When most people think of burlesque, they think of a stage show made up primarily of striptease acts. American burlesque of the 1930s and 1940s, however, was an art form that included so much more. A true vintage burlesque show had more in common with vaudeville than with the strip clubs of today. They were a variety show that had a saucy edge. The traditional burlesque show usually included a female chorus line, comedians, sketch comedy, singers, and burlesque dancers who would dance suggestively and tease the audience. The dance was about the tease, not about the stripping. Burlesque dancers, in fact, did not "take it all off."
Dance historian Rusty Frank explores the all of this in her new 2-DVD set "Learn the Art of Vintage Burlesque." These DVDs are a fascinating look at this art form. It includes archival film footage and photos from burlesque's glory days, discussions about the history and the people of burlesque, and even instructions for a burlesque routine you can learn at home.
Disk One of the set is broken into several sections and includes everything you could ever want to know about burlesque. For the first section, Rusty Frank has assembled several experts from all areas who share their knowledge with each other and the viewer. In this section Ms. Frank discusses burlesque with producer Allison Lizzi, German burlesque dancer Silvia Plankl, Hollywood choreographer Miriam Nelson, and comedian Nick Santa Maria. Many of the comedians and comedy sketches for which burlesque was famous are highlighted in this section. Nick Santa Maria provides facts, insight, and sometimes impressions of the comedians of burlesque. It is obvious he really loves this art form and he shines when he discusses the comedians and their bits. He covers it all, and in addition to Mr. Santa Maria's encyclopedic knowledge of burlesque comedy, this section is well supplemented by film clips and photos. Viewers may be surprised to find that many of their favorite old comedy routines, such as Abbott and Costello's "Who's On First," were originally burlesque sketches, or that many of their favorite stars from the early days of television, such as Milton Berle, Red Skelton, or Phil Silvers, got their start in burlesque.
The next section is a discussion of the burlesque show's more technical aspects. For this section, Rusty Frank, Miriam Nelson, and Allison Lizzi are joined by Hollywood art director and actor James Gray and artist and designer Joe Yakovetic. They discuss everything from sets and costumes to lighting to publicity. This discussion is fascinating and will be especially beneficial to anyone who is considering producing their own burlesque show. Joe Yakovetic is especially knowledgeable about Gypsy Rose Lee: her history, her style, her ability to always leave them wanting more.
The third discussion section of the DVD finds Rusty Frank, Miriam Nelson, Allison Lizzi, and Silvia Plankl talking about choreography and the production of a vintage burlesque show. Although Miriam Nelson was not a burlesque dancer herself, she has choreographed many burlesque-style dances for movies. She discusses her process as a choreographer, how she becomes familiar with the skill set of her dancers and lets the music guide her through the creation of the dance. Miriam Nelson is a Hollywood treasure and having her stories and input on this section of the DVD is priceless. Her stories are fascinating and insightful, not only in burlesque, but in Hollywood during this era and beyond.
This DVD also includes film clips demonstrating some of the principles of what had been covered in the discussion sections. There is a clip of Gypsy Rose Lee from the movie "Stage Door Canteen." This clip is a classic example of how this style of burlesque was not at all about the strip, but rather, about the tease. Throughout the clip, Gypsy Rose Lee modestly opens her collar, removes a hat, gloves, and some undergarments, but all the while stays completely covered from her collar bones to her toes. There is no bumping and grinding. Everything is very classy and elegant. This is followed by clips from "Hollywood Vanities" that demonstrate several classic burlesque comedy routines. These routines are a fine example of what the comedy sketches were like: entertaining and very silly.
Following the discussion sections and the film clips is a bonus feature with Nick Santa Maria and Will Ryan. The two discuss the comedy of Joey Faye. Joey Faye was a burlesque comedian who was responsible for many of the classic sketches. In addition to discussing his comedy, the two comedians read bits from archival scripts of Joey Faye's sketches.
The second DVD in the set focuses on a vintage burlesque dance that was choreographed by Miriam Nelson. This DVD starts with the finished product: The Burlesque Beauties performing the routine at the Cicada Club. This is followed by several sections of Miriam rehearsing with The Burlesque Beauties. She takes them through the dance, step by step, and focuses on the details of the dance. Not only is she making sure they perform the choreography correctly, she is making sure that they have all the little nuances and tease moments that is required of the dance. The dance is then demonstrated with gloves. The next section focuses on rehearsing the same routine with the addition of feather boas. It too is followed by a performance of the dance. For those who desire to actually learn the dance, there is a section in which Silvia Plankl walks the viewer through the choreography of the dance step-by-step, tease by tease. There are two additional sections in which Ms. Nelson discusses and demonstrates the use of feather fans and Chinese fans with Allison Lizzi. This is followed by a clip of Ms. Plankl demonstrating the dance with Chinese fans that was filmed in Ms. Frank's studio. The conclusion of the DVD set is a film of Silvia Plankl's burlesque students in Germany performing the original version of Miriam Nelson's routine in 2008. It was this routine and this class that was the impetus for Rusty Frank producing these DVDs.
"Learn the Art of Vintage Burlesque" is a departure for Rusty Frank and the type of videos she normally produces. She is known primarily as a Tap Dancer and Lindy-Hopper who has taken on the task of preserving these genres of dance and documenting classic routines while teaching the viewer how to perform some of these classic dance routines. It might seem odd that she has now moved into the world of burlesque. However, the era of burlesque's heyday is the same era when tap and swing were also at the height of their popularity. So, in a sense, it is very natural to include this genre in her DVD productions.
This 2 DVD set is packed with 3 hours material and information about this art form and is a must have for anyone who has an interest in the history of American entertainment.