What is it about pasties, those sequined bulls-eyes, those tiny boob yarmulkes of burlesque? Is it their magical, seemingly contradictory ability both to reveal and conceal the same square inch – well, circular inch – of flesh? Or is it the way they always seem to be winking at you, saying, "You're seeing it all, well not all-all, but something better, sparklier, tassle-ier"?
Pasties aren't the only tool in the toolkit of modern-day theatrical burlesque – often called "neo-burlesque" – even if they are among the most titillating. Arguably more important is the dancer's connection with the audience, a collaborative rapport that has to be forged between performer and spectator in the moment. This makes improv and burlesque a natural fit, according to Jayme Ramsay, co-director with Marc Majcher of Hurly Burly, a burlesque-themed improv show that contains burlesque performances actually improvised on the spot. Complete with feather fans, G-strings, pasties, and lots and lots of laughs, the show presents an old-fashioned backstage narrative of cabaret life that owes more to Gypsy Rose Lee and Barbara Stanwyck than it does to Christina Aguilera and Cher.
Ramsay discovered her own passion for burlesque in 2006, when, still new to Austin, she began dancing as part of a troupe called Raw Sugar. It's probably no coincidence that the fictional cabaret in Hurly Burly is called the Sugar Bowl; the show is suffused with her warmth and enthusiasm for the empowering aspect of burlesque.
"Burlesque is validating," Ramsay says, and adds, paratactically, "Burlesque is vulnerable."
The two V-words turn out to be related. For instance, Ramsay herself initially worried that her tall, reedy figure, which garners her a certain baseline of social approval in the outside world, wouldn't be an asset in the burlesque world, where voluptuousness is celebrated and the big reveal is often a show-stopping "titty-twirl." (Having trouble picturing it? Think of the strip club scene in The Graduate.) The first time she peeled down was an incredibly vulnerable moment. But over time Ramsay found that the form's emphasis on individuality encouraged her to play to her strengths and develop her own personal (and quite leggy) style. Ultimately, burlesque values virtuosity and theatrics over any particular body shape, and that turned out to be "tremendously validating."
And by the way, that move that shocked Katharine Ross? "Turns out to have nothing to do with size."
The willingness to find their own strengths by being vulnerable onstage was quintessential for the cast, many of whom entered the show with improv experience but little or no dance background. Ramsay and Majcher – who emcees the show with a hammy French accent, suspenders, and a ringmaster's gusto – brought in local burlesque stars Coco Lectric and Jolie Goodnight of the Jigglewatts to show the cast a few moves, and choreographer Carissa McAtee worked with them in rehearsals for months before the show opened. But ultimately, when each night's featured performer takes the stage for those fully improvised burlesque numbers, she does it alone, accompanied only by Tosin Awofeso's improvised music. (And even he gets to sit behind a keyboard.)
Improvisors do have one natural advantage in the burlesque game: They are trained to interact with and feed off the energy of the audience. Burlesque performers will tell you that built into the form is the power to turn the tables on spectators by teasing them, scolding them, and refusing to give them their pound of flesh until they've demonstrated sufficient enthusiasm on the performer's terms, thank-you-very-much. A seasoned burlesque dancer can have the audience eating out of her hand with the flick of an eyebrow. Though burlesque undoubtedly puts women's bodies on display, it always does so with an emphasis on the dancer's own pleasure in her skill and delight in her own body.
I must admit, it looks like they're having the time of their lives up there. As a regular at the local chapter of the women-only freestyle dance-stravaganza Dance Dance Party Party, I got over my own inhibitions on the dance floor to the tune of Beyoncé and Ke$ha rather than a jangly piano, but it's much the same thing. At this point, the pasties don't scare me nearly as much as the improv.
Hurly Burly: An Improvised Burlesque Story takes place every Friday in May and June, 10pm, at the Institution Theater. Information and tickets ($10) available at www.theinstitutiontheater.com.
Dance Dance Party Party takes place Sundays, 7:30-8:30pm, at Balance Dance Studios. Admission is $5.
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