by Michael Dale
While it remains to be seen if future generations will regard New York's fringier art community's revitalization and reinvention of burlesque dancing as Gotham's most significant artistic movement during the first decade of the 21st Century, there's no doubt that the sleaze-less strip tease has become this era's answer to performance art and beat poetry readings.
For the unintroduced, this has little to do with the entertainment offered by a typical gentlemen's club. Think more along the lines of venues that resemble Off-Off Broadway spaces and modest cabaret rooms where creative lasses sporting playful monikers like Anita Cookie and Little Brooklyn entertain both men and women in a cheerfully noisy, upbeat atmosphere. And while I won't pretend that seeing an attractive woman shedding her coverage down to pasties and a g-string isn't part of the draw, the focus of the routines is more on coming up with interesting scenarios, amusing characters and even making political statements.
This week I caught the jubilant fun in the back room of Chow Bar, where, on a tiny makeshift stage crowned by a Chinese dragon head, Calamity Chang hosts Dim Sum Burlesque every Sunday night. Dressed in classic black lace with bright red fringe, Ms. Chang, as her name suggests, brings to mind a saloon dancer who might have migrated from Asia to the American west in the late 1800s. Her bawdy sense of humor is delivered with perky enthusiasm, whether she's teaching an audience volunteer the proper technique for twirling tassels ("The harder you bounce the more they swing."), inviting another customer to nibble on a fortune cookie lodged in her cleavage or just filling time between acts by asking everyone how many times a day they masturbate. But when performing traditional burlesque fan dances to vintage recordings of "Shanghai Lil" and "St. Louis Blues" (both sung in Japanese), Calamity Chang is all willowy elegance as she demurely smiles at her fans, teasing their eyes with brief glimpses of skin beneath feathery veils.
Guest performers vary from week to week, although the first dancer of the evening is traditionally a "sacrificial lamb"; one who has never performed in New York. The lamb of the week this time was "boy-lesque" artist, Stanqi Sex, who, to the music of AC/DC's "Hell's Bells," entered in a floor-length beige dress ordered on line from a polygamy compound in Texas. While the customers could appreciate how stripping down to his red briefs represented a personal liberation from his own overbearingly religious upbringing, their loudest appreciation was for the display of the young man's fine physique.
Liberation from cultural oppression was also the theme for Dame CuchiFrita, who humorously portrayed an opium addicted sex slave (smoking a veeeeeery long pipe), who learns to unbind her feet from their silk ties, gracefully celebrating her freedom while a fan allows her robes to billow in the breeze. Statuesque redhead Miss Ruby Valentine wowed the crowd with her 1950s style fetish act, cracking a whip while showing off her curvy figure in a black corset, high boots and stockings. Vocalist Broadway Brassy was just that, belting out red hot sass with "Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean" and rocking out (with guitarist Michael Webb) to "He's a Magic Man."
In between acts, the evening's "stage kitten," Miss Gemini Rose, helped gather clothing and set up for the next performer, looking very lovely in an outfit I'm sure Actors' Equity would find impractical for their stage managers.
Throughout the month of January, Dim Sum Burlesque is offering a tremendous bargain, waving the $10 cover charge for all performances and eliminating the $25 per person food/drink minimum. (Tips for the performers, not mandatory but certainly appreciated, are collected by passing a hat.) It's a great way to sample the glamour, the playful sexiness and the boisterous fun of burlesque.
Top photo of Calamity Chang by Michael Webb; Bottom photo of Broadway Brassy by Jenny Bai.
After 20-odd years singing, dancing and acting in dinner theatres, summer stocks and the ever-popular audience participation murder mysteries (try improvising with audiences after they?ve had two hours of open bar), Michael Dale segued his theatrical ambitions into playwriting. The buildings which once housed the 5 Off-Off Broadway plays he penned have all been destroyed or turned into a Starbucks, but his name remains the answer to the trivia question, "Who wrote the official play of Babe Ruth's 100th Birthday?" He served as Artistic Director for The Play's The Thing Theatre Company, helping to bring free live theatre to underserved communities, and dabbled a bit in stage managing and in directing cabaret shows before answering the call (it was an email, actually) to become BroadwayWorld.com's first Chief Theatre Critic. While not attending shows Michael can be seen at Shea Stadium pleading for the Mets to stop imploding. Likes: Strong book musicals and ambitious new works. Dislikes: Unprepared celebrities making their stage acting debuts by starring on Broadway and weak bullpens.