LET THEM ENTERTAIN YOU Keri King, Bettysioux Taylor, and Lady Miss Iris. Photos: BY RICHARD MCCAFFREY
It's just before 9 pm on a frigid Saturday, and the basement-turned-green room of the Perishable Theatre in Providence is positively swarming. Dozens of women (and a few men) in various states of undress chat with, scuttle past, and occasionally trip over each other in the cramped space as they prepare for Perishable's annual burlesque benefit, Jingle Belles and a Few Balls.
A woman clad in nothing but pasties and underwear is having her entire body slathered in green body paint in preparation for an outer space-themed act. The sheer volume of glitter in the room is astounding: it's on the floor, on the walls, glinting from the couch cushions, and it's definitely on the ladies.
This is Providence's burlesque revival, and from the looks of the flurry of activity here — and, minutes later, the show's enthusiastic, sold-out crowd — the movement is showing no signs of slowing down.
At the center of this particular room, and the revival in general, is a pixie-like 36-year-old known as Lady Miss Iris (like most of the other performers who spoke to the Phoenix, she prefers to use her stage name). Back in 2001, Iris became Providence's first neo-burlesque performer, and now she's the de facto den mother to the city's dozens of soloists and groups, coordinating shows like Jingle Belles, in addition to training new crops of dancers with her weekly class at Perishable, "From Bumps to Boas: Building Burlesque."
The way Iris explains it the following day, on the phone driving from Providence to Massachusetts on a quest for a particular shade of green eyeshadow ("there's a burlesque errand for you!," she giggles), burlesque is a combination of dance, comedy, music, and — yes — striptease, rooted in vaudeville traditions but now enjoying an undeniable rebirth, both here in Providence and nationwide.
While there are certainly a few hallmarks of the genre — cheeky humor, music, movement — beyond that basic framework, burlesque performance itself can take many different shapes. As Keri King, whose Danger Danger Birds first came on the scene in 2005, explains, "We look like many different things to many different people, and each show and each group is different."
Some burlesque troupes treat their acts more like skits, while others focus more on the dance and music aspect of the art form. Some dancers have distinct personas they stick to throughout every performance. Some acts, like King's, change costumes and characters with each new show: "We've been synchronized swimmers, mod assassins, flappers, and other times we've pulled more from a circus tradition or a vaudeville tradition."
'FEATHERS AND SEQUINS AND SMILES AND CONFETTI'
Take Jingle Belles, for example, which features more than a half-dozen acts. Some performances are completely silent, a miming of sorts, while others are so dialogue-heavy they resemble stand-up comedy routines. There are robots, aliens and elves, and the audience — which runs the range from college students to older couples — is eating it up, hooting, hollering, and laughing out loud at every turn.