Dirty Martini and the New Burlesque
I popped Dirty Martini and the New Burlesque into my laptop with my jaded, seen-it-all cynicism and was surprisingly surprised by how, um, surprised I was! Yes, I'd been backstage with just about every one of the performers but just because you've seen someone naked doesn't mean ya know 'em.
While the film focuses primarily on Dirty Martini, it explores the history of burlesque's revival through interviews with a number of local luminaries, including Tigger, Julie Atlas Muz, Jo Boobs, The World Famous *BOB*, Scotty the Blue Bunny and more. Mr. Beeber manages to get behind the tattered velvet curtains of the gritty Manhattan club scene and beneath the feathers and pasties of the performers themselves. Each speaks to the camera in a refreshingly honest way, making the viewer feel like a friend. We shop with Ms. Martini, meet her mother and sister, see into her past and learn what day to day life is like for the classically trained temptress.
Mr. Beeber's background includes a documentary about Coney Island Sideshow by the Seashore's "Bally-Master Scott Baker" and “Messenger.” His contacts in the sideshow world led him to Dirty Martini and to making this film. “I like to work with contradictions,” he told me over salsa on the Lower East Side. “Dirty was everything I thought burlesque was not: well-spoken, professional.” Gary was charmed by the tightly knit community of dancers and somewhat astonished by Ms. Martini's peers' complete inability to find anything negative to say about her. It's true; the burlesque scene is insular and interdependent. These people are members of a close, self-selected family.
My belief that the there had always been a performance art component to the “movement” is confirmed by the film. I was living in New York for this nascent period of burlesque's renaissance and was lucky enough to be in the audience, as well as backstage, to see it all unfold. It didn't hurt that there were a few venues where women were encouraged—or permitted, depending upon your viewpoint—to truly express both their creativity and their sexuality. I recall seeing women getting naked in what could've been considered simultaneously appealing and appalling displays at The Blue Angel, Billy's Topless and Pyramid back in the day. All-girl noise band Thrust was spraying their audiences with giant vaginas. Velocity Chyaldd was wrapping herself in raw meat and Saran Wrap. And The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black was making blue body-painted nudity anything but sexy. It was all pre-Giuliani and a very exciting time to be in the city, the perfect environment for incubating a revival of the wonderfully bawdy burlesque.
Each of the film's stars has had a featured role in shaping this “new” burlesque, not just in New York but across the country. While Dirty Martini may have been inspired by stage legends Lily St. Cyr, Dee Milo and Dixie Evans, women learning to twirl their tassels today are inspired by Ms. Martini. Through the film's interviews, we are given a brief history lesson of how burlesque's resurgence has arrived where it is, from the mid-'90s and The Red Vixen to The Slipper Room today. We see Dirty's history as well, from elementary school ballet classes to East Village drag clubs, where she honed her stage persona. “Burlesque was the extension of drag,” she says, “and it was something for a [biological] woman to do.”
There is, of course, conversation about Ms. Martini's size—a voluptuous 16, thank-you-very-much—including how we should have moved on to a point where it's no longer a conversation. But if she were an unremarkable size 8 she simply wouldn't be as sexy, or nearly as big a star, as she is. Each featured performer discusses their take on body image and definitions of sex appeal, beauty and self-confidence—all of which Ms. Martini embodies in a richness that you won't find in Hollywood. There are definitely some poignant moments when Dirty discusses the down sides of being larger than life—metaphysically as opposed to physically—though there are up sides, however, most importantly having a wildly interesting life, populated with similarly larger than life friends.
As “the art of the tease” has transitioned from an underground oddity to a worldwide phenomenon many of the performers have become international stars. Ms. Martini and Ms. Muz recently graced the red carpet in Cannes as co-stars of Tournee. Ms. Martini co-starred in John Cameron Mitchell's Shortbus. And the Burlesque Hall of Fame's annual competition for the tiara of Miss Exotic World went from a little-known poolside pageant in Helendale, California, to its current incarnation as a glittering Las Vegas extravaganza. To seasoned tassel-twirlers, Cher and Christina Aguilera are late to the party with their upcoming film Burlesque. One can only hope that when the movie comes out it will mean more work for the dancers who've revitalized the genre.
Mr. Beeber's work promoting the film has practically turned him into Ms. Martini's booking agent. In addition to screening the movie to enthusiastic audiences, he loves to present live dancers and hopes to produce a Broadway-scale show starring the nation's top-billed burlesquers. Also in Mr. Beeber's future is a documentary on B-movie cult wildcat Tura Satana. Keep an eye out for both!
Dirty Martini and the New Burlesque premieres at the Abrons Arts Center on June 13th, with a live show emceed by Murray Hill and performances by many of the movies' colorful characters. Toss on a boa and join New York's legends of the new burlesque!
Photo of Dirty Martini in the spotlights by Ted D'Ottavio
Photo of Dirty Martini en pointe courtesy of Dirty Martini