The art of burlesque is a bit disregarded in the mainstream limelight. If not for the magnetic pull of Dita Von Teese, who has expounded her love for vintage beauty, dress, and entertainment into an impressive career, burlesque and the cabaret aesthetic would remain an extreme novelty for an already extremely niche audience. It’s not even in competition with the hypersexual nature of today’s Instagram modeling. Just as identifiable in appearance, but unlike the calling card of the chickens that come home to roost for the explore page, burlesque is a visual art form that revels in the mystique, no matter how revealing or outrageous an outfit, on view, may be.
Von Teese, whose birth name is lovably Heather Renee Sweet, is a mainstay of Los Angeles entertainment. Californians are always in for a seductive treat courtesy of her Art of the Teese and Strip Strip Hooray productions. So are Parisian fans who have witnessed her guest appearances at the legendary house of nude shows and exotic dancing, Le Crazy Horse Saloon/Le Crazy Horse de Paris or simply, Crazy Horse. (Crazy House’s cinematic outputs, and dancers, that are like technicolor film noir and Femme Fatales, inspired Beyonce to film her aggressively sexual and fearless “Partition” video on location there).
This winter, the notorious tightlacer, and modern pin-up model brings her glamorous revue to American cities as slick and contained as Grand Rapids to the balmy and dégagé Houston. For these cities, as well as Boston, where I saw Von Teese perform, burlesque is found only in the movies, an Internet search (where sometimes soft-core iconography will pop-up), and Dita herself on the red carpet and magazines. And who doesn’t want to forget 2001’s deliciously tacky video for the “Lady Marmalade” remake? (Christina Aguilera, who belted in “Marmalade”, coincidentally starred in the 2010 film Burlesque with Cher. It was reviewed as a dud).
At the House of Blues Boston, the show was sold-out and as with Teese shows before and after, photography and video were not permitted for the safety of the performers who would be close to naked at times. The auspices of the night were fun and unfettered. As for the performers, point A to point B were awaiting them in their routines.
I was unaware beforehand, but The Art of the Teese is a collaborative effort. Von Teese handpicked and invited fellow burlesque modernaires to join her on tour such as Ginger Valentine, Quita B, Dirty Martini, and “The No Pantser Romancer” Jett Adore, a bastion of male braggadocio in its most cartoonish form. Adore covers his male genitalia in glittery, tasseled cones, completely shielding his nether regions, but his buttocks are left exposed. He’s a Liberace Zorro to be completely honest.
Adore was near the end of the show and the entire night was MC’ed by Murray Hill, who joked he was not the woman from Orange Is The New Black. The ladies were first, and in watching them twirl, bend, swerve, caress, stretch and come-hither, while expertly removing parts of their outfits that were ingeniously detachable, awe was the word. Reduced to being a glitzier version of stripping, burlesque dancing is of delicate technique and requires a kind of tantalizing mind game that even “the best” stag Atlanta strip clubs do not obtain as pre-requisites to the experience. The Art of the Teese is erotic, promotes coquettishness, and incorporates a lot of humor in-between blowing kisses and kicking off stilettos. In this world, sex is fun and worthy of experimentation. Not a burden of one’s gender and a sensuality chip MIA.
Quita B did a Josephine Baker tribute that was true blue to the iconic “Bronze Venus” dancer, who originally found opportunity and fame once she emigrated to Paris. A mainly Anglo audience were enthralled by Baker, an African-American woman, who was resplendent on her own, but even more so in outrageous outfits like the renowned banana skirt. Yes, B wore one too. Boston cheered.
Ginger Valentine was extraordinary. Soon after appearing on stage in a red number, she got on a heart-shaped prop as big as half the stage–by then wearing a string-ish panty and nipple pasties set–and proceeded to trapeze on it. Her gymnastic talent was unanticipatedly spellbinding.
Additionally unforeseen was how inclusive The Art of The Teese was in its cast. In not just having B, and on other dates Zelia Rose, two women of color featured, Von Teese exhibited body positivity. Dirty Martini and Catherine D’lish are BBW, or unabashedly fleshy, and their burlesque routines stunned. D’lish first appeared in a black glittery jumpsuit as she removed sleeves and bottoms and added on jewelry, during a heist setting, in their place. Dirty Martini astounded when she miraculously made her breasts swing in a circular motion like a spinning laundry wheel. Her nipple pasty tassels gave off rainbow lights and the more the audience screamed, the harder she went. How effortlessly her breasts followed.
Von Teese herself was wonderful. She didn’t commence the show but ended it. Her first was the classic cocktail glass routine. It is the suspense of wondering just when she’ll get in the human-sized glass that makes it great. If you’ve never seen it alive, it’s a secret bucket list moment. “Lazy” was terrifically comical, as Von Teese and her entourage of two, ready for baby-oil male companions, “the Vontourage”, performed a tete-a-tete on being carefree at home, while still waiting by the phone to blow off dates, and maybe read a couple of pages in a book. It was pretty charming. The finale was Von Teese in a full-blown Annie get your mechanical bull on. When Von Teese got on and began straddling as it moved round and round, while so in love with herself, glitter and shimmer fell from the ceiling like (non-edible) candy rain.
Dita Von Teese’s costumes were equally remarkable. Shamelessly full of sparkle accouterments, vivid, and fitted straight from a couturier, I hope I wasn’t the only one that wished the Von Teese merchandise booth included some apparel. I would throw down a cool $150 dollars for a Swarovski inspired something or another.
By show’s end when the cast appeared together and Von Teese strutted, waving how Venus di Milo would if she had at least one of her arms, I cognized the sense of feminism and girl power The Art of the Teese delivered to me as a woman viewer. Feminism is often spoken about so heavily and drained. Here, it was a part of the fabric without verbose explanation. The performers all exhibited it and in a house of burlesque where the unapologetic approach is very keen. When was the last time we viewed girl power as fun, sexy, and a great time? Awe was the word for the audience, and freedom was the calling for the Teese performers. Bring on the fishnets with a side of sass and frank feminine wit, thank you very much. And don’t forget the olives.