your Shoulder.
Lolavan Ella and Victoria DeVille sang a lovely duet that made everyone all mushy. Foxy Tann commented that Lola and Victoria were lovingly embracing each other afterwards backstage, so Foxy offered the advice, ‘Stay away from musical theatre! It will turn you straight!’ When one is as queer as most of us are, it’s only a matter of time before we start working our way back to being ‘normal’, whatever that means. I think we can rest assured that Victoria and Lola are still gay as ever; they were just overcome by the power of song. The night ended with Red Bone‘s spirited breakdance inspired act to Boom I Got Your Boyfriend where she donned a glitter-drenched afro and gold lame costume. I’ve never seen breakdance be so sexy.
As everything wound down at the venue and Mary and I began the trek back to our host’s house, Mary decided to tell me that it was the first time she had ever seen a drag queen, a pole dancer, or a fire performer and that she loved every second of the show. This was very hard for me to comprehend, not the fact that she loved it, but the fact that she had never seen any of those types of performances. I should’ve known as much, as she had only seen one small burlesque show and one (albeit amazing) sideshow event, but I was speechless and lost in the thought that so many people have no idea that fringe performance art exists. Seeing performers of all disciplines has become part of my daily life and something I take for granted, Mary gave me the blessing of reminding myself that I live in a magical world that I should be thankful for every day.
Friday I dragged my nocturnal ass out of bed to teach a costuming class at Van Ella studios to a crowd of eager and enthusiastic students at the wee hour of 11:30 AM. For those of you who know me, you know this is absolute insanity. I am one of the types who prefers to work until the wee hours of the morning, send my son off to school at 8 AM, sleep while he is there and then wake up at 2 PM before he gets home, so my biological clock was a bit angry, but as I say, sleep will come when my old dancer knees finally give out. Thank the lort cheeses for Starbucks for making that class possible. After my class Mary and I immediately headed to the Ivory Theatre, the gorgeous venue for the two Friday shows, so that I could run tech with the live band and prepare for the evening.
This year I opened the Friday Night Spectacular show as a featured performer at Show Me because I was crowned the Shimmy Showdown Champion in January. For those of you who don’t know, the Shimmy Showdown is an improv death-match style burlesque competition, created by Lola Van Ella, where performers must pull a genre of music and a prop out of a hat and dance head to head on the spot to that style of music with the chosen prop. There are multiple rounds of the competition until the fourteen competitors dwindle to the final two, meaning those who progress must perform multiple times. This year was incredibly insane in terms of the competition, and I literally had to pour a pitcher of water on my head to snatch the title, but by god, I did it, and with that title came the responsibility of opening a show at a major festival full of amazing performers in front of some of the people from around the world that I admire most. No pressure or anything.
I had the opportunity to perform my newest act with a live band, and let me just say I love performing with live bands. I debuted the act on New Year’s Eve at Adele Wolf’s Burlesque and Variety Show in Oklahoma City and it has progressed at a lightning fast rate. I attribute my growth to a very supportive team at Defiance, my hometown studio in Lexington, KY, and a strong network of peers nation-wide who offer honest critique. I am always hyper-critical of my performances as I believe being brutally honest with myself is what lends to my success as a performer, so I became slightly frustrated with a few missteps that apparently no one else noticed. Improv skills come in handy when things go wrong on stage, and let’s be honest; things rarely go as planned on stage when removing clothing is involved, no matter how much one rehearses. I quickly got over my frustrations, dressed and ran up to the balcony to watch the rest of the show.
The show truly was spectacular and lived up to its name in every conceivable way. Performers from far and wide presented a smorgasbord of glitz and glam in acts that were jam-packed with talent and charisma, and honestly I wrote glowing reviews of every single performer in my handy dandy program so choosing which acts to mention was an exercise in restraint, a characteristic burlesque performers aren’t generally known to possess. Lola Van Ella debuted her classic Frosting sing-and-strip act with a live band for her hometown of St. Louis, and Jeez Loueez promptly made the crowd roar with excitement when she decided come on stage after Lola took her bow to lick frosting off the bottom of the lady with the ‘Derriere Beyond Compare’.
Kay Sera amused me beyond belief with her ‘Peep show’ act where she did a fan dance dressed as a Peep candy to a chicken-bawk version of Cee Lo Green’s F You. Bazuka Joe served up some very sexy and confident King realness and had the whole theatre screaming for more. Sammich the Tramp amused everyone with her variety stylings, to which she has recently started incorporating spoken word and song. Lola jokes that once Sammich started talking on stage she wouldn’t shut up, but I think everyone is more than okay with Sammich becoming a verbose vaudevillian. My favourite act of the first show was, hands down, Foxy Tann‘s chair routine. I wouldn’t necessarily call it a dance, I wouldn’t necessarily call it a song, but Foxy sold the hell out of an ugly chair with her sexy spoken word to live music and her strategic posing in a perfect presentation of Foxy’s own unique brand of theatricality. I think everyone in the theatre wanted to buy, or be, that chair.
After the first show I quickly took my luggage from the dressing room to Mary’s car to make room for the cast of the second show. There was a huge spread of food and drinks set up in a tent in the parking lot behind the theatre for performers throughout both shows. Lola and her crew really know how to be excellent hosts and take care of their performers, something I have always loved about performing in St. Louis. I had a quick drink and snack and then settled back in the balcony before the second show began.
The second show, The Red Light District Revue, started promptly at 10:30 with Mistress Victoria DeVille as the host. She has emceed this portion of Show Me for quite a few years and every year she keeps the audience on the edges of their seats with her amazing quick changes; presenting a new, gorgeous costume every time she walks on stage, quickly changing backstage with assistants between every act, and always looking flawless without missing a beat. She especially captivated all of us with her beautiful impromptu rendition of Somewhere Over The Rainbow to kill time when the stage crew had to clean up after an act, but it didn’t feel like a time-kill in the least. Her voice gave me chills and goose bumps and I’ll be honest and admit a secret to you: her song made me crack my normal hard attitude and tear up a bit. Don’t tell anyone that, you all. I have a tough-lady image to uphold over here.
This show was equally as spectacular in nature as the earlier show, albeit with a more edgy and risque feel, which I assume is why it is dubbed the ‘Red Light District Revue’. Bunny Buxom got everyone riled up as she presented a spirited opening act full of raw sensual energy and featuring a beautiful costume with interesting reveals. I won’t reveal her reveals, because that would be shitty of me and because I totally think you should see her on stage and in the flesh. Mena Domina gave new meaning to the phrase ‘slow burn’ with her perfectly timed movements to a Bjork song. Deb Delicious, an Aussie lady, presented a flawless half lady/half devil act in the style of Zorita’s classic puppet act. Everyone was atwitter after the show gushing about how she worked the puppet so well we all forgot it wasn’t another person. That, ladies and gents, is how it is done: make the audience forget your props are props and everyone will be putty in your sparkly hands.
Of course Paco Fish had everyone howling with his ‘Werewolf’ act, and I was so thrilled to see the influence of all his recent involvement in ballet classes in his choreography. Paco Fish is a genius and the perfect example of why one doesn’t need to be an excellent dancer to be an excellent burlesque performer, but dancers beware: he is hot on our heels. Michelle Mynx gave me the vapours (as we Southerners say) with her super-sexy bed act; she actually created a new apparatus for aerial movement in the shape of a bed and I can attest that her ingenuity and skill were well worth the development time spent on her new prop.
Surlie Temple won my heart with her act to Weezer’s Sweater Song, complete with a costume that unravelled as she performed; something I have thought about doing for years but couldn’t figure out how to do, logistically. I think her execution and costuming was flawless and I was giddy with seeing an act I have imagined come to life in a way that I would have never considered.
After these shows Mary was even more pumped about her choice to join me in St. Louis. She gushed endlessly about so many of the acts and she seemed to be glowing with positive energy and excitement. She had officially been inducted into the hardcore burlesque fan club. We headed to Melt, a fun hipster restaurant that was one of the wonderful sponsors of the festival, for late-night chai and waffles. Meet The Feebles was playing on a projector, a movie I had somehow not been exposed to despite my absolutely insane life, and while we waited for waffles we were transfixed on what seemed to be muppet-porn-meets-acid-trip.
Maxi Millions ended up joining us, which is always a welcome addition in my opinion. After the movie ended and we were done with our waffles I ended up speaking passionately about the differences and similarities between strip joints and burlesque shows, and how knowing and studying the broad topic of sex-work is so crucial to true intellectual development as a burlesque performer, which is something that I do quite often if I have the right audience. We said our goodbyes for the evening and got to our host’s house around 4 AM. I finally fell asleep at about 6 AM. Saturday was my day to sleep in, and sleep in I did.