Burlesque troupes heat up the Westside nightlife scene

By Michael Aushenker

Members of The Lalas get their groove on

Members of The Lalas get their groove on

It’s Monday night at Britannia Pub in Santa Monica, and the voluptuous Kitty Kat DeMille slides off her top before a crowd of 40 cheering onlookers. As a Gothic techno cover of The Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams” pumps through the speakers, she peels off her long purple gloves and sheds her tutu before culminating in a whirling dervish spin on ballet-slippered toes.

A cleaning woman with bright yellow gloves and a blue kerchief pushes a mop and bucket of soapy water through the crowd, then suddenly takes the spotlight to an eruption of salsa music. The kerchief disappears to reveal a cache of long burgundy locks. Sudsy water splashes as Eva Eden doffs layer after layer, winding down with the music to a blue-and-green two piece. She wings her bra-like top into the crowd, where I catch it, and leaves a sudsy mark on my sweater as she brushes past me up the stairs.

In addition to ruling Britannia once a week, the Dollface Dames burlesque troupe also performs each second Saturday of the month at Magicopolis and holds a Wednesday residency at TRiP —“consistently one of our busiest nights of the week,” says Josh Wiener, who books entertainment for the venue, a staple of Santa Monica’s live music scene.

While definitely one of the more prominent burlesque companies in the Los Angeles area, the Dollface Dames aren’t the only troupe that’s made this stylish and sexy throwback performance art a fixture on the Westside nightlife scene.

The Lalas, a seven-member troupe led by film and television choreographer Erin Lamont, make regular appearances throughout the Southland, including gigs at Harvelle’s jazz and blues club in Santa Monica, where they perform tonight.

The Bootleg Bombshells, initially regulars at Harvelle’s, now appear Wednesday nights at the basement Del Monte Speakeasy at Town House in Venice.

Harlow Gold, created by choreographers Tracy Phillips and Dominic Carbone (who designed the dance sequence in the hit indie film “500 Days of Summer” and Adam Lambert’s performance on the American Music Awards) occupy every third and fourth Thursday of the month at Harvelle’s with a “nouveau burlesque” revue infusing cabaret-derived moves with more modern rock music.

Avoid the ‘S’ word

Blame it on those old Tex Avery cartoons with horny wolves overreacting to a striptease by a Jessica Rabbit predecessor, but if there’s one stigma contemporary burlesque acts must battle, it’s the outdated connotations to the performance art form’s crass younger cousin — stripping.

“It’s insane how different [burlesque] is to stripping. Stripping is anti-feminist. This is totally feminist. It’s about representing women,” says Lalas dancer SaraAnne Fahey.

A Playa del Rey resident, Fahey graduated with a B.A. in dance from Loyola Marymount University and went on to perform in the 2008 MTV Video Music Awards as a dancer during pop star Rihanna’s performance of the song “Disturbia.”

It was after catching another local burlesque performance — The Toledo Show at Harvelle’s — that Fahey was drawn to it as “an art form that is all about empowering women” and reached out to Lamont.

In American burlesque’s peak years of the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s, these performers — a holdover from the edgier side of vaudeville’s glory days — were among the more extreme forms of erotically tinged entertainment.

Today, burlesque, which remains provocative for what it leaves to the imagination, is celebrated as performance art.

It’s not about taking your clothes off, says The Lalas’ Lamont, “It’s how you take your clothes off, and in what way.”

“Traditional burlesque, in its heyday, usually had a vaudeville element with a comedian. It was a shimmy-and-shake style, and all about the reveal. The classic burlesque dancers stay with that,” says Dollface Dames founder Kira Turnage, an actress and Santa Monica resident whose nom de burlesque is Lola Boutée.

“Today, it’s all about the reveal of the tease and the comedy aspect,” Turnage says.

The first of three sets during the Dames’ Britannia show opens with a trio in USO kitsch performing “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” and “Anything Goes,” but with each set the entertainment becomes more tailored to individual talents—aerial acrobatics, juggling, hula hoops and, in some shows, rings of fire. At Magicopolis, themes include Broadway musicals and comic book characters, with a pair of dancers performing as Betty and Veronica, DeMille as Supergirl and Eden as Batman villainess Poison Ivy.

Turnage, who describes the Dames’ aesthetic as “cabaret Chicago style,” devises the choreography for her group with collaborator Dixie Mae Revel.

“It’s all about the creative aspect. Not only about the dance, but you create a character, a back story. You [illuminate each performer’s] talent,” Turnage says. “Each company has its own set style. Like any music or painting, there’s all different types.”

The Bootleg Bombshells, says founder Lulu Depina-Cordova, intentionally stray from some of burlesque’s more antiquated precepts. Unique among local burlesque acts, the Bootleg Bombshells also feature a male dancer, Tito Benito, and frequent guest appearances by established performers.

“We are not classical at all,” says Depina-Cordova, a Culver City resident. “We don’t do group choreographed sets. My style is cabaret definitely inspired by Bob Fosse and classical musical theater.”

Depina-Cordova formed the Bootleg Bombshells out of Harvelle’s while the club was suffering some attendance woes. The ballet dancer turned Pilates instructor, who also performs with the five-member troupe, immersed herself in the burlesque scene a little over a year ago after learning about it from a client.

She feels the Bootleg Bombshells’ current digs at Townhouse, an underground parlor during Prohibition, adds a certain allure to their shows.

“I love that it’s a speakeasy,” Depina-Cordova says. “It has a genuine feel to it. Since we have the freedom of using the entire room, it makes things more interactive and fun with the whole crowd.”

Turnage started the Dollface Dames in 2008 after organizing a burlesque performance for a charity fundraiser, and Lamont launched The Lalas four years ago and has seen the troupe become close to a full-time job over the past two.

For The Lalas, “There’s more emphasis on the comedy aspect in a 75- to 90-minute show: How can I make the audience crack up?” says Lamont, who has created dance numbers for Lady Gaga, Cyndi Lauper, the People’s Choice Awards, Miss USA pageants and college bowl game halftime shows.

“What’s sexier than a sense of humor?”

Don’t Call It a Comeback

In a way it’s fitting that Britannia Pub should host the Dollface Dames, as the roots of burlesque date back to performances in Victorian England.

The American burlesque tradition took on its own form shaped by vaudeville shows, but by the 1920s and ‘30s, much of the comedic and musical elements became overshadowed by striptease acts.

In the 1930s, a performer named Gypsy Rose Lee emerged as one of the biggest stars at Minsky’s Burlesque in New York City, but headed for Hollywood to break into the movies in 1937. According to Sherill Tippins’ book “February House,” Lee made five films before quickly returning to the East Coast, where she became a successful mystery author. Her first book, “The G-String Murders,” became the basis for the 1943 Barbara Stanwyck thriller “Lady of Burlesque.”

Lee and others helped popularize burlesque in Los Angeles, but by the 1960s the art form was dying out fast. A fledgling nine-member union called The League of Exotic Dancers even held a meeting in 1955 to complain that L.A. performers earned some of the lowest wages of any American city — $85 a week, versus an average of about $125, according to The Golden Days of Burlesque Historical Society.

Call it the postmodern age we live in — a time after the mixing of Aerosmith and Run-DMC, the Beatles’ “White Album” and Jay-Z’s “Black Album,” Lou Reed and Metallica — but the kind of striptease act a Jayne Mansfield character might’ve done in a Frank Tashlin film has become suddenly relevant some 30 years after Mötley Crüe sang in “Girls Girls Girls” of “raising hell at the Seventh Veil.”

Both Turnage and Lamont point to movies such as 2010’s “Burlesque,” starring Cher and Christina Aguilera, and last year’s Baz Luhrman epic “The Great Gatsby” as contributing to a renewed interest in the art form.

“People have a love of the ‘20s. They love the flapper era,” Turnage said.

“It’s definitely exploded in the last five years,” Depina-Cordova said. “It’s a little bit more accepted now.”

TRiP’s Wiener says burlesque is rooted in tried-and-true elements of show-business.

“I can’t really provide statistics to back it up, but my feeling is that burlesque has always been pretty popular, as opposed to just being ‘hip’ right now,” Wiener said. “Think about it – music, [nearly] naked women and alcohol. Are those things ‘hip’? I’m more inclined to call them timeless sources of entertainment.”

But make no mistake, troupe leaders emphasize that the style of striptease showcased in burlesque is no longer a movement aimed at male titillation.

“The audience you get for burlesque shows has evolved. A lot of women and men come to these shows and it sparks in them the desire to do it themselves. It’s an empowering art,” Depina-Cordova said. “I feel humble and proud to share the stage with these women.”

“It really appeals to women. They appreciate the costumes, the choreography. More risqué back in the day, now it’s more like a show,” adds Turner.

To some degree, the old days of leering male gazes have been replaced by the admiring attention of females.

“Getting a compliment from a woman after a show is golden,” Lamont says.

For more information about the troupes and upcoming local performances, visit thedollfacedames.com, thelalas.com, harlowgoldshow.com and bootlegbombshells.com.

michael(at)argonautnews.com

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