by The Lady Aye
The galaxy is awash in Slave Leias—every con, every screening, every Halloween; it so fits into the male fantasy and cultural landscape it’s become a cliché, but when is the last time you saw a sexy Tauntaun? As the trend of nerdlesque or geeklesque* sweeps the scene, my challenge to you as performers is to think beyond the gold bikini and really dig deep in to your chosen material for the elements that are innovative, elucidating, and take your game to the next level. Geek chic is everywhere these days, from the T-shirt racks of your local mall to prime time TV, and nowhere is the mainstreaming of underground culture more prevalent than in the pop culture-sensitive field of burlesque. Further, while there is some really rich material here just begging to be examined and lampooned, there’s also the risk of producing a generation of acts and performers that are providing themselves and their audiences with shades of parody porn or cosplay, thereby removing the most innovative elements of the genre.
To be clear, this is not a knock against any one of the tropes or characters that are encompassed in the “geek” pantheon—I’ve seen any number of acts that transcend the source of their inspiration—it’s more of a test of the community to be wary of what is nuanced performance and what is just grabbing for low-hanging fruit. Part of my thinking about the rise of nerdlesque stems from the roots of my love for the genre as a whole. When I started producing and attending shows about ten years ago, one of the things I was struck by was the range of expression burlesque offered women in particular, more so than I had found in the male-dominated worlds of both rock and comedy, where even parody was dictated by the demands of the male gaze. New York burlesque, dominated by pioneering performers like Little Brooklyn, World Famous Bob, Julie Atlas Muz, and Bambi the Mermaid, on the other hand, served up archetype and expectation with a big comic side of in-your-face nudity. It was beyond refreshing for someone like myself, who’d spent years looking for others who shared her belief that comedy is a form of intelligence and a powerful statement for women. These performers managed to have their roots in the burlesque tradition of mocking conventional mores while simultaneously giving their work post-modern intent and a sense of zeitgeist.
My issues with nerdlesque come out of these standards for performance. I want every performer to think about what his or her act adds to the cultural conversation. If you are simply coopting or copying characters someone else wrote, drew or otherwise embodied and stripping out of a costume (no matter how accurate), you’re adding nothing. The addition of nudity in and of itself simply isn’t a comment or a layer of nuance in a genre popularly defined by the art of striptease. Further, it runs the risk of isolating audiences in a rush for obscurity, exactitude, and inside jokes. This is not to say that other aspects of burlesque don’t run the risk of becoming derivative, they certainly do (ask any veteran about the use of “Harlem Nocturne” or anything “Dita-inspired”), but engaging other people’s established characters raises the risk of seeming hack exponentially. Conversely, the task of doing it well is that much more admirable. Adding these layers of meaning and comedy is where the true artists separate themselves from the pack and involves asking oneself some fundamental questions about your source material and letting go of a measure of preciousness.
To me a great example of an act that works is Fem Appeal’s “Incredible Cook” act. It takes a well-known character and adds a fun twist and a whole lot of personality and sells the whole thing delightfully. The premise is simple: the Incredible Hulk becomes frustrated with making dinner and voila, the clothes come off. The costume is lo-fi, the foundation is quirky and there’s nothing really inherently sexy about an angry green woman, but the whole thing just works. Why? First, because Fem (as she does with all of her acts) completely commits herself to it as a physical comic, and audiences respond to that. She is not recreating a particular plot line or epic battle of the comic books or movies, and anyone with even passing familiarity with the character can enjoy it.
So how does this translate to performing nerdlesque specifically and burlesque in general? I think the lesson lies in asking some very basic questions before constructing your act. For example, would this act translate to an audience of the uninitiated? If not, then perhaps your focus is too narrow and you should think of ways to let the audience in. Ultimately burlesque is a performance art and every successful act fully takes the audience into consideration. Conversely, are there any worries about plagiarism or over-saturation in choosing a character? Then the act has been done before in some way and it may be worth thinking about fresher angles. This is a more complicated question, since one could argue there are a ton of grey areas when pursuing archetype (e.g., clowns, kittens, housewives, etc.), but it’s still worth considering if your chosen material could be worn thin by repetition— even if it is your pet subject. Lastly, is the act entirely dependent on the costume or set piece? I’d argue this is a distinction that extends through the entire genre, but like Batman, the work really hinges on your personality shining through and not simply shopping for the right hardware.
In the end, no matter what the form, neo-burlesque is powered by a brilliant DIY ethic and that construction has both its own triumphs and pitfalls as the practitioners dictate the content. I wouldn’t want it any other way, but I also want to encourage ongoing dialogue, hard work and a safe space for originality content and social critique.
Strip long and prosper!
*These words seem to be used interchangeably, both by performers and the mainstream press, so for the purposes of this article I don’t draw a distinction —L.A.
The Lady Aye is an award-winning sideshow performer, producer, and MC who has worked with everyone from Rob Zombie to Cirque du Soleil.
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