Burlesque: Sassy pow of suggestion

An old-time form of entertainment struts its stuff on club stage

May 23, 2002|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

In the raspy voice of an inveterate club hopper, the performer known professionally as Dirty Martini explains how she came to be a burlesque sensation at Manhattan venues with names like the Va Va Voom Room and the Slipper Room.

"I was told my whole life that I would never be right in any way for dance," says Martini, who claims to be the first fan dancer to perform in postwar Sarajevo. "I just had a burning desire to do that. There was nothing else I could do, except find a way I could be a dancer."

This Saturday, Dirty Martini brings her sultry and witty act to the Ottobar, as part of a review called Viva Vavoom! Also participating are new-era burlesque queens Bonnie Dunn and Amber Ray as well as the World Famous Pontani Sisters, a delightfully cheesy synchronized dance team that can even turn a performance of "Danny Boy" into a mini sex farce. Sideshow revivalist Todd Robbins is the emcee and Baltimore's Swingin' Swamis provide the lounge music for the show, which will feature no nudity.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's Today section incorrectly reported the date of the Viva Vavoom! burlesque show. The performance is at 9 tonight at the Ottobar, 2549 N. Howard St. Information: 410-662-0069. The Sun regrets the error.

Since 1995, burlesque has enjoyed renewed recognition in larger cities across the country. In its acceptance of the female body in all shapes and sizes, as well as its appeal for female and male audiences, the "new burlesque" carries a slightly political scent, but nothing so strong as to obliterate its playful spirit.

Kara Mae, a 20-year-old independent scholar of American popular culture and medical receptionist, is the impresario for Viva Vavoom. For Mae, burlesque's appeal stems as much from its illumination of a period in history as it does from the art of striptease itself. But for most people who attend burlesque performances, it is fun, pure and simple. Classic burlesque allows performers and the audience to laugh at themselves, she says. "It's so exaggerated sexually. ... Instead of feeling dirty about it, it's more comical."

Saturday's show will re-create a burlesque revue of the past, complete with Robbins' impersonation of a candy butcher, who hawks sweets and cigarettes to the audience.

Mae, who grew up in Greenbelt but has lived in Baltimore for the past couple years, wants the city to become reacquainted with its own rich burlesque history that she dates to the White Crook Burlesque Company, established in the 1890s.

In Baltimore as elsewhere, burlesque houses were "a breeding and training ground for great comedians, glamorous strippers with wild gimmicks and unscrupulous candy butchers," Mae writes in a brief history. "By the '60s, burlesque died out and gave way to nightclubs featuring strippers. The comics were discarded and so were G-strings and pasties."

Mae, who is researching a biography on burlesque legend Lili St. Cyr, describes herself as an "old soul" who is perfectly at home listening to jazz on old 78s and watching old movies. But, like a sprinkling of other new burlesque fans, Mae also sees a cultural overlap with the punk world in a shared "do it yourself" approach to art.

In its current incarnation, burlesque can take on any number of contemporary cultural hues, ranging from new age to postmodern. But just as was the case with the original burlesque performances, the point is not to get naked as quickly as possible, as tends to happen at strip clubs today. Mae invites her potential audience to "relive the days of risque fun, when the G-string was the piece de resistance for the stripper, when strip tease was more tease and less strip."

In burlesque, Martini, a dance major in college, found "something that fit into what I was already going for." Strongly influenced by the drag scene, Martini applied what she learned there to her own routines.

And just who is this campy diva she calls Dirty Martini? "She is me," says Martini, whose first name is Linda. "She's also a character I've developed who is a little different from me. She's honoring the women that did burlesque in the '40s and '50s."

For Martini, it's not about "wanting to be an erotic performer ... I've never done this for men. The whole reason I do it is for women. It's keeping the history alive."

Burlesque is also a grass-roots alternative to the more impersonal high-tech disco scene, says Bonnie Dunn, producer of a New York City show called Le Scandal, known to feature a hula-hoop stripper and a magician-stripper whose age hovers around 70. "The Le Scandal performers entertain, entice, and enrage, all the while redefining what is sexy in numerous ways," a Village Voice reviewer concluded. "It's hip stripping!"

And while burlesque does involve disrobing, "it's not just getting up there and just dancing with a vacant stare," says Dunn, known for her traditional performances. Burlesque is "costumes, music, the humor, psychology. There are so many different layers to it."

Performers at the Ottobar will be carpooling down from New York this weekend. "It's not like anybody is making a lot of money on this," Dunn says. "It's just a fun thing to do."


What: Viva Vavoom

Where: Ottobar, 2549 N. Howard St.

When: 9 p.m. Saturday

Tickets: $8, available at Reptilian Records, Atomic Books, Normals Books and Music and at the door. Ages 18 and up; swanky attire encouraged.

Call: 410-662-0069.

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