Were you aware, readers, that Vermont is home to a thriving burlesque scene? No? Neither was I.
Imagine my surprise upon arriving at the Vermont Burlesque Festival, an annual multi-day event where in which performers from all over the state and the country, gather to apply makeup, strut, gyrate and belt out jazz standards to an audience of fans eager for a distraction from dreary mid-January and a reminder that the warmly bundled human form’s winter shapelessness is but a temporary phenomenon.
A conversation with the VBF’s executive producer and creator, Cory Royer, helped to illustrate two key themes in Vermont’s role as a burlesque hot spot –– human sexual diversity and community involvement.
Royer explained that money raised by the festival is donated to the UVM the University of Vermont Cancer Center, as well as the Health and Wellness program at Pride Center of Vermont, an LGBTQ community center.
“What we love about that, is that burlesque doesn’t discriminate,” he said. “It’s all shapes, sizes, colors, races, genders… and that’s what the LGBTQ community’s all about.”
Royer said noted that this union seems unique to Vermont, noting that “in Las Vegas, where he runs a similar festival, “they just don’t want to have anything to do with burlesque.”
In addition to the other two charitable missions, the festival aims to “warm up Vermont” with a clothing drive.; Tthe idea is that audiences, like performers, will shed their clothes for a good cause (but in a more symbolic, less theatrical fashion).
Headlining the VBF Vermont Burlesque Festival this year were Green Mountain Cabaret, a Burlington-based enterprise with a show at Club Metronome on the last Saturday of each month; Spielpalast Cabaret, a German-influenced troupe, also hailing from Burlington, which typically performs a yearly series of shows in May; ARTS fest, from Brattleboro, who perform throughout New England at various intervals; and Peep Show Vermont, an outfit specializing in queer and drag burlesque with regular shows at The Monkey House in Winooski.
The first night of the festival took place at Venue Nightclub in South Burlington on Jan. 22. Venue’s atmosphere was distinctly casual; bassy beats throbbed as patrons milled around on the dance floor, and bluish lights wound around several large, illuminated Cîroc bottle replicas.
A woman stood patiently onstage as a black corset was painted matter-of-factly on her naked torso.
The emcee, Leif Peepers, delivered his introductions in an untied green bow tie, ushering in a succession of performers.
Feathered headdresses and pale pink fur coats gave way to a comedienne who discussed the accidental acquisition of a giant dildo and the problem with naming one’s ice cream truck “Mister Dingaling.”
A shimmering electronic score framed fluid hoop tricks; next, an exploration of food scales as the best way to gauge breast weight, and lesbian dating in the online realm, then on to vampy, glam-inflected, gender-bending exploits, which segued into another comedienne’s routine on the topic of over-sharing and loneliness in Vermont.
Entertainers from Montpelier and Montreal walked blue lines of rope, blew up balloons, and played with chain-linked metal rings.
Portland-based Russell Bruner, “the Vaudevillian with the Biggest Schtick,” came onstage in handlebar moustache and retro getup, gyrating stiff-leggedly and permitting an audience member to remove one of his arm garters with her teeth.
He ended his routine on a comically dexterous note, whisking away his starched cotton shirtfront to reveal an expertly executed Buffalo Bill-style dick tuck underneath.
After an animated combination of Aerosmith and “The Wizard of Oz”, and a hysterical, androgynous diva who, at the climax of a dance routine set to Alaska Thunderfuck’s “Your Makeup is Terrible” guzzled a bottle of what were hopefully candy pills and whipped off a pair of sunglasses to reveal makeup that was just as bad, Bruner retook the stage with his partner, The Pink Lady, for reciprocal lap dances and a gymnastic joint striptease.
I was glad to be able to speak to Bruner on Saturday about his experience as a male burlesque dancer, especially as I’d been all but unaware that they existed. He told me that he’d been swing dancing for a long time, then joined a dance troupe; soon after that, he grew interested in competitions, and in performing in front of others. That led him to vaudeville and circus acrobatics and eventually to burlesque, where he worked his way up from couples dance routines to the more risque aspects of the art.
Bruner’s aesthetic, a stylized combination of early 20th century garments, might suggest to some an anachronistic mindset; however, he assured me, he would much prefer to perform in this era than one in which women and minorities (and, at times, men) faced a greater number of social constraints.
“I feel like the bar has been set by the pioneers, the women who have brought this forward… and, as the revival came, the women who brought it back were feminists who really wanted to celebrate this style for performance, and do it on their terms.”
Bruner finds a similar satisfaction in updating various other elements of his performance, whether by applying rhinestones to a vintage top hat or adapting music and dance from a bygone era.
“I’m nerdy enough to celebrate almost-forgotten jazz styles of yesteryear, so to learn as much as I can from [previous generations of performers], and talk to them personally, and hear their take on musicality and dancing, and carry that forward, is to me… a real blessing. Burlesque gives me a great outlet to keep doing these old, forgotten dance styles and also to perfect them a little more.”
It seemed as if the other performers that weekend, at Higher Ground, also had perfection on the brain. While Thursday’s show was certainly enjoyable, Saturday’s was astoundingly polished. The hostess,New Hampshire’s own Bunny Wonderland, was feverishly energetic and just crude enough for the early show.
Meredith Tittle, a comedienne and dancer, was perhaps the most entertaining artist of either night. Presented as a timid, frumpy, unassuming housewife, recently divorced and complete with pitch-perfect “Fargo” accent, Tittle delivered a side-splittingly funny monologue before launching (at her therapist’s behest, she said), into a wild dance routine set to Beyonce’s “Single Ladies,” during which she stripped to reveal a Brillo pad and a jittering array of multicolored car air fresheners, all suggestively placed.
After Tittle, there were, to name a few: a terrifically choreographed chair dancing arrangement which concluded in a novel cooperative striptease; a gorgeously well-coordinated dancer in a South American-styled Carmen Miranda-type outfit; an elegant routine set to a bassy, ethereal score, which switched tempo midway through and transitioned into a peacock feather fan tease, and which was performed by an artist described by Wonderland as having had “legs for days, hair like Hilary Swank and an ass like a goddamn fuckin’ car wash;” and, in an appearance that spoke eloquently of the festival’s importance, the storied burlesque pioneer and stateswoman April March.
March is considered to be the “First Lady of Burlesque.” She performed from 1952 to 1978, and has come out of retirement for noteworthy events such as this one. She was once used by the U.S. government to deliver a letter to the king of Saudi Arabia, who then tried to take her to Majorca; she was held hostage in a shootout; she has been romantically linked to mafia bosses, actors, singers and Joe Dimaggio; and, once retired, she turned down offers from Broadway, Columbia Pictures and United Artists to continue doing burlesque. Seeing her onstage was the final punctuation for a resoundingly affirmative answer to the question Royer said people ask him when he’s in the Southwest:
“There’s burlesque? In Vermont?”
Having attended the Vermont Burlesque Festival, I can now give my own, similar response — yes, there is, and it isn’t just limited to a couple of nights a year. It’s a continually active, diverse scene and a hell of a lot of fun. One of these days, you ought to set some time aside to go check it out.