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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Risque, rousing Burlesque performances straddle the line between frivolous and serious

Burlesque Performance

The nearly naked lady squeezes into a giant balloon and wrestles with a lusty disembodied hand. The mustachioed host puts his padded crotch quite literally in people's faces, licks toes, and takes insults to obscenely creative levels. The clown can't juggle his knives until he has juggled his gender by donning a white evening gown.

To anyone who has been to a circus, they're all familiar figures -- but you've never seen them quite like this.

They're all on display in the Absinthe show at Spiegelworld on Miami Beach, which is just one of the most visible and latest examples of a renaissance in the low arts of burlesque, circus and cabaret. An adventurous new generation of artists is putting a twist on sex, laughs and thrills for audiences hungry for something risqué and real.

Burlesque revivals are thriving in New York, Seattle, Los Angeles, Chicago and London, where women are injecting humor, feminist ideas and a welcoming attitude toward different genders and body types into the ages-old craft of pasty twirling and fan dancing.

Drag cabaret act Kiki and Herb have played Carnegie Hall and Broadway and have been lauded as ''irresistibly full-bodied art'' by The New York Times. Small circus troupes that juggle gender roles as well as balls are popping up in New York.

In Miami, a group called Circ X brings Dadaesque theatricality to clubs and corporate parties, while some of this city's most interesting theater/performance artists, including Circ X director Diana Lozano, Natasha Tsakos and Octavio Campos, revel in mixing drag, dance, theater, circus tricks, performance art, street theater and in-your-face outrageousness.

''I don't distinguish between low and high art, or between frivolous and serious,'' says Julie Atlas Muz, a star of the burlesque revival, who just finished a run at Absinthe.


Muz straddles an aesthetic chasm with towering platform heels -- she holds the title of Miss Exotic World 2006, and she has also been featured at New York's Whitney Biennial.

``I consider my work to be incredibly traditional -- I read Aristotle's Poetics, I study old vaudeville and old magic tricks. Maybe I'm experimental in my content and the way I use my body, but I try not to think about that. I try to make myself laugh.''

These artists are building on the oldest forms of entertainment -- sex, laughs and tricks.

''Clowns have existed since ancient Greece,'' says Voki Kalfayan, who has been a clown with both Ringling Bros. and Cirque du Soleil. He now dishes out hilarious scatological and sexual abuse as the Gazillionaire, host of Absinthe and the Gazillionaire's Late Nite Lounge at Spiegelworld. His character is inspired by Pantelone, a figure in the centuries-old street theater form of comedia del arte.

But with taboos already trampled by pop icons South Park and Eminem, Kalfayan has to work harder at being on the edge. ''How do you keep modernizing?'' he says. ``You keep pushing the boundaries, you have to push people's limits, their acceptance.''

What these 21st century performers bring to their ancient forms is a high degree of consciousness, a desire to say something as well as entertain. They draw from politics and pop culture, and challenge cultural conventions. They may incorporate theater, dance and performance art to give their performances depth.


Although many still see these vaudeville performers as just a trendy rendition of trashy entertainment, they're increasingly being taken seriously by audiences, critics and the art world.

''I don't really see the capital A, capital G avant-garde thing that exists [in the United States]. I think it's unfortunate and counterproductive,'' says Vallejo Gantner, artistic director of PS 122, a pillar of New York's downtown performance scene, where he has presented new circus, burlesque and cabaret acts. ``It's as if contemporary work can't be seen by normal people.''

Diana Lozano, who has a B.F.A. in musical theater from Miami's New World School of the Arts and an M.F.A. in integrated media from the California Institute of the Arts, started Circ X in 2002 as a way to make a living while practicing her art -- performing at everything from discos and fetish clubs to kid's parties and corporate events.

''I realized if you combined the visceral, raw energy of nightclub performance and the technique and work ethic of a trained theater professional you have something really marketable,'' Lozano says.

But she also sees it as a way to bring challenging artistic and political ideas to unlikely audiences -- her group once donned gas masks covered with small mirrors at a South Beach club as a comment on escapism and the war in Iraq.

''The theater stuff is great -- but at the same time it's like preaching to the choir,'' says Lozano, who has been commissioned to create a piece for Miami Light Project's Here & Now Festival in March.

``It's people who don't go to the theater that need it most. When I'm at a club and break that barrier where a guy sees me as more than tits and ass, then I've really broken through that barrier of what is expected of an entertainer.''

These artists also are tapping into the need for intimate, unpredictable interaction in an era when entertainment and socializing are increasingly impersonal and corporatized: television, Facebook, concerts at corporate-branded arenas, nightclub parties sponsored by brand-savvy companies.

''I think there's a real revolt against technology and a non-interactive nightlife experience,'' says performance/theater artist Octavio Campos. ``There are people who still want to talk and engage with a human body in another way.''

In a way, these artists are capitalizing on mainstream phenomena.

The massive success of Cirque du Soleil popularized the idea of a circus as adult entertainment. Drag went mainstream and Hollywood in the 1990s, and strip clubs went suburban. But those trends made what used to be taboo safe and acceptable.

These new acts go further.

''It's the edge, the danger, the carnival, a bit of fear, that sense of the tattooed caravan lifestyle that terrifies your parents,'' says Gantner. ``People are looking for that excitement and edginess.''

Jennifer Miller, director of New York's funky little Circus Amok, which has been doing gender-bending, politically subversive performances in parks and theaters since 1989, sees these acts as a reaction to political and religious conservatism.

''We're in a culturally repressive moment, so what is the response?'' she says ``It's sexy and bawdy and fun and intimate and dangerous in some way.''

And with so much to worry about -- terrorism, recession, global warming -- people need a little fun.

''Cheap, live entertainment always flourishes during wartime,'' says Muz. ``I love entertaining my audience. But just because you're entertaining them doesn't mean they're not thinking.''

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