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Saturday, October 4, 2008

6th Annual New York Burlesque Festival Review

6th Annual New York Burlesque Festival ReviewIf you count yourself among those who blush at the sight of a feathered boa cascading to the stage floor and in its absence leaving bare (with the exception of two strategically placed, and mysteriously affixed pieces of spangled fabric, the tenuous situation of which being all that separates “performance art” from “indecency”) a female form bathed in a panoply of lustrous stage lighting, boy, would your cheeks have been red at the 6th Annual New York Burlesque Festival.

However, with New York City’s brand new hipster hangout, Le Poisson Rouge, packed to capacity with a raucous rabble ready to cheer on performer after performer, there seemed to be few bashful blushers in the crowd. Certainly not the gentlemen adorning black leather lederhosen, nor the Elvis impersonator, nor two wispy young men dressed in matching Rodgers and Hammerstein inspired sailor suits. In fact, throughout the feathered, lace clad and corseted throng there was hardly an earnest blusher to be found.

Burlesque has its roots in 19th century England where it began as a forum to mock the priggish social attitudes of the aristocracy. Soon after, it made its way to America and flourished with a blend of vaudevillian humor, music, drag, sexuality and elaborate costuming.

At its best burlesque is a subversive or satirical performance art form that can hold a mirror up to established social mores and bring them, for a moment, crashing to the floor along with the ornate or absurd costumes shed from the performers’ bodies. At its best it is a celebration of the bawdy counterculture, freedom of expression and, of course, the female form. At its worst – and, reader, you may decide for yourself if I apply this epithet of “worst” correctly – it is a glorified striptease, which, while lacking the art of the former, is not entirely without merit.

For the most part, the performances at Le Poisson Rouge – one of the four shows at various NYC venues comprising the 6th Annual New York Burlesque Festival (which, being dutiful counterculture reporters, we bravely set out to investigate) - fell squarely in the “glorified striptease” category, with performer after performer tending to use her allotted two and a half minutes of stage time to writhe out of whatever cumbersome clothing burdened her. Most of this took place under the blare of preselected, piped in pop music.

Despite moments in which, were it not for the diversity of the crowd and the lack of a “Champagne Room,” one might have thought themselves transported to Scores, the evening was not entirely devoid of more traditional aspects of burlesque. The show’s host, a drag king performer called Murray Hill, capably peppered the evening with Henny Youngman-esque one-liners. The large band, several times accused of being high by Mr. Hill, skillfully accompanied performers who shirked the pervasive canned music. Additionally, several acts were creative enough to make the near nudity that invariably was the result of every performance, a byproduct of their goal – as opposed to the goal itself.

One such performance involved a woman hidden behind Groucho Marx glasses (with rubber nose and bushy mustache). The penultimate moment of the act was the revelation that similar but miniature Groucho glasses (with little rubber noses and bushy moustaches) covered all her parts deemed improper to lay bare in public. To close, she took the smoldering cigarette that had previously dangled from her lips beneath the faux moustache and, well, deftly placed it into other lips less accustomed to smoking…

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