Crescent City Burlesque: The Real New Orleans
In November I had the pleasure of attending the inaugural Crescent City Burlesque Weekender, a three-day celebration of New Orleans burlesque. The festival, produced by AJay Strong and Bella Blue, was held at the small, cavernous Allways Lounge in the Bywater (well removed from the Bourbon Street mayhem).
Headliners Jeez Loueez, Darlinda Just Darlinda and Bazuka Joe joined a cast of mostly New Orleans perfomers, with a few out-of-town guests. I left feeling like I had witnessed something special: the event was not just a celebration of our art but also of New Orleans, of the unique spirit of this city and the people here.
A number of performers have publicly avowed not to work with Rick Delaup, the producer of the New Orleans Burlesque Festival. In November he was involved in a scandal regarding a confederate flag onstage at the House of Blues — a venue whose kind and generous staff is 80 percent Black — and when it hit Facebook there was a domino effect of people coming forward with all sorts of stories about him as a manipulative producer. Also, remember this? Anyway, this story is about the future of New Orleans burlesque, not the past.
I sat down to talk about the Crescent City Burlesque Weekender, and New Orleans burlesque, with Bella and AJay, as well as two of the event’s performers: crowned Unicorn Ariana Amour and Lune Noirr, whose act made me laugh so hard I shot tequila out of my nose.
Aria Delanoche: Bella and AJay, what were some of the drives behind creating the fest, and what that was like for you?
AJay Strong: For me it started with the very first burlesque experience that I had here in New Orleans, before I moved here, back in 2014. I came to visit Bella and experienced The Dirty Dime Peepshow for the first time, and it was life changing. I didn’t know burlesque could be like that. To say that it was a neo-burlesque show doesn’t really scratch the surface, this was really outside of the box performances that were fun and challenging.
At this point I had already been working in burlesque for eleven years, and I was feeling a little bit bored because I was just seeing a lot of the same stuff over and over again. [Dirty Dime] breathed new life into me.
For the weekender my main goal, aside from wanting it to be successful enough that we could pay everyone, was for people to leave feeling the way I felt when I left the Peepshow for the first time—inspired, with resparked creative desire, and feeling like, “Wow, I have never seen anything like that in my whole entire life.” And I actually did overhear people saying that!
Bella Blue: I wanted to showcase New Orleans very differently to the way the New Orleans Burlesque Festival had showcased [the city] over the past ten years. My hope was that people would really get a sense of what it’s like to be working in New Orleans, experiencing shows that we do here on a regular basis, and also to balance that with exploring the city.
Another thing I hoped to create was something that people could walk away from and feel really good about being a part of. I know that sometimes in festival culture people leave and feel shitty about themselves; they feel critical of their performances and of what happened.
AD: What was it like to be participating and performing in it? How did that compare to other experiences you’ve had as performers?
Ariana Amour: It was really awesome that it showed the breadth of how diverse performance in New Orleans is. It was cool to see so many different ways that burlesque can be done, and that’s the way it should be.
AJ: We actually didn’t accept any classic acts, because we wanted it to be more of a neo fest. We received a lot of really great applications and submissions but, as with any festival lineup, had to really narrow it down, and we did that according to diversity. How diverse could we make this show—in the bodies, the concepts, the music, all of it—to create an arc that was unusual?
“I want people from other parts of the country to realise, “Oh shit. They can do fucking anything. We want to be a part of that.””
Lune Noirr: I’ve been part of a few burlesque festivals — some being classical and some sideshow-y, and I’m personally not really into them. The whole mentality of competition bothers me: what’s the point of competing in an art form where the purpose is to uplift yourself and others? But the Weekender, for me, switched up the whole game.
I ‘competed’ for the Unicorn title, but it didn’t feel like a competition — it was just our best curated art that doesn’t get booked often. It brought back hope that I will continue to create art that is not definable. It’s doing something nobody else is doing, and for that it sets the bar. I’m happy to have been a part of it.
AA: I definitely agree with that. The showcases showed me that in New Orleans we’re really lucky to be as free with our art as we can be. I want people from other parts of the country to realise, “Oh shit. They can do fucking anything. We want to be a part of that.”
LN: Exactly! New Orleans has the reputation of having a super classical scene, but then the Weekender proved, no, we do way more than just classical, or just nerdlesque, or just neo. We are off the wall and out the box. We’re legitimately making art that not a lot of people have the freedom or the guts to make.
AD: I’m wondering what some of the factors and resources are that led to the scene in New Orleans being like this—aside from the city’s obvious magic, which anyone can feel after three minutes of being there. What sort of resources have you guys found or created? What sort of things have been done to create a climate of artistic freedom?
AA: I think we owe a lot of the creative freedom and balls-to-the-wall mentality of ‘make good art, put that good shit on stage’ to Bella. Before Dirty Dime there wasn’t anything like that, from my understanding.
BB: I started doing burlesque in 2007, at a time when things were still really fresh from Katrina. It took us a really long time to recover, but burlesque was a way for people to go out and have a good time, and it was affordable.
In 2009 I started touring, because I was feeling like a bird in a cage: I wanted to see what else there was. I booked my first flight to New York on a total whim, got a couple of bookings and showed up with my fancy feather fan dance. I didn’t know anything else, because that’s what we were doing down here: fluffy and classic, not pushing any boundaries.
“People come here because they want to be themselves, you know? Performers should be able to do that too.”
I shared stages with these amazing performers and artists who were a huge part of the neo-burlesque revival, and they were doing things I’d never seen before. I was like, “I need to go home and burn my things and start all over again.” They also had burlesque every single night of the week in New York, and there’s no reason that can’t be New Orleans: we have the tourism to be able to afford it.
I started doing Dirty Dime when I felt I had collected enough knowledge and information to create something like what New York has: a space where people can do all the weird, boundary pushing, and political things that wouldn’t get booked anywhere else. It took shape on it’s own, and now it’s been going on for ten years.
Before that everything was safe, fluffy, very “showgirl”—and there’s room for that too, but we’ve moved away from that, because everything about this city, from its conception, has been built around the fact that it’s very rough around the edges. People come here because they want to be themselves, you know? Performers should be able to do that too.
AJ: In terms of resources, it has to do with a small handful of producers and performers who are likeminded co-creating the environment to put the weird on stage. There are also a few venues and venue owners who are totally on board to let us do whatever we want. There’s an unspoken mentality of “it’s better to apologize later than to ask permission.” None of us are asking, “Is it okay if we do this?” – we’re doing what we feel and if you get mad about it, sorry, it’s art. It really is a shared mentality between performers, producers, venue owners and audience members who want to see this kind of stuff onstage.
AD: That’s amazing and so punk rock.
AA: It’s definitely cool in regards to the freedom. Yes, it would be cool if the Weekender was held in a bigger space that could accommodate more people, but the Allways Lounge is a one of a kind space—rare even in New Orleans—that allows the freedom of expression that we’re accustomed to. I mean, if you want to stick rosaries up your butt and in your vagina, there’s not many places that would explicitly show that… except Allways.
LN: And it’s one of the few spaces where you feel safe doing that. I don’t have to worry that anyone in the crowd is going to mess me up for having done that. Allways is really a safe haven for artists to just be as free as you can. It’s our version of The Box in NYC, but accessible to everyone—it doesn’t cater to some rich person who can come in here and get shithouse off $50 drinks. At The Box it’s hard to be comfortable and submerge yourself into the art. But at Allways Lounge everything is so affordable and accessible—it makes the experience way more enjoyable and easy to ingest.
AD: As an audience member, it also felt really… queer and glittery and magical?
AJ: That’s the reason we chose Allways—when we do shows there we feel like it’s representative of what New Orleans burlesque is. Like Ariana said, we could have done it in a larger venue with a huge stage and intelligent sound and lights—we could have done that. But that wasn’t the vibe we were trying to create, because as soon as we do that, it’s not authentic New Orleans anymore. It doesn’t show people the reality of the performance world we live in.
AD: I want to talk to you, Ariana, a little bit about your win at the Unicorn Competition. It felt like you all won, but it was your night and it was your time to get the crown. Walk me through what that felt like for you and why that was important.
AA: AJay and Bella did a very good job of fostering a competition environment that was not your typical competitive spirit. Most of us were friends, and if we weren’t friends we all had positive relationships. The environment in general was very uplifting; we were all just excited to perform art. We were watching each other, cheering, being excited about everything being put on stage.
On the competition night the acts curated were so vastly different from one another! It helped foster the realisation that we can’t really compare burlesque acts to each other on any technical or qualitative scale. I think a lot of people would agree that it was one of the best shows in New Orleans EVER.
BB: It was great. And the judges had a really hard time.
“We were watching each other, cheering, being excited about everything being put on stage.”
AJ: Aria, I like that you said it felt like everybody won, because everybody really did win. It didn’t feel like a competition, which is what we were going for—and is part of why we chose the title of ‘Reigning Unicorn’. We wanted the competition to be light-hearted and not taken so seriously. We didn’t want anyone to walk away feeling terrible about what they had done onstage.
LN: I felt like we weren’t even focused on competing—we were focused on showing those judges, “Yo, this is what New Orleans is about. Y’all ready? Cuz this is about to be in your face.” We just wanted the rest of the world, and especially the judges, to know that this is what happens here. I feel like we really are one of the best burlesque scenes in the country, and that night we affirmed that.
AD: I would love to hear what you guys think is next—for your genre of performance, for the New Orleans community, as well as how this event is going to make waves for the burlesque community as a whole.
AA: I am first and foremost a burlesque fan—when I’m not performing I’m out there watching shows and showing my love to my people — and in New Orleans I’m blown away by the performance quality. I feel that as long as we continue to step up our games and maintain our focus on what we love to do, that’s going to make a wave in itself: continuing to pursue our art and seeking to be better.
LN: When we continue to put value in ourselves people will see the value in us. We create the standard; nobody else can create it. If we want this to be the standard then it will be, but we have to believe in our power to make it. It’s cute to see something pretty and flowy and feathery, but when you push the boundaries of the art and come up with something new and fresh, it’s going to continue to inspire people.
AJ: For so long it was just the New Orleans Burlesque Festival — and though a classic burlesque festival is not unwanted, it’s just not what we do. The shows that we produce and the people that we book strive toward diversity in acts. (Though we do have shows that tend to be on the classic side because we’re catering to a tamer crowd.)
“We’re always going to try to keep it queer and diverse in bodies and concepts, and we’re always going to try to pay people a fair rate.”
We think that this city wants and deserves that. Our hope is to continue having this festival and continue to grow it, but we are also always going to keep it in that small seedy cabaret environment. We’re always going to try to keep it queer and diverse in bodies and concepts, and we’re always going to try to pay people a fair rate.
LN: I feel as long as the Weekender continues to reflect the actual New Orleans burlesque community, it will be successful. I don’t believe other festivals here reflect the community whatsoever. But the Weekender did, and that’s why people were so geeked on it.
AD: Is there anything else you want to share – about the Weekender, or your lives and experiences?
AJ: Bella and I, as individuals and partners, have really shifted gears and are making art not for the sake of doing it and making money, but being intentional about the things we put out there: the things we do and say, the people we hire. Inclusion has always been important to us, but given the recent events that have happened here in New Orleans around non-inclusion, racism and erasure, I think it’s become increasingly important to us to do right by the people that we work with and put on stage. I feel really good about that; we’re doing our best to make strides in a positive direction.
BB: Yeah! We’re trying to make changes to what has become the status quo in entertainment in general.
LN: As a human I’m always striving to evolve, and I want my art to reflect that. I feel like there’s really no limit to what we as the New Orleans burlesque community can achieve, as long as it’s pure and honest—and not offensive or hurtful.
AA: I’m just super excited to move through the year representing the Weekender and what New Orleans is about. Y’all should be here!
Interview by Aria Delanoche.