The year 2015 in New Orleans burlesque, circus and sideshow entertainment might go down as one of the more memorable in a scene that might be approaching a turning point. As producers sought more ambitious shows and performers sought greater exposure, the scene felt by year’s end like it was on the edge of something bigger.
Four of the top burlesque producers were emblematic of both the growth and challenges of the industry. Bella Blue, who in January was voted the No. 16 burlesque artist in 21st Century Burlesque magazine’s popular readers’ poll, was able to do the unthinkable and stage a weekly burlesque show, “Risq,” at Harrah’s New Orleans Casino. Trixie Minx, whose Fleur de Tease gave Bella Blue her start, launched her “Fantasy” show for an adults-only cruise. (She also ruled as the “Queen of the Insane” for krewedelusion and used the year to help promote the New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic.)
Both Minx and Blue enjoyed notable performances outside New Orleans — Blue as the featured performer at the international Boylesque Festival Vienna, and Minx (with Piper Marie) in “The Burlesque Show” at the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa in Atlantic City in late December.
Roxie le Rouge continued to build on her reputation as the most consistent exporter of the form by taking variations of her Big Deal Burlesque across the Southeast while continuing to perform with Fleur de Tease. Her Big Deal shows enjoyed increased attendance to the point of sell-outs.
Rick Delaup’s two regular shows — Bustout Burlesque and the 2014-launched Bad Girls of Burlesque, at the House of Blues and its Parish room, respectively — continued to draw large crowds. (Stupid Dope tabbed Bad Girls as “the most dope show in town.”) He marked Bustout’s 10th anniversary in 2015, and his 7th annual New Orleans Burlesque Festival broke attendance records while crowning Miss Stormy Gayle as the Queen of Burlesque. It came after the Bustout Burlesque regular’s return to New Orleans after spending the past few years in Los Angeles.
Even Miss Exotic World, the competition held at the annual Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekend, featured New Orleans connections. Former New Orleans performer Perle Noire, who earlier in the year finished second in the 21st Century Burlesque poll, finished as first runner-up. (A former Bustout Burlesque regular and Queen of Burlesque winner, she also returned to New Orleans to perform at Bella Blue’s “Risq” show.) Dallas’ Ginger Valentine, a frequent guest performer with Bustout Burlesque and who’s recreated the famous “Evangeline the Oyster Girl” act, repeated her 2014 finish as second runner-up.
But there were some challenges. Bella Blue’s attempt to bring drag and burlesque together on Bourbon Street hit a snag when news of the dismissal of performer Ruby Rage (presumably over her weight) from the “Blue Book Cabaret” lineup at Lucky Pierre’s led to Bella Blue ending her relationship with the club. Lucky Pierre’s closed later in the year. “Blue Book Cabaret” wound up at Bourbon Pub and Parade and remains there. She was successful with another burlesque/drag mash-up with “CREAM!” at One Eyed Jacks over Southern Decadence, inspiring her to do a similar show, “Touché,” at the Joy Theater for this year’s Mardi Gras.
Her weekly “Risq” show was shelved at Harrah’s over the football season, though there remains a chance it will return in 2016. Also, she found a permanent home for her New Orleans School of Burlesque inside the Healing Center on St. Claude Avenue. And as popular as the New Orleans Burlesque Festival has become, one African-American performer, Chicago’s Jeez Loueez, expressed concern after her experience as emcee for the “Bad Girls of Burlesque” show at the House of Blues. In a YouTube video, she discussed everything from the traditional aspects of the festival to the use of such black-culture dance forms as twerking — and the lack of performers of color. (This was in keeping with related issues raised by New Orleans performers right before the festival.)
And by year’s end, some performers complained about a lack of work in town, which could either be a blip or an indication the scene might be hitting another peek.
Still, 2015 remained a year of major highlights. Other aspiring producers brought a flood of new and possible annual shows to the stages over the course of 2015. Blue Reine’s seasonal “The Roux: A Spicy Brown Burlesque Show” became so successful that she announced on Jan. 1 that it will become a festival in September. This underscores Reine’s reign as New Orleans’ main host for shows featuring performers of color. Another performer, May Hemmer, launched her first-ever New Year’s Eve party, “A Gatsby Affair.”
Kali von Wunderkammer brought two new festivals, the Southern Sideshow Hootenanny and Storyville Rising, to town, while the Rev. Ben Wisdom teamed up with Little Luna and Ginger Licious for the wildly popular Snake Oil Festival at the Howlin’ Wolf. (That festival will return in 2016.)
Von Wunderkammer and Remy Dee each produced Katrina-themed shows in August — Dee with her “Home: “A Burlesque Tribute to New Orleans” and Von Wunderkammer with “Broken Levees, Broken Hearts” on Katrina’s 10th anniversary, Aug. 29.
Both The Society of Sin (led by Xena Zeit-Geist) and Picolla Tushy presented a flurry of themed shows throughout 2015. The Society of Sin tapped into nerdlesque with narratively driven shows such as “Dr. Who-Ha,” and Picolla Tushy created such literary-minded shows as “Summer Lovin’.” (“Dr. Who-Ha” will enjoy an encore performance at this weekend’s Wizard World Comic Con, Jan. 8-10.)
As burlesque continued to establish its foothold in the scene, the circus arts enjoyed a stronger presence as well, most notably through the work of producers LadyBEAST and Liza Rose and their tapping into a wide variety of performers. They were notably featured in LadyBEAST’s Cirque du Gras 2 during Mardi Gras and Rose’s monthly Fly Movement Salon, an incubator of circus arts performers. The pair also formed the all-female troupe Cirque Copine, which presented the popular “In Wonderland” show in Bywater.
(Bella Blue wasn’t the only performer to go international, either. Circus performer Clay Mazing performed overseas for Syrian refugees, first with Clowns Without Borders and later with his own Emergency Circus. And Magic Mike, the Fleur de Tease regular, competed in the 2015 FISM World Championship of Magic, held July 6-11 in Rimin, Italy.)
LadyBEAST and Rose plan more larger-scale productions in 2016 as the circus-arts performers and producers stake out a larger claim of territory in the wide and often hard-to-define world of variety performances. Stay tuned for more from them.
So what else to look for in 2016? Bella Blue promised a big announcement at her “Touché” show on Jan. 28, so there’s that. Trixie Minx always has something up her sleeve, as does Roxie le Rouge. Rick Delaup’s New Orleans Burlesque Festival will probably continue to be the biggest show in town.
But what should happen for New Orleans’ burlesque and circus scenes in 2016? What would it take to get burlesque mentioned in the same breath as, say, the city’s venerable music and theater scenes? What defines a successful burlesque scene? Regular work for its performers, or at least enough to keep them in New Orleans, might be a nice place to start. Performers, while on social media, constantly question whether they can keep doing what’s fun when they’re faced with mounting bills. Only a handful of the city’s burlesque artists do it as a full-time concern, and a vast majority of them spend a lot of emotional capital on moral support for one another. Musicians face a similar challenge, but when you’re literally bearing your body along with your soul onstage, it seems somehow different.
I’ll save my thoughts on what might make for bigger and better burlesque and circus scenes for a future post — mostly, frankly, playing off what the producers and performers might like to see. But based on private and on-the-record interviews, it would be nice to see, among other things, a scene with producers and performers working more collaboratively, both outside and within. I was reminded of comments by J.D. Oxblood, co-creator of Burlesque Beat magazine and frequent New Orleans visitor: “What’s most exciting about the New Orleans scene is the crossover with the drag community and recent attempts to move into traditionally tourist-dominated spaces. But like many cities, New Orleans seems to be dominated by just a few producers — who may be amenable to out-of-town performers, but less welcoming to outsider producers.”
It would be interesting to see how the scene plays out in 2016, and whether it continues to grow or suddenly plateau, but one thing is certain — growing exposure of what’s happening in the city can only benefit its performers and producers. That said, here’s a look at the “best of” in these two scenes.