Perfect Sound Forever


Creamy Stevens (L) and Little Brooklyn (R)
Photo by Noah Klein, from the Starshine Burlesque website

Of Pigeons and Duckies
by Cathy Yan, Princeton '08
(June 2008)

Little Brooklyn waddles onstage with pink webbed feet, grey feathery wings, a fluffy corset, a wig, and a blue beak. She flutters her glittery eyelashes and flaps her arms to a song that repeats: "I'm a pigeon . . . boing boing." Turning her back to the crowd, she slowly unzips her corset and throws it on the floor, all the while suggestively hiding her breasts behind her wings. A couple tantalizing hops ("I'm a pigeon"), another waddle ("boing boing"), and a shake of her tail feather later ("I'm a pigeon"), she opens her wings and proudly whirls her tasseled pasties ("boing boing boing boing"), as the crowd hoots and hollers. Then, as quickly as she had emerged, Little Brooklyn waddles off again, ending another Thursday night at Starshine Burlesque.

Burlesque is back, and with a vengeance--more sardonic, sexy, and self-righteous than ever before. Old fashioned Burly-Q, the stuff of pin-ups and lace-clad women, is revamped and institutionalized with annual Tease-O-Rama conventions, Miss Exotic World pageants, and a recently opened Burlesque Hall of Fame in Vegas. Flip open a magazine, and you'll find burlesque superstar Dita Von Teese in a MAC cosmetics campaign. Head out to Coney Island, and you'll see posters advertising weekly "Burlesque on the Beach" performances.

Or else just head downtown. These days, New York burlesque fans can get their fix every night of the week: Mondays at Galapogos Art Space; Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays at the Slipper Room; and Naughty Tuesdays at the celebrity-infested It club, The Box. Thursdays, though, belong to Starshine, started by Little Brooklyn and Creamy Stevens: performers, exhibitionists, and proud recipients of the New York Burlesque Festival's Golden Pasties awards for Most Creative Costume and Best Booty Shaker, respectively.

Brooklyn and Stevens, with MC Albert Kadabra (claim to fame: wrestling and beating a Rubik's cube in four minutes flat) and a slew of guest performers, show off their skills every week at Rififi, a tiny, slummy hipster haunt on 11th Street and First Avenue. Around 10:30 p.m. on Thursdays, young artists, drunk birthday boys, hip mid-lifers, and probably a couple of perverts pay a $10 entrance for Starshine's backroom action, which features enough fishnets, feathers, fringes, and fannies to fulfill any fantasy. Add some kitschy costumes, angry transsexuals, political satire, and raw emotion, and you get Neo-Burlesque at its best.

All hail the intellectual burlesque revival, saving the art form from its last incarnation as sleazy sideshow soft-core porn. Burlesque has had its ups and downs, starting with Lydia Thompson, an audacious British showgirl whose blonde and bodacious troupe hit New York like a wet dream back in 1868. Her shows were outrageously popular, filled with underdressed women playing men, witty double entendres, and plot lines from Greek tragedy. But ultimately, the threat of a cultural inversion--of the lowbrow, the sensual, and the feminine taking over mainstream entertainment--scared moralists into chasing Thompson and crew back across the Atlantic. It was burlesque versus bourgeoisie; the bourgeoisie won, and burlesque devolved into a working-class sexual spectacle. "It was a way," according to historian Robert Allen, "of controlling by quarantine a potential contagion." By the middle of the 20th century, burlesque acts had lost their feminist and transgressive powers; men cracked jokes and did the talking, while the girls just stripped and smiled.

Fast-forward half a century and burlesque is an increasingly juicy alternative to our overproduced pop culture and way-too-angsty counter culture. With the gay revolution of the '90s and now the "post-gay" movement, we're primed for another sexual awakening, of the kitschy kind. Burlesque's revival is a cultural release from our world today, oddly reminiscent of the conditions that led to its birth. If you replace Victorian prudishness with desensitized Hollywood, and discrimination by gender with discrimination by sexuality, you've got yourself a whole new dysfunctional society to deride.

Burlesque, after all, is one big tease--pasties and G-strings remain on for a reason; props, costumes, and music are chosen to make a point. Neo-burlesque harkens back to the anti-bourgeois and staunchly feminist ideals of its golden days--using bawdy humor to mock and recast social, cultural, and especially sexual norms. "Without question," writes Allen in his book on the impact of burlesque on American culture, "burlesque's principal legacy was its establishment of patterns of gender representation that forever changed the role of the woman on the American stage."

By stripping, by flaunting their goodies, by sticking or pulling things in and out of inappropriate places, performers celebrate their personal sensuality while flipping the bird at society. There's a fine line between subversive and silly, and burlesque--yeah baby--straddles it. It may be difficult to see the point behind a large pigeon stripping down to pasties, but that may well be the point. Absurdism gets at the root of the issue: "So, you want to see some girls dance and take off their clothes, you dirty bastard? Well, take a look at this." And don't you dare compare burlesque to sleazy bump and grind. Burlesque is stripping's wiser, liberated sister. It prefers some junk in the trunk to silicone and bone. "I can't make you see your own fat thighs as beautiful," writes neo-burlesque performer Mama Lou, "I can only show you that I think my fat thighs are."

Oh yes, the burly-Q is back and here to stay. More recently, it's been picked up by avant-gardists and transported from its relatively underground and fetishist locations to mainstream theaters, including the Sydney freakin' Opera House. In an ironic twist, bawdy burlesque is embraced by the art world and cuddled by critics. So campy it's hip, the innately lowbrow is getting a facelift whether it likes it or not. But does subversion still work if you're backed by big money and-in the case of a popular new-wave burlesque troupe called Duckie--the British Council?

Cynics will lament, but Duckie's latest shows prove that burlesque with a pinch of high art brews even smarter and sassier entertainment. If Starshine is neo-burlesque, then Duckie is neo-neo-burlesque. The Olivier-award-winning performance troupe from London is known for its sexually suggestive, consciously transgressive, and openly exploitative acts. Like Lydia Thompson before it, this British import may very well transform New York burlesque again. Duckie brings the show to you, literally, with all the acts--aside from three large song and dance numbers--performed right on the tables. "Performance art," they say, "is the new table dancing," and this melding of low and highbrow is apparent throughout: audience members in "swanky formal wear" sip $25 champagne and watch most of the action at crotch-level. Seated ten to a table and armed with forty Duckie dollars to spend, "diners" pick from twenty-two deliciously suggestive acts on the menu. Five Duckie Dollars and you'll "Be Insulted," ten Duckie Dollars and you can partake in some "Girl on Invisible Girl Mexican Wrestling."

The performers are a decidedly un-sexy motley crew, sporting matching blue eye shadow, nude skullcaps, and translucent unitards with strategically placed dollar bills. There's Marisa Carnesky, a curvy, bossy, tattooed Jew; Kazuko Hohki, a Japanese grandma who is not shy about her age, her race, or really anything; Joshua Sofaer, a dirty-mouthed, witty flamer with Tina Turner legs; and Miss High Leg Kick, a multi-talented wonder who pirouettes, squeals, and splays her way into everyone's heart. Completing the line-up is the night's guest performer: Dynasty Handbag, a local New York performance artist who mainly sneers, growls, and pisses everyone off.

Acts are sexual, but less so than their names suggest, subversive, but more so than one would immediately think. "Enter Me Lightly" (10 D$) is an interactive séance, not a love scene, while "James Bond in Perverted Pussy" (10 D$) may involve some stuffed animals, but no pussy. Other acts are proudly exploitive and slightly disgusting; for "Crap Tap" (5 D$), Joshua tap dances with piles of fake crap on his shoes, then sticks his finger in the pile and force-feeds one lucky audience member the chocolaty goodness.

Separately, the acts can be awkward, degrading, fun, or pointless. But together they form a startlingly personal critique on capitalism. "C'est Duckie!" makes us grovel in our own consumerism; hyped up on cheap champagne and adrenaline, audience members cannot wait to spend more Duckie (or real) dollars to get blindfolded and insulted, practically castrated by an electronic chainsaw, or pummeled with a finger full of fake crap. It's mind-numbing entertainment of the stimulating sort--after the champagne buzz wears off, of course.

Most importantly, burlesque (whether traditional, neo, or neo-neo) shatters the invisible glass between viewer and performer. Audience participation is not just highly encouraged, but often forced upon you by large she-males who never take no for an answer. At Starshine, the token beer-chugging contest gets a kinky twist: audience members compete by sucking viciously at a bottle jammed between a performer's legs. Everything is interactive at "C'est Duckie!," from getting sprayed with water to sketching a charcoal drawing of an ugly man in an even uglier nude fat suit. Watching burlesque, you can't quite be a silent voyeur because you never know when you'll get called out and humiliated. It strips you down as much as it strips onstage--a refreshing but ultimately daunting gimmick.

At "C'est Duckie!," the striptease is purely emotional on both sides. Each performer visits a table, sets a timer, and offers to sell a real story for fake Duckie dollars. "It can get confrontational . . . the audience can be very mean," says Carnesky. Tonight, she talks about her body as homage to the tattooed sideshow ladies of yesteryear, her struggle with Jewish tradition, and her eventual reconciliation between the two. She also admits to having been a dominatrix of the sleazy sort; strapped for cash, she used to wrap men in cellophane and beat them senseless for money. Those days, however, are long over.

"I'm not like that now, but I don't regret it," Carknesky says, pondering her journey from porn-house vixen to avant-garde burlesque performer. "It's been a helluva ride."

Well ladies, it certainly has.

official publicity photo from Duckie with Marisa Carnesky

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER