Tas DeVille reviews the Miss Exotic World, Reigning Queen of Burlesque category at the Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekend 2016 for 21st Century Burlesque Magazine.
It’s that time of year again, glitter folk: It’s the Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekender’s Tournament of Tease, where a selection of the crème de la crème of the world’s burlesque performers throw down in a torrent of feathers, sheer sensuality, raw artistry, and many MANY rhinestones. This year’s cohort of competitors for the title of Miss Exotic World 2016 was a notably diverse one, both in terms of shades of skin represented as well as flavours of burlesque. These eleven performers (all of them Queens already, in my eyes) dazzled and hypnotized audience members, with each number titillating the audience further and further into frenzied applause and adoration. And now, dear readers, it is my distinct honor and pleasure to bring to you my reflections on the performances of each of these amazing and inspiring burlesque artists.
Launching us into the competition for Reigning Queen of Burlesque was Bonnie Fox (London, UK) who entered the stage well-secluded by a magnificent set of white tribute fans. The picture of elegance, Bonnie seemed to glide forward on air as she moved towards the audience, with the tendrils of ostrich boas framing her face. As she progressed with her masterful manipulation of the fans, the audience was teased with glimpses of her lovely gown: a simple lilac Grecian-inspired one-shouldered number, with rhinestone accents including her exposed pastie-clad right breast. Her gown removal revealed a matching panel skirt, and Bonnie treated us to some liquid panel work before discarding the panels and returning to her feather fans. While lovely, it would have been even lovelier to see the fans used to heighten the element of tease throughout the act. It also would have been nice to see more use of the stage; it is no secret that The Orleans Showroom stage is enormous, and those fans would have excelled at filling up that space on the right and left wings of the stage. That being said, Bonnie is a highly technically skilled dancer with lovely lines. She clearly has mastery of the classic style of burlesque, evident in her cleanly executed choreography, especially in terms of her tribute fan handling, which is no small feat.
Our next competitor, Poison Ivory (New York, NY), spun on to the stage in a gorgeous and fluffy cream-colored, rhinestone studded tea-length gown. Poison’s costuming choice to add a full crinoline was a wise one, as it gave the skirt a dynamic movement quality that shot energy to every inch of the stage. I must be honest regarding my personal prejudice against tea-length gowns for classic numbers, but Poison Ivory worked. every. inch. of that skirt, shorter hemline and all. What I would have given to be that skirt! Still, it definitely had me wondering how the choreography with a full length skirt would look, as I imagine it would heighten the dramatic aspects of the skirt choreography. Poison’s mastery of panel work with the skirt was particularly notable, as well as her use of the skirt as a teasing prop and her excellent use of her chair prop to which she kept returning instead of just using once and then never again. Also, despite her choice to play to center physically, Poison was able to electrify the entire audience, from far house left to far house right, hitting every mark with incredible sizzling, sultry energy. There is no mistaking her mastery of ability to connect with an audience, even in such a vast showroom. Poison Ivory had every person in that audience on the edge of their seat, waiting and waiting for that tassel twirl she kept teasing us with, so much so that when she ended her number in a fantastic display of twirling, the audience leapt to its feet to give her a well-deserved standing ovation. Nothing less than the best for Poison Ivory: my Queen, our Queen, the Reigning Queen of Burlesque 2016.
Hot on the heels of Poison was Di Lovely (San Diego, CA), who burst on to the stage in an explosion of shimmering silver fringe. Spinning and shimmying around the stage, Di Lovely’s act was a high energy burlesque dance number that was truly awe-inspiring in its precise and athletic choreography. She made excellent use of levels, with a large amount of impressive floorwork, replete with backbends and an incredible drop split early on. Also, her music transition was fantastic and served to amp up the already energetic quality of the performance. More use of the entire stage would have enhanced the act further, as her performance mostly played center, but it cannot be denied that her shaking and quaking was a definite pleasure to watch.
Vicky Butterfly (London, UK) was next up, with a dramatic entrance to a dimly lit stage. She spread the shimmering wings of her cape for an early reveal of her pasties and g-string. The reveal seemed a bit premature, but it soon became apparent what the true nature of the act’s reveal was (and also why the stage lighting was so dark): her huge cape was inlaid with LED lights that changed color and pulsed in patterns. Whilst her act and panel work progressed, Vicky removed the outer portion of the cape as continued to spin and undulate. As her panel work intensified, so too did the rhythm of the LEDs color changes and pulsing. Though it was graceful and languid, there is only so much panel work one can do, and while it is apparent that Vicky has high mastery of working with massive panels, it would have been nice to break it up visually a bit. Regardless, it is no wonder that Vicky Butterfly was the winner of the Most Dazzling title, an honour well-deserved.
Throwing us back to the more vaudevillian days of burlesque was Gin Minsky (New York, NY). She is known for her high amplitude tap performances, and this immersive performance piece was no exception. A consummate performer, Gin Minsky’s excellent use of props, audio effects and acting chops created the perfect atmosphere for the scene she was setting for us: that of a person waiting for transit. Her choreography was a slow deliberate build, exactly in line with her rising exasperation at her travel delays. Her suitcase became her tap dancing stage, which was clever but also necessitated her energy being directed mostly center. Her light pink shift dress was discarded to reveal a glitzy blue flapper costume, topped off by a lovely headdress that she pulled from her suitcase. Throughout it all, Gin Minsky whirled and twirled her way through each perfect costume piece removal, all the while maintaining a flawless tap rhythm. She earned not one but two sets of applause, as she remained in character throughout the end of her piece when her ride finally arrived, and she scrambled to throw everything back in the suitcase and dash off stage.
Following Gin Minsky was Violet Eva (Tokyo, Japan) who made her entrance in a dramatic fuchsia gown with a thigh-high slit as well as a huge royal purple boa. Given the high slit in the gown, it was a delight from a costuming perspective to see that it was lined in a contrasting royal purple that coordinated with the boa’s color. Again, I would have liked to see the skirt portion of the gown go a bit longer as the hem was a bit short for my taste, but I also understand the need for a higher hem to allow for more movement. Additionally, it seemed that Violet Eva’s shoes were hindering her movement – perhaps they were too high or too slippery for the stage? In any event, she made the wise choice in the moment to remove the shoes and continue with her routine which continued without a hitch once the shoes were gone. She gave us some fantastic whirling dervish panel work with the skirt portion of her gown, as well as some brief but also excellent floorwork including a one-legged tassel twirl. It was so fantastic, but I wanted more! More panel work, more floorwork, more butt fringe. I could definitely see this act being extended a minute or two to allow her time to fully expand those particularly excellent moments. That being said, Violet Eva displayed wonderful use of that big fluffy boa, both for choreo and for teasing purposes, and all throughout the number. She writhed on it, she let it go, and she came back to it. Violet Eva showed us some of the best boa work I’ve seen in a while.
Changing course completely, Lada Redstar (Sarajevo, Former Yugoslavia) floated onto the stage, a vision in white. The audience discovered that she is a survivor of the Bosnian War, and this act is dedicated to the 20th anniversary of the end of the war. The audience fell to a hush as we were told of those horrors and her perspective on the options of surviving such horrors: you can be a victim of your destiny or live your life fully and make your destiny as a stronger woman. As the simple piano music began to play, Lada’s white cape became part of the projection screen behind her, flashing images of blood and the words ‘Welcome to Sarajevo’ fading into footage of war-torn Sarajevo. One could feel the huge emotional impact rippling through crowd, with gasps and muffled sobs as the footage played on. When the footage concluded, it faded to the words ‘You will not defeat me’ and Lada declared “Power to the peaceful!” as she slowly opened up her cape to reveal a glorious white gown with gunmetal accents. The music transitioned to a sultry saxophone as she strode forward, powerful and dripping in red jewels. Lada made use of her glorious cape, her whole entity synthesizing the political aspects and the performance aspects of her act. Every moment and movement was laced with fierce and brilliant energy, her sorrow transforming into beautiful power right before our very eyes. With a flourish, she removed her gown skirt to reveal its red lining, and the audience cheered and yelled as she continued her incredible panel work with the skirt. As the performance concluded, her cape panel was used once again for projection of doves against her people’s flag, and she implored us to be a rebel, take the world now: power to the peaceful! What an incredible display of activism, and proof positive that the political can and should have an important space in our art form. No doubt the judging panel agreed, as she was awarded 1st Runner Up.
It can’t have been easy to follow such a heartrending performance, but Iva Handfull (Seattle, WA) brought the noise with an aesthetically exciting tribute to the work of Patrick Nagel. Iva’s costuming was a veritable 80s fashion wonderland as she danced and posed behind each of three large silver frames to Duran Duran’s Girls on Film. Accented by strobing lights, Iva strutted, decked out in a truly outrageous vivid purple blazer replete with oversized shoulder pads and lined with neon yellow, paired with a bright pink skirt that reversed to black and yellow stripes. She essentially became a photo in each frame, posing and posing in a variety of stances and levels. Her black leotard got a bit lost on stage, especially in comparison to the vibrant nature of her other costume pieces, but the removal of said leotard was a delightful unzipping into its right and left halves, so that did make up for the colour choice. Also notable was Iva’s superb use of the whole stage, as she definitely played to every angle of the audience.
Even before she entered the stage, at just the mere mention of the show she produces, the audience broke out into thunderous applause for Jeez Loueez (Chicago, IL). Swathed in the huge Star Boa she won at BHoF 2015, she sauntered on to the stage in a sheer powder blue gown accented with contrasting fuchsia gloves. Jeez gave us that bump and grind, sultry and energetic all at once. Her vivid facial expressions led us as an audience through the arc of her act; at times silly, at times sexy, and always fierce. Her manipulation of the Star Boa was incredibly impressive, especially when you take into account that it was easily about twice her size, but she flung it around and teased us with it, just as easy and effortless as can be. Jeez’s audience interactions are some of the best and most engaging I’ve experienced, and she does so in a seemingly perfect blend of campy and sexy: the epitome and essence of burlesque. Some notable moments from her act included when one of her dress’ halter straps became a stand-in air sax during the music’s sax solo and her switching of her one tassel from her right pastie to the left. However, nothing can hold a candle to when she hovered over her boa on fingertips and toes and then propelled herself over it, backwards. To top it all off, Jeez let down her glorious mane of hair to a slow and dirrrrrty grind and ended with a jump split. Half the audience jumped to its feet in cheers of awe and admiration. As Jeez finished her act and exited the stage, the audience once again gave her a roaring standing ovation.
Beginning the wrap up of the competition, Aurora Galore (London, UK) bounced onto the stage, a green tulle vision with accents of chartreuse and forest green. Aurora served us high energy vogue camp as she pranced and flounced about the stage. She made wide use of the stage space and she displayed awesome use of the removal of each piece to heighten the fun and fanciful mood as she progressed in her strip. A large portion of her choreography was traveling around the stage and it seemed that she was lip syncing, which would have made sense relative to the drag aesthetic of her act. Still, it was not completely apparent if she was lip syncing the whole time, or just for part of the song so that portion could be amped up and exaggerated even further, in keeping with the dynamic and campy energy of the piece. Another large portion of her choreography was centered in twerking, which, though quite impressive in her isolations and booty popping and bouncing, might be seen as culturally appropriative, depending on the eyes of the beholder. It is worth noting there is a strong argument that women of colour are not able to make it to the final rounds of competition when submitting acts including twerking and other artistic forms rooted in pan-African culture, but I will leave that exploration and discussion up to you for your consideration. Aurora capped her act with a fantastic drop split.
Concluding the Queen competition was Sweetpea (Minneapolis, MN), who entered the stage as a shimmering satin purple dynamo, rocking a midriff-baring halter top with huge flowing sleeves and wide-legged pants. Sweetpea got us into the groove as she danced in an uptempo disco funk grind, accented with chest pops and booty bumps. As she shook and shimmied around the stage, making full use of it, her music transitioned to Welcome to the Jungle, and with that transition Sweetpea began to rock us even harder. She brought the audience to their (sha-na-na-na-na) knees as she dropped to her own knees after revealing some well-hidden bejewelled knee pads. Her floorwork was some of the best of the night, including splits, a lot of humping and writing, and some incredible shoulder stands, securing her spot as 2nd Runner Up. Sweetpea topped off her number with and masterful G-string removal, revealing, to much hooting and hollering, a bejewelled merkin in the shape of a V. What a way to end the show!
Congrats to all of the performers for a magnificent and inspiring evening of burlesque! Thank you Poison Ivory for being a shining beacon of inspiration, elegance, ferocity, and kindness: a leader for us all. ‘Til next time, dear readers, HERE’S TO THE QUEEN!
Miss Exotic World, Reigning Queen of Burlesque 2016: Poison Ivory
1st Runner Up: Lada Redstar
2nd Runner Up: Sweetpea
Quoted in major international newspapers and held in high esteem and affection by the international burlesque community, 21st Century Burlesque Magazine has documented the contemporary burlesque scene since 2007. Founded and edited by Holli-Mae Johnson.