For about 150 years, burlesque performers have had a tough time convincing critics and patrons that what they do is more than just striptease. Since the form emerged from earlier music-hall traditions, it has endured moral judgments and has even been outlawed. But burlesque is nothing if not resilient, and a contemporary wave of performers has revived and modernized the form. This week, an unusual event aims to take it one step further, by bridging the gap between burlesque and fine art.
Wipe that wolfish grin off your face and grab your sketchbook, pal. The show might be designed in part to titillate, but that doesn't mean it ain't art.
A variety show that combines burlesque with a life-drawing class, with the double-entendre title "Burlesque Sketch," arrives next Tuesday at Maglianero Café in Burlington's Karma Bird House. Its participants and planners have no doubt these two artistic modes were meant to cross paths.
Local software designer Marguerite Dibble organized the event. It started when her friend Maureen McElaney, who runs the Burlington tech outfit Girl Develop It, mentioned that a group of burlesque performers would soon be coming to Winooski's Monkey House. When Dibble recalled another friend's description of an event-based life-drawing class, she began to connect the dots.
Dibble's company gametheory (formerly known as Birnam Wood Games) recently vacated its offices at the Karma Bird House, but she maintains close ties with the building's owners, Michael Jager and Giovanna di Paola.
"I knew that the Karma Bird House was looking to do cool things with the space, and we'd been talking about doing life-drawing classes for a while," Dibble says. "I knew that the girls were going to be in town, and I thought, Maybe we could do a life-drawing show."
Fueled by free libations provided by Citizen Cider, artists will sketch away for about 90 minutes. A two-act performance will follow. Accomplished and novice artists alike are welcome; art supplies will be provided.
Inspired by Dr. Sketchy's Anti-Art School, a multicity "underground" movement that combines drawing classes with variety performance, Dibble contacted one of the visiting performers, sideshow artist Reggie Bügmüncher, who enthusiastically signed up her troupe for a second Burlington-area event. (The group's tour is called "Glamazons" — not to be confused with the plus-size troupe of singing, dancing women from New York City with the same name — and plays the Monkey House on Monday, July 14.)
By phone from her home in Philadelphia, where she's one-half of that city's venerable Olde City Sideshow, Bügmüncher (a stage name that's faux-haughtily pronounced "boo-moo-SHAY") clears up a few misconceptions about her act. The first such misconception: that it qualifies as "burlesque" at all.
"I'm a sideshow performer," she says. "I don't do burlesque, which usually involves taking clothes off." (Indeed, as Dibble notes, since the show will not involve nudity, no curtains need to be drawn over the building's large windows to conform to city ordinances.) Performer Kristen Minsky describes herself as a "flapper, tapper, and gal about town"; Sarah Egress plays music as she relates bawdy stories. Of the show's four performers/models, only Eyrie Twilight calls herself an ecdysiast, though she'll stop short of actually disrobing.
The troupe's two local performances are effectively modern-day vaudeville shows, in that they'll feature multiple, unrelated short acts of a wide variety of types. Attendees will see tap-dancing, hear ribald songs and witness Bügmüncher's own sideshow act, in which she walks on glass and conducts thousands of volts of electricity through her body, among other eccentric arts. She's particularly excited about the part of her act that involves an angle-grinder and a specially constructed metal bra.
Both Dibble and Bügmüncher stress that, since the performers' body types vary greatly, attendees' sketching skills will be put to the test. "It's not just great for sketching," says Bügmüncher, "but a great look at the diversity of female performers on one stage."
Though pixels are her primary medium, Dibble places great value on the skills she's learned in life-drawing classes. "When you start life-drawing, the first thing you do is get a sense of the basic movement and the core of the figure," she says. "A simple line, a simple gesture that conveys the figure's very essence. When you make a game, you start with your core mechanic, then iterate upon it ... accentuating that core and bringing it to life with additional features.
"If you can keep it simple, sharp and effective, and communicate as much as possible with as little as possible — that's a design skill across the board," she adds.
Though the evening's performers won't get down to as little as possible, they'll still provide aspiring artists with plenty of material.
Burlesque Sketch, Tuesday, July 15, 6:30 p.m., at Karma Bird House in Burlington. $10 advance, $12 day of show. Tickets at eventbrite.com.
The original print version of this article was headlined "The Art of Burlesque: A New Life Drawing Class Combines Pencil and Performance"