Workin’ The Tease: The Art of Baltimore Burlesque
by Kay Sera.
In the 1950s, Baltimore launched the career of the legendary Blaze Starr and helped shape burlesque’s history. Sixty years later, Baltimore again made history when the Maryland Institute College of Art Exhibition Development Seminar (EDS) launched ‘Workin’ the Tease: The Art of Baltimore Burlesque’.
EDS is a sequenced, cross-disciplinary program of students from MICA’s undergraduate, graduate, and continuing studies divisions as well as from other area colleges and universities. The program’s focus is to examine the curatorial process and explore new ways to engage artists, students, museums, galleries, and the Baltimore community.
This year, EDS chose to spend its half-year program examining the vital role of burlesque in the Baltimore performing arts landscape. The concept’s champion, MICA student Abbey Parish, sold her fellow students on the idea by pitching burlesque as both a performance art and a subculture.
‘I liked the idea of an honest representation of a culture that bends society’s norms,’ said Parrish. ‘There is a special world for burlesque that doesn’t fit exactly into fine arts or contemporary dance or live music. It speaks to feminism, drag culture, gender binaries, and DIY culture. All of these reasons made burlesque a perfect topic to delve into and really explore.’
‘Burlesque is a big, complicated subject to tackle; I think some of the students were surprised to realise this and they needed to narrow their focus,’ said Jeffry Cudlin, Professor of Curatorial Studies and Practice at MICA and program mentor. ‘When [the students] decided not only to focus on the history of burlesque in Baltimore, but to make the performers in their Night of Burlesque the lens through which they looked at that history, that tied everything together very neatly indeed. Suddenly, all of the components made sense together, fed into one another.’
Over the course of several weeks, the program offered a range of events open to the public. Some examined the glamorous trappings of burlesque with hands-on classes in hair, makeup and costuming. Others took an academic approach and discussed the history of burlesque in Baltimore and shared insights into the issues shaping its future. Even the promotion of burlesque was part of the program, with a session on the iconic Globe Letterpress, creators of one of the nation’s most recognisable showcard printing styles.
The program culminated with the opening of an exhibition of burlesque costumes, photographs, posters and other ephemera. In addition to costume pieces, a ‘wall of pasties’ (including several on loan from the Burlesque Hall of Fame) and rare photographs from the private collection of DC-based Janelle Smith, the gallery exhibit featured diptychs from fashion photographer Sean Scheidt’s ongoing series on burlesque transformation. ‘I think Sean Scheidt’s photo series in particular, when paired with the costume pieces that can be examined up close, really show how far one has to travel from the street to the stage,’ said Paco Fish. ‘I think that brings a reality and humanity to the performers, which ideally will generate not only hope in those who dream of being burlesque stars, but also a bolstered respect for the amount of work that goes into our art.’
The art as reflected in the Globe posters had particular meaning for GiGi Holliday. ‘I collect Globe posters and to have my own [poster image] hanging next to Ella Fitzgerald’s and Billie Holiday’s brings tears to my eyes,’ she said. ‘On performance night, I felt the spirit of past performers of colour. I felt that I was doing right by them.’
The exhibition grand opening was celebrated with a night of performance at Baltimore’s most venerated cultural performing arts venue, the Lyric Opera House. The Best of Baltimore: A Night of Burlesque marked the first burlesque performance in the Lyric’s storied 120 year history. ‘The venue was chosen to make a curatorial statement,’ noted Parrish. ‘We wanted to bring a performance art that is often thought of as belonging in bars and clubs back to where it really began: On the opera stage.’
The free show played to an audience of nearly 1,000 and featured a who’s who of Baltimore-pedigreed performers, including its most renowned expatriates, Trixie Little and the Evil Hate Monkey, who emceed the event. Some routines harkened back to elements of burlesque with which a general audience might be familiar. GiGi Holliday offered a sultry striptease to the classic Night Train, with moves inspired by burlesque legend Toni Elling. Maria Bella brought together all three characters’ signature flourishes from Gypsy‘s iconic You Gotta Have a Gimmick. Others combined the familiar with surprise twists, like Kay Sera’s reverse strip in the Garden of Eden, and Sunny Sighed and Bal’d Lightning’s rendition of Little Lamb (also from Gypsy), which the chanteuse concluded with a rabbit – the vibrating kind. And still others brought a dance focus to the evening’s event. Tapitha Kix presented an entire tap number en pointe to an up-tempo take on La Vie en Rose, and Paco Fish shimmered in silver to Celebration’s Diamonds in a flowing contemporary ballet influenced piece.
True to burlesque’s heyday, the night also included variety acts. The baggy pants duo Hot and Bothered played ukulele, kazoo and washtub bass while singing their delightfully off-colour Moustache Song, and Valeria Voxx did a glass-walking sideshow routine, much to the delight of her cheering father, who was himself a variety performer at Blaze Starr’s top venue, the Two O’Clock Club, ‘back in the day’.
The program also featured Doctor Ginger Snapz doing a snazzy stroll to Prince’s Baby I’m a Star; Dolly Longlegs (founder of the Galhaus Review, MICA’s own burgeoning student burlesque troupe) marched to a rousing, rifle and tassel-twirling Proud to be an American; Mourna Handful showed off her tuffet in a fun tale of revenge against a bullying spider; and true to her name, Short Staxx served up a tasty treat of diner delights with oversized pancake ‘fans’. Trixie and Monkey brought down the house with their crowd-pleasing Total Eclipse of the Heart. And as stage kitten, Cherie Nuit made sure everyone’s act was set up and cleaned up quickly, efficiently and with a hint of sexy cheek.
Trixie Little, who noted that she’d visited the Lyric many times, including on school trips as a child, said: ‘Being on that stage was a tremendous honour. At the same time, I felt the need to present a full, uncensored burlesque experience for the audience. It was important to me that we brought a feeling of rowdy irreverence, too. Burlesque needs a little edge to it, some punk-rock bad-assery to off set the pretty-pretty packaging.’
Each act was characterised by the performer’s unique style, and so each act was very different; a purposeful choice. ‘Being outside of our narrow cultural beauty ideals and stripping onstage is inherently a political act in our culture,’ said Short Staxx. ‘I hope the audience saw and understood that burlesque embraces performers of all colours, genders, sizes and ages.’
The setting also served to bring a new audience to burlesque, part of the reasoning behind having it at the Lyric. ‘The grand staging [was] in a more approachable venue than your standard bar late at night,’ commented Valeria Voxx. ‘And the exhibition showing in greater detail all of the work we put into our costuming and accessories offered a much closer look at that than you would normally get.’
Maria Bella felt an enhanced connection to history as well as to her fellow performers: ‘[We] all performed as one solid community, celebrating Baltimore burlesque history. Everyone was glowing with excitement being at the Lyric, and seeing that essence on this historic Baltimore stage was both unforgettable and incredible.’
Paco Fish summed up the experience succinctly: ‘This event was history in its own right, and is also keeping our history alive.’
Author Kay Sera is proud to have been part of MICA EDS ‘Workin’ the Tease: The Art of Baltimore Burlesque’ as performer, panelist, instructor and ad hoc advisor.