Burlesque may conjure visions of New Orleans’ Storyville and the Moulin Rouge, but Baltimore lays claim to a piece of burlesque history in its own right. Thanks to a group of young live performance lovers who are willing to put on their own shows and aren’t afraid to strut it, Baltimore still has plenty of burly today.
In the first half of the 20th century, local burlesque was centered on The Block, a section of the 400 block of E. Baltimore St. that included haunts like The Pussycat Club, The Gayety and Club Charles, according to a history contained within the spring MICA exhibition, Workin’ The Tease. The scene produced Blaze Starr, who became a national star and was famous for a routine called “The Exploding Couch” that involved smoke coming from between her legs, a floodlight and streamers shaped like flames. Despite exploits in clubs across the country and an infamous affair with former Louisiana governor Earl Long, Starr kept her roots on the Block by purchasing the Two O’Clock Club, where she continued to headline.
Eventually, movies and TV replaced burlesque and other live performance as the way to see a show, while strip clubs and sex shops eventually covered over the Block. But a group with a new love for live performance in the has led to a burlesque resurgence in the millennium. These days, shows take place at live performance havens across the city like the Windup Space, Ottobar and Creative Alliance, according to performer Nona Narcisse. Down the road, Washington, D.C., also boasts a thriving bustling burlesque community. The revival is rooted in burlesque’s past, but the shows today expand the boundaries of the art with subgenres like queerlesque and vaudeville. Narcisse began performing in New Orleans, where the importance of Storyville remains a strong touchstone.
“There is so much historical context and reference there. And jazz,” Narcisse said. “Although Baltimore has a lot of burlesque and jazz history as well, there is a lot less pressure to uphold a historic burlesque standard.”
In addition to the MICA exhibition last spring, the starlettes of the local scene was also the subject of a recent pictorial posted on Buzzfeed. The collection of images from local photographer Sean Scheidt show how some of the modern-day performers transform from their everyday personas to full-blown entertainers. Allowing viewers to to roll over the mouse to see the complete before-and-after transformation, the set of images don’t just show pasties for pasties sake.
Seeing a performer’s daytime persona turn into their alter-ego reveals the self-expression at the heart of modern-day burlesque. Performers can keep some characteristics around,while stripping others off on the stage. Fox Martin, changing styles from military private to pin-up in the slide of a cursor, shows that burlesque represents a chance to show a side of the personality that is dormant offstage, or perhaps just waiting to jump out from the couch.
In Narcisse’s estimation, the portraits also reveal the diversity of the local scene, from the spiders on Mourna Handful to Narcisse’s own Dia De Los Muertos-inspired getup.
“I think that the portraits show how creatively diverse the Baltimore and DC burlesque scenes are! There are only a handful of ‘classic burlesque glamour’ transformations there,” Narcisse said. “In both DC and Baltimore performers seem very free to explore any new material they want, and there are a lot of heavily themed shows, or ‘high concept’ shows as I like to call them, says Narcisse. “And the audiences can’t get enough of it!”
Check out Scheidt’s full pictorial at Buzzfeed.
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