On Baltimore Burlesque

Excerpts from Kay Sera’s interview with The Baltimore Chop on the art of burlesque and burlesque in Baltimore, specifically.

“…For the last several years one of the key driving forces in the burlesque scene in Baltimore has been producer and performer Kay Sera, [founding member of] the recently formed troupe Bawdy Shop Burlesque….We caught up with Kay recently to chat a bit about how she got started in Burlesque, the medium’s increasing popularity, and tomorrow’s show.

Hi Kay! So, burlesque has become fairly popular in recent years, especially among a certain younger, urban cultural/performing arts minded audience. Could you talk a bit about the background of modern burlesque and its increase in popularity?

The resurgence of burlesque—the “Neo-Burlesque” movement and style we see today, began in the 90′s and evolved in part out of the fetish and party scenes of NY and LA. Billy Madley and Tony Marando launched Dutch Weismann’s, an underground cabaret, which included performer Angie Pontani, who will be in Baltimore at The Ottobar with her tour, Burlesque-a-Pades.

In 1991, Dixie Evans, “The Marilyn Monroe of Burlesque” opened Exotic World in Helendale, CA to display the collection her friend Jennie Lee had amassed and in that same year, founded the Miss Exotic World pageant to attract visitors and attention to the fledgling museum.

In 2006 the collection relocated to Las Vegas as the Burlesque Hall of Fame and that same year, Baltimore’s neo-burlesque parents, Trixie Little and the Evil Hate Monkey, win Best Duo at the Miss Exotic World/Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekend event. From that point through today, burlesque has continued to thrive, to grow and to evolve as a performance art.

Part of its popularity is due to its inclusiveness. There is no “perfect body” in burlesque, no “look” that is right or wrong.

There are performers in their 20s and legends from the Golden Era still performing in their 80′s. Boylesque performers are welcomed, as are drag performers as well. Race, gender identity, sexual preference…there is no “norm.” It is a gender-positive, person-positive, sex-positive art form with a core consistent element: Transformation. Neo-Burlesque features dance styles from ballet to twerking. It showcases acting approaches from spoken word to mime. Some costumes harken back to glamorous showgirl styles, others foster a DIY spirit of creation.

Can you tell us a little about how you got started as a performer?

After seeing Trixie Little and The Evil Hate Monkey perform in 2006 at the Mobtown Theater, I was hooked as a fan. I loved the way they combined a playful approach with obvious performance and physical (dance and acrobatic) skill. But it was seeing the world renowned burlesque performer Dirty Martini that galvanized my interest in performing in burlesque. She defied my notion of what was “acceptable.” At that point in my life, I was still very body-conscious and had fallen prey to the media’s ideals of what I should look like. Dirty is, in the vernacular, a “big girl.” And she goes on pointe. She mesmerizes with her theatricality, her grace, her power. It was a revelation.

After taking a number of classes with local and visiting performers, including, of course, Trixie Little but also Indigo Blue (headmistress of BurlyCon) and Dr. Lucky (international performer and professor at NYU), I debuted at Washington DC’s now-defunct Palace of Wonders in 2009. My act was a fairly common transformation trope—I was a mummy, unwrapping myself. I have since seen many new performers call upon familiar archetypes at first. Mummy, mermaid, librarian, Little Red Riding Hood… and many successfully make these characters their own. But it can be challenging to bring something truly new to these stories of transformation.

Wanting to tell better stories through my performance is what keeps me interested and continues to inform and drive my acts.

What made you decide to start your own troupe? How has that experience been? How did you connect with or recruit the rest of the Bawdies?

Each of us comes from a theater background, so that common experience coupled with our love of burlesque drew us together. Sunny Sighed recruited us when her former troupe StickyBuns Burlesque disbanded amicably as its founder Paco Fish left Baltimore in March of 2013 to embark on his Burlesque Vanguard Tour.

We created the mission and values that would shape our work as Bawdy Shop, but each of us still performs as individuals with other troupes, other shows and other partners.

That freedom helps keep us vibrant and actively supports our desire to build awareness of and expand audiences for burlesque as well as for the live arts overall.

Bawdy Shop Burlesque is unique in that we are focused on creating original scripted shows. Burlesque shows are typically in a variety format, which is a wonderful way to showcase different performers and styles. Sometimes, burlesque shows have a theme; whether that is a pop culture reference like a specific TV show, or an evocative tone like dustbowl carnival. An emcee helps carry that concept through the performances.

Bawdy Shop Burlesque’s first show, Goin’ Downee Oshun! debuted at the Ottobar in August of this year and used the culture and stories of Charm City as its foundation. It was written as a play first, with burlesque routines then crafted to fit and further the narrative.

The recent October show at the Ottobar was a little more risqué than other Baltimore Burlesque shows we’ve seen. Is pushing the envelope a conscious part of bawdy shop’s strategy?

It is actually part of the Bawdy Shop Burlesque mission statement. “With the unique culture of Charm City as our muse, our shows strive to entertain and to engage, to challenge and to celebrate, to titillate and to tease, to push boundaries and to promote belonging.”

The acts that show something different, that do something other than was expected, those are the acts I want to see, those are the acts I want to be part of and certainly those I aspire to create.

I believe that art is obliged to challenge—not just audiences but itself—in order to evolve. Otherwise, we’d all still be doing classic bump-and-grind, strolling across the stage in gowns, languorously removing opera-length gloves and peeling off Cuban-heel stockings.

Is burlesque a full time commitment for you at this point? Would you like it to be? What are your goals for the future?

Although I am absolutely committed to it, it is a passion, not a position. It is a joy, not a job. The moment burlesque feels like “work” to me is the moment I’ll stop doing it.

My goal for the future is to bring new audiences to burlesque. It means to world to me to see fans’ familiar faces in the crowd. And it means even more when they bring someone new to the scene with them. Supporting live performance is important. Stepping outside of one’s home, outside of one’s comfort zone, outside of one’s own control, to experience new things is important. I’m honored to be part of that. It’s fun for me, and so most of all, I want to make it fun for you!”

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