Creative Economy

Burlesque is an art, and a surprising local tradition

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Burlesque is an art, and a surprising local tradition

Noelle Reign (above) was striding across the stage, dramatically elongating her legs as she moved behind the lush feather fans that covered her from neck to knees. Spreading them out like wings, she revealed herself. She donned a short blond bob and bright red lips, matching her red kitchen apron that she paired with silver strapped heels. . . and what appeared to be nothing else. Slowly and gracefully, she swept the feathers through the air, finding sneaky moments to loosen the ties of her apron just a bit, then a bit more. With a wink and a sneaking look, Noelle Reign was reeling in the audience with a secret. She maneuvered between executed poses that made them squirm with anticipation and bopping around playfully across the stage, sensing the room. “The connection that you make with the audience affects your movement,” she said later. “So that maybe next time you remember how they reacted and you alter it to try and achieve that same connection.” With each tug at the apron, Reign’s face became all the more fierce and with a final bend, snap and pull, her transformation was complete. In silvery caged lingerie dotted with gems, she was sparkling from her heels to her studded pasties. She held the massive feather fans out wide with a mischievous grin, triumphant.

Sitting in the dimly lit Troy Confectionary a few days earlier, the owner of the wirey alter ego is laid back, quiet. It is a separate person altogether, but therein lies the magic of the art form.

She wears no makeup and sports a light sweater, picking at a bowl of mini bread slices on the table along with fellow burlesque performers Persephone Pomme and Teasy Roosevelt. Together, the three make up the production team of Pop Culture Provocateurs. The burlesque collective has produced variety shows of performance art-based burlesque every third Friday of the month (every fourth Friday starting in April) after their initial Game of Thrones-themed debut “You Wear Nothing John Snow! A Wild Romp Through Westeros” in April 2016.

The producers themselves have worked together in the tightly knit burlesque scene around Albany and Troy for the past three years in shows such as C. Amanda Boutahorse’s Cult Classics production, a bi-monthly event described by its producer as a raucous love letter to cult classic films. The Provocateur producers give the majority of credit to C. Amanda for the initial growth of burlesque in the Capital Region. As the self-proclaimed longest running burlesque show on the East Coast, Mister James’ Bing Bamboo Room has been bringing their monthly variety show to Albany in a big way for over a decade. The show is known known for the unpredictability of its variety shows that tend to border on circus acts. C. Amanda’s Cult Classics had expanded the scene to Troy in, organizing productions such as “Pulp Vixen”, “Thrill Bill”, “The Bawdy Tenenbaums” and “Beetlelesque.”

“That really just built everything up,” Persephone Pomme explained. “It’s the foundation of what the burlesque scene is starting to grow today.” Pomme has been performing for three years and previously worked as C. Amanda’s intern and assistant producer. Soon she was off producing her own show, Retro Video Game Burlesque, that ran for two years.

When she and her fellow Provocateur producers were in Coney Island for the 2015 Mermaid Parade, their Pop Culture brainchild was born. “Our audience was gung-ho about Game of Thrones,” Teasy Roosevelt said with a grin as she reminisced the birth of their collective. “When we started talking about it, we had people coming up to us like, ‘So when is this happening?’ ‘I wanna perform, i wanna do an act.’ And we were like, we don’t even have an email address yet, but . . . OK!” Their audience is enthusiastic, shows are host to gaping onlookers of various ages and genders, staring at their performers in awe. They shout, cheer and jump for their favorite routines and are no less excited when a newcomer makes an introductory performance. The audience responsiveness is a unique element that the producers see helping to grow Capital Region burlesque scene. “People are excited to come here to perform,” Roosevelt said. “I go to workshops in the city and people will be like, ‘Can you get me up to Albany?’”

“It’s not just about taking your clothes off or seeing boobs. Even if someone ‘makes a mistake,’” she said, gesturing air quotes with a dramatic eye roll. “Wigs come off, pasties pop off. They don’t care, they wanna see you have a good time. Ya know, alcohol helps, but they’re there for us. Our audiences around here, they have a blast.”

Noelle Reign peered over at her production partner with a smirk before adding, “Part of that, I’d like to think, is because we also put on a good show.”

It’s an impressive showcase to be sure. At their latest “Burlesque Revue” at the Fuze Box in Albany on Feb. 17, Pomme flitted from stage to soundbooth to “backstage”–AKA the raised section of the Fuze Box dancefloor stage right–shimmying her way in and out of the crowd in full costume, tucking a few bucks into the fishnet stockings of gogo dancer Minnie Derrière (below) and making sure everything is in its place–down to the last pastie.

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The Revue shows are more casually produced than themed shows. Each featured performer, independently hired by the collective, brings their individual style to the stage. “It’s a really great place for people to workshop act ideas, if they have something new that they want to share we give them a stage to do this. There’s total creative freedom. Whatever your heart desires, that you feel like bringing to the table, do it,” Persephone said. “Essentially, we’re ‘vibe curators.’”

To the three producers, putting on a burlesque show is like showcasing a gallery of people’s fantasy selves. Variety shows like the Burlesque Revue are popular and deliver well because it embodies the art of burlesque itself. It means something completely different to each performer. In Provocateur shows, says Pomme, routines can be very pretty. They can also be pretty weird. The latest revue had classic acts: Noelle Reign’s elegant fan routine and a strip tease set to Rat Pack crooning from Immodesty Rose. The more creative energy came from routines like Black Orchyd’s flower strip and visiting performer Minnie Crisis’s X-rated take on the classic Disney mouse.

Orchestrating the seamless flow of performances–with time for a few laughs from emcee Nell Shanahan–takes a ton of work. Producers are responsible for every time-consuming, chore-like detail, regardless of the fact that they each have full time jobs. From the weeks leading up a show until the minute it ends, they’ll be settling with venues, creating and distributing flyers for promotion, finding the right music to play in the dead time before a show begins and between sets, coordinating raffle tickets, organizing prop placements, foreseeing costume malfunctions and ensuring performers are located, dressed and placed onstage, music set, ready to go on time. They’re already planning upcoming shows: there’s a Planned Parenthood benefit in the works as well as a Big Lebowski tribute. But the producers don’t seemed fazed by their workload, they’re enthusiastic about the “five-minute payoff” after a show.

“There is nothing quite like sitting back and watching a successful show. Being on stage is great but producing it and seeing all of these acts come together, it’s this level of satisfaction that before i started doing burlesque didn’t know existed,” said Persephone.

Since starting the monthly Revue shows in September 2016, the collective has been gaining a regular following of enthusiasts who return to see their favorites, any of the 20 local performers that turn out in waves for Provocateur shows.

“There’s a level of satisfaction for local people to know that there are so many talented people here, that you don’t need to go to New York to see this stuff,” Roosevelt said, who recently moved to Albany from the city. “Have your mind blown here, man.”

The burlesque scene in Albany and Troy is completely DIY, from their character and routine to the tiny details in a costume. It’s an element to the scene that differentiates the unique personas that performers work for years to form.

“When I first adopted my persona, Noelle Reign, I thought, ‘This is who I’m gonna be onstage. l’m gonna be Miss prim and proper, like a beauty queen gone bad,” the producer said, gesturing her hands as if she was laying down some unseen law. “But as I grew to know myself as a performer, I saw that wasn’t really the case and it was more of a caricature [of myself.] Reign gets to bring that to the stage and amplify that in a way that I would never do day-to-day.”

The Schoharie native known as Noelle Reign grew up performing Irish stepdance and spent her high school years in musical theater. Eight years ago, when an old friend asked her to fill in as a stage kitten–a performer responsible for picking up the bits of costume left onstage after a routine–in a local burlesque show, she agreed to check out the scene and never left.

She picked out a name–based on Blind Melon’s “No Rain” song–and developed her theme. Her central act, which she has been performing since she began, is based around the “Bumblebee Girl” from the song’s music video.

While she spent some time performing with troupes–organized groups of burlesque performers–Reign found the involvement limited her independence and creative opportunity. Troupes are generally organized under a leader, or Head Mistress, who choreographs group numbers, organizes tours and curates a show to his or her choosing. “Sometimes power goes to people’s heads,” Reign said. “Sometimes they don’t allow you to perform outside of the group and that might be a problem if you want to travel around with your acts.”

The majority of Capital Region performers operate independently.

The collective is more focused on empowerment than orchestration of a big number. While they are a group in their like-mindedness and interest in performance arts, they are individual in their presentation. “Empowering yourself, empowering others,” Pomme said with a matter-of-fact nod.

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Burlesque has always been in the stars for Persephone Pomme (above). Enthralled by pin-up culture and involved in musical theater throughout middle school and high school, the persona has been growing alongside her real-life counterpart for some time. “Persephone is a totally different woman than my regular old self, “she says with a laugh.” Shortly after graduating high school, she saw a burlesque documentary “A Wink and a Smile,” and was sold. “I was 17 at the time so i couldn’t really find a show that i could even attend, let alone be in,” she said. Then, three years ago, she plucked up the courage to attend a local workshop. It was there where she met Reign, who now runs a coaching and costuming business of her own–independently contracted by the Arts Center of the Capital Region in Troy–called Burly Prep. “Within a month of the first show that I saw in person, I was onstage. It was this contagious feeling. I have to do this. It’s scary as hell but it’s super fun.”

For Teasy Roosevelt, the decision to follow through with her burlesque transformation happened more or less overnight. “I had an ex-boyfriend who told me that I could never do burlesque and then I decided that i wanted to,” she said with a smug smile. Though she has had her stage name for about seven years, being told that burlesque was out of her reach was a turning point for her performance career. “He said, ‘I don’t think you’re right to do burlesque.’ And then I said, ‘Well, this relationship isn’t right and I wanna do burlesque and no one can stop me.’” She performed around New York City, frequenting workshops in the area, before moving to Albany. Primarily a comedian, Roosevelt found burlesque gave her the opportunity to work on improv and build her act. Based entirely on American history and politics, her act can range from general patriotic tributes to presidential impersonations. She has also found herself as an inspiration to future burlesque performers who may feel that the lack the confidence to get onstage–or, like herself, need to drop the negative influences that insist it can never be done.

“I can be a size 22 and I can take my clothes off and no people judge it? People are excited about it? That’s a feeling I like to give somebody, like, ‘I can do that too,’” Roosevelt said. “I’ve had somebody come up to me like, ‘I’m so excited that you do this.’ Yeah man, you can too! All types of bodies all types of colors, that’s what’s exciting about burlesque. It’s not just identifying with one type.” Burlesque gives its performers the freedom to express themselves in an encapsulating way in which dance, design or musical theater can’t quite reach.

At the latest Revue, Teasy Roosevelt made her entrance to the stage with poise. In head-to-toe red white and blue, the Provocateur funny girl deadpanned the crowd with her presidential put-on. In the light of our most recent presidency, she has been making a killing off of her creative bank. In her classic burlesque glove peel, she slowly pulled the fingers of her elbow-length, white satin gloves with tiny tugs, her teeth brightened by the shine of the red glitter that had been carefully–and generously–applied to her lips. An equally generous layer in blue covered her eyelids, popping against her blown-out platinum blond wig. She tore the glove off in sync with a cymbal crash of the accompanying patriotic tune and dramatically flung it across the stage, showering the audience (to their squealing delight) in handful of red glitter that was hidden inside. The excitement continued building as her expressive face suddenly distorted in confusion and concern as she reached around to her back, eyes always on her audience. Suddenly, as crowd gaped in wonder of how Roosevelt ever fit it back there, a full-sized Russian flag apparated from her bottoms. The crowd erupted with laughter and boos while she waved it in front of her. As she continued her striptease, complete with tassel pasties, Roosevelt shimmied her way to the big reveal, spinning around to show her bare ass. Scrawled across both cheeks read: NEVER PUTIN, NEVER TRUMP. The cheering audience suddenly turned to chanting, “USA, USA, USA.” After the show, Roosevelt took a minute to reflect on the way her act ignites such a passionate reaction of patriotism. “This is my America,” she said with pride. As for the chanting, Roosevelt playfully rolled her eyes, “Oh, that happens all the time.” She talks about her other acts, particularly that of Richard Nixon–done entirely behind a mask which she says adds an interesting challenge when it comes to audience communication. “Each of us have performed in masks and that makes it extremely difficult to convey that emotion, that contact,” explains Persephone. “And if you can do it? Damn. That’s art.”

As performers, the Pop Culture Provocateurs are always looking for ways to challenge themselves and their audiences–who they are careful not to underestimate. If performers are looking to get especially avant-garde, the producers push them to get as “weird” as they can. Addressing that their audience is smart enough to follow, Persephone explained, only brings the artist-observer relations closer.

In Friday’s show, when Black Orchyd approached the stage in a baggy fabric flower costume, audience members looked at each other in confusion. Is this chick in footie pajamas? She showered the crowd in white petals as she pranced around to the Alice in Wonderland tune “Golden Afternoon.” The audience was charmed, but just as they were getting into her cutesie floral dance the music morphed to fast-paced punk as the costume disintegrated, leaf by leaf, and the Orchyd became a nearly naked bud in a thorny crown. Minnie Crisis (below) followed a similar execution plan, playing the adorable Disney character of childhood entertainment with a feral look in her eyes. Within the five-minute performance, the lovable character personified by the Philadelphia-based performer was doing things we’d hope to never see her do. The crowd went wild.

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“Most people, especially people who are returning to a show, are looking for the performers to say something. They know what to expect. By the end of the show, they realize that each performer is making their own sort of statement,” Reign attested.

Testing the audience is a favorite maneuver of Persephone Pomme. “One of my favorite ways to look at my acts, because I’m someone that can get a little weird, as we all can, I want people who–if they’re on the fence about what I’m doing–to leave thinking, ‘Is this good or do I not get it?’”

As she stalked across stage, scythe in hand, she appeared as a mystical being–from her feathery pink lashes (“I don’t feel like Persephone until i have my false eyelashes on”) to her homemade floor-length chiffon loincloth. With deliberate eye contact and involvement with the audience, she had complete control–a key element in her personal performance.

Back at the wine bar, she sets the scene of one of her most memorable performances–one, for her, that set the tone of the art form. “Burlesque is reflecting how you’re feeling at this moment in time and how that involves your audience who you’re presenting it to,” she explained.

During an Empire Records tribute show at the Fuze Box, Persephone found that she would have to dig a bit deeper to find her inspiration. “I am a person who has struggled with mental health issues. I’ve attempted suicide, so I very much connected with the character Deborah.” In the film, Deborah attempts suicide, walks into work the next day and shaves her head in the bathroom. Inspired by the heaviness of Deborah’s character, she went onstage, plugged in a razor and shaved her head.

“I took all the money that I made and put it towards a charity for suicide prevention. That was the most liberating act that I’ve ever done in my entire burlesque career and I didn’t take off a single drop of clothing.”

According to Roosevelt, one audience member was particularly floored, turning to her after a moment to simply say, as if just realizing a profound truth, “That’s burlesque.”

Photos by Douglas Liebig

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