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Burlesque is Back!

The Nudie Artist: Burlesque Revived
Ed Barnas
Dottie Lux by Leland Bobbé. Source:
Leland Bobbé, "Dottie Lux" 2009

Burlesque has been back for well over a decade. Resurfacing in small venues in the 90s and drawing a mix of performers, its vibrant performance scene has gained much wider notice in the last few years. Now the Museum of Sex has devoted the entire third floor to a multimedia exhibit to showcase the revival.

The exhibit starts with clips from the film ‘Behind the BurlyQ,’ a documentary featuring interviews with a number of the stars and performers from burlesque’s great heyday in the 50s and 60’s (before the rise of topless clubs leading to today’s “gentlemen’s clubs.”) Also on display are photographs and memorabilia– including a marked-up contact sheet from one of her pin-up shoots– from Mara Gaye, a burlesque performer who continued as a pin-up model after she left the stage.

Representing today’s burlesque scene are photographs by Leland Bobbé and drawings by Luma Rouge. Thirty of Bobbé’s color portraits from his ongoing series are on display, fourteen of them large, even life-sized, prints, representing a cross section of the New York burlesque scene (both performers and hosts).

They present themselves as they wish to be seen and invite the viewer to look. In most images their gaze is directed at the viewer - sometimes inviting, sometimes neutral, sometimes challenging. They are shot straight on in costume, from the thighs up. We see Little Brooklyn with the world’s largest underpants, Ms Tickle with her birthday cake, Nasty Canasta with her novelty eyeglass, nose pasties and merkin, Tigger in drag as Tawny the Tigress, and many others.

Veronica Varlow by Leland Bobbé. Source:
Leland Bobbé, "Veronica Varlow" 2009

In a few, the gaze is off to the side or down, directing the viewer’s eye to Clams Casino’s waving tassels or to Dirty Martini’s voluptuous body; these images caught my attention by their variation from the norm. Given the impact of the large prints, I wanted to see more of the smaller prints enlarged, particularly those of BB Heart, Dangrrr Doll, and Bonnie Dunn.

Over fifty drawings by Luma Rouge of live performances complemented Bobbé’s studio portraits and were shown in a room with amateur videos of performances. Done at stage side, Luma’s drawings beautifully abstract the essence of the performer in the act of performance - a difficult task, in some instances requiring several panels (e.g., Harvest Moon, seen also in one of the video clips).

I would have liked some live performance photography included to show how the studio persona translates to the stage. At the very least, better quality contemporary performance videos could have been found (the documentary A Wink and a Smile comes to mind but a number of others are available or in production.)

To make a musical analogy, it is like the difference between a live and a studio album. To provide a comprehensive overview, both should be included.

[In the interest of full disclosure (especially to you MoS) I should note that I am a photographer who has been documenting burlesque for a number of years, concentrating on live performances!]

The Nudie Artist: Burlesque Revived

The Museum of Sex
233 Fifth Ave.
Chelsea         Map

212 689 6337

Thursday, March 31 to
Sunday, June 26, 2011
Hours: Sun-Thurs, 10 to 8; Fri, Sat, 10 to 9

The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino
Making Caribbean Dance by Susanna Sloat
Central Booking Magazine
Soho Photo Gallery