Weeks 61-62 – My Last Leg
I came to Tucson to explore my future home, to get my bearings, and to try to get comfortable. Instead, I spent nearly a month’s worth of living expenses repairing the brakes in my van and growing increasingly anxious about my future. I found Tucson to be more sprawling than I remembered it and yet still a smaller town than I thought. I found a burlesque community divided like Verona with two houses, both alike indignantly, with ancient familiar grudges and blood allegiances. There are floaters and peacemakers, and hopefully no one will have to die to reconcile, but short of a Shakespearean-level tragedy, I don’t see it happening and I fear I’ll be swept into it. I also found an inescapable sweltering heat. This wasn’t a surprise, and it’s actually not so bad, but since I hadn’t lined up a place to stay, sleeping in the van was tough. It got down to about 80 degrees at night, so it was possible, but uncomfortable. To solve this problem, I drank myself to sleep as often as necessary.
I also found some good things. Although the burlesque community is struggling with personal drama, the level of performance across the board is exciting, and I’m looking forward to creating quality work with the people here. I also enjoyed some of the social life that Tucson has to offer and am making connections with people that I expect I shall be able to honestly call “friendships.” So that’s exciting. I am looking forward to developing that this summer and beyond.
But the tour wasn’t over yet. I still had one personal journey into natural beauty and one social journey into unnatural beauty to complete first. And so I spent four nights camping in Zion National Park with my friend, Rich, and four nights doing it up at the Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekend. The experiences couldn’t have been more different except in the fact that they were both exhausting. In Zion, I biked and hiked, climbed to the top of Angel’s Landing, leapt off of rocks into cool emerald pools of Virgin River, had deep campfire conversations about my deepest desires and fears, grilled and ate steaks on open flames, indulged in fine beer, wine, and locally-made icecream, and gazed at stars so numerous and bright that I couldn’t recognize any constellations (though I spotted Saturn, Mars, Jupiter, several meteors, and even saw the International Space Station pass overhead). It was nourishing for my soul and temporarily restored a much needed sense of peace and belonging, which had been eluding me as sixty weeks of traveling trailed behind me, and several weeks of vulnerable uncertainty loomed ahead.
After dozens of miles of hiking in the summer sun, and not so much sleeping, despite the cozy accommodations of Rich’s RV, I was completely worn out. I drove like a zombie to Vegas, and when I arrived and checked into the room, I went promptly and deeply to sleep for a three-hour nap. Rich and I had driven across the country to BHoF two years earlier, which was part of the inspiration for me to do my year-long van tour, and one of the things we learned was that an extra day to recover before the shenanigans began was essential. Even after my long nap, Rich and I hung by the pool until the sun went down, and then went to bed early. I took a sleeping pill just to be sure and I’m glad that I did. Once my sleeping schedule gets set, it’s very difficult for me to break it. I get very tired if I stay up late (and very cranky), but I still awake early in the morning, regardless of how tired I am, and then I can’t get back to sleep. This didn’t make BHoF very easy for me.
When the Houston contingent of Dem Damn Dames, their associates, and the crew that’s filming a documentary about them arrived on Wednesday, the party was on. Most of them had never been to BHoF, and many of them had never been to Vegas before, so we got a couple drinks in us and headed out to get the Fremont Street Experience. If you’ve never been, it’s not particularly interesting, just a bunch of colored lights, loud music, and drunk people. But if you’re with the right drunk people, the colored lights are pretty, and the loud music will have you dancing in the streets with Asian tourists taking pictures and filming videos of you. Such was the case with Dem Damn Dames and we had a grand time. When we got back to the Orleans, we found Miss Poison Ivory and MC Newman and someone mentioned that it was $1 bowling after midnight, so we bought a couple lanes and a couple more rounds of beer. At around three in the morning, Norm Elmore and Melody Mangler showed up, who were among the first new friends I made at my first BHoF in 2009. That was their first BHoF too, and it was the year that Melody won Best Debut. I was very excited to see them. In July I had had the opportunity to hang out with Norm at a punk rock karaoke (which is the only kind of karaoke I can enjoy) in Vancouver, but Mels was out of town at the time, so I hadn’t seen her in a year. Drunkenly, I tried to remember how we met and she reminded me that it was in that very same bowling alley in adjacent lanes. We reminisced and sang each other’s praises and I was very excited for my impending fourth round of BHoF memory-making (fuzzy memory-making, anyway).
The next morning, sure enough, I awoke early, but not hungover. I went to the gym to work off the previous night’s calories, and then to the pool for a little sun and dip. I loved seeing everybody trickling in and the hotel slowly filling up with glamorous people, resulting in my growing excitement. Unfortunately, my excitement grew too fast for my body and by the time the show started I was too tired and cranky to really enjoy it. My anxiety about the future started spilling into my psyche and I started to feel like maybe I should just give up on burlesque. Since the completion of my new act for the Lyric Opera House show—the culmination of a decade-long dream—I had neither been inspired nor motivated to create or even think about any new work. I was disenchanted with burlesque. Even the Movers, Shakers, and Innovators Showcase did little to revive my spirit. All of the acts were good, but very few of them were really inspiring. There were a lot of clever elements, including technology like electro-luminescence, LEDs, and hidden automatic balloon-inflators, or puppets, and magic tricks. They were all cool, but even with the use of illusion, I didn’t feel like a lot of magic happened.
Some did, though. Sizzle Dizzle, in particular, performed a piece in a hospital gown, dragging an IV drip stand around with her on stage. She didn’t mock the sick; she brought and maintained a spirit of joy. It brought temporary peace to my agitated heart. A friend of mine once said of a performance he saw that it gave him “a false sense of security,” and I understood that it was the highest praise he could have given. A little muddled in his language, he meant was the same thing that I felt during Sizzle’s act: for a few minutes, I felt like everything was going to be okay. It was transportive, a true celebration of life. In the end, when she removed her wig to expose a bald head, it was, as burlesque should be, a revelation.
James and the Giant Pasty also performed an act that was a celebration of life, but in a more general sense. As a tree, he experienced the loss and withering of autumn, dropping leaves detaching from his long brown opera gloves. When his rubbery-looking wood-patterned tree trunk dress fell to a shimmering white icicle-crystalline flapper dress, he cowered, cold and suffering through winter, and in the end warmed, grew, and opened with a blossoming flower on his lowest bough. ‘twas lovely.
But the final performance of the night created a unique kind of magic. It was Ray Gunn’s step-down performance as King of Burlesque and, as often seems to be the case with step-down performances, it was an act that would never have been accepted if submitted to the Burlesque Hall of Fame selection committee, but revealed a greater range of creativity by the artist than the kinds of things that win festivals. In this instance Ray Gunn portrayed Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky poem. He didn’t, like most interpretations of the Jabberwocky I’ve seen, merely portray the creature described in the poem, but rather embodied the poem itself and the spirit within it. The Jabberwocky poem is an exploration of absurdity and a celebration of the power of imagination. Many of the words themselves are completely nonsensical and signify nothing inherently, but given the semblance of order and context, incredible visions of monsters are produced. Ray’s costume, likewise, was an assemblage of words on scraps of white fabric that gave the suggestion of a character, but none we could relate to, except by projecting our own meaning onto it (like I’m clearly doing here, ha!). The production, consisting of video projection of morphing words, harsh white lights focused in sharp beams against dark space, an extra elevated platform, and a seemingly disjointed series of sounds, coalesced to manifest something larger than the sum of its parts. That’s what magic is. That’s what the poem does. And that’s what Ray did. It was his vision, and it was unique. In much the same way that a Rorschach test is a completely meaningless launch pad for the viewer’s vision, so the poem inspired Ray Gunn to manifest his imagination to become whatever it was he wanted to be. It was a projection of himself as an artist, as a creator, and it was very satisfying. It was dark and grotesque and pained and proud and bright and beautiful.
Despite this magical experience, I felt more ready than ever to give up on burlesque, possibly even on life. I felt so defeated by my existence. I felt like everything I had worked for had brought me to a situation of near-destitution, and that the last leg of my tour had worn me down to my last leg to stand on. I felt like I wanted to die, but I settled instead for death’s minor cousin and went hurriedly to sleep.
In the morning I was awoken by and reunited with a friendly face. The Lady Josephine was supposed to be my roommate at BHoF last year, but was denied access to the country, in part on account of her coming to meet me in Vermont last April to tour together. I hadn’t seen her in over a year and it was a delight to wake to her face. This was her first BHoF, so I spent the afternoon taking her around to get her acquainted and groceries. Having finally gotten a good night’s sleep and spent a day relaxing, I was able to enjoy myself on Friday night. But not only that, the Legends Showcase might have actually saved my life. Watching it, I felt acutely aware of my youth and naiveté. I’m 32 going on 13. Sometimes I feel like I have the whole world figured out, but watching these amazing women each twice my age, so joyfully celebrating and being celebrated for their lives, I realize that I’m not even halfway to where they are. I could live my whole life again in the time that it would take to know what they know, to see what they’ve seen, to be who they are. I don’t know what I’m doing with my life, and that scares me. There are things that I want that I don’t have—a clown to love and live and learn and grow with, who feels the same way about me and is free to share that, or enough money to buy or even rent the security of not having to beg, borrow, or steal my next meal—but all I really need from life is to have it. All I really need is one moment that’s so beautiful that it makes everything else—all of the fear and insecurity, and drama, loss, pain, longing, loneliness, and sadness—worth it. I needed one moment that revealed all of the splendor and love and joy, compassion, pleasure, beauty, and magic of life and being alive. And I got it. I got it over and over and over as each of these magnificent, sparkling human women displayed, revealed, and gave with unending generosity their hearts to us. They said, “I am alive. I am here. I am legend… and hello.”
I have no grandparents; I know no children. I am rather estranged from my family and also from my friends. I forget myself because I see only myself. These women made me remember, by letting me see them, that I am, and we are, alive. They made me want to celebrate that fact. And so I did. I got drunk and danced at the after-party until I burned holes in my feet. I said, “yes,” and went to the after-after-party. I saw my friends. I met new ones. I finally was drawn enough outside of myself to become part of something, instead of just observing. I had fun. For one night, I lived.
The following day, I took some of the Houstonians to the Burlesque Hall of Fame museum. I was tired from partying but still waking up early and I tried to take a nap when we got back but it didn’t work. Instead I jumped into the shower, sucked down a cup of coffee and dashed off in time to attend the clown-themed wedding of Laika Fox and Holly Von Sinn. We were locked out of the place where the ceremony was supposed to be so we ended up holding it in the hallway by the elevators, making a beautiful mess of the place, each other, and things. It was ridiculous and stupid, as a clown wedding should be. After the service, one bride threw her panties and the other threw her bra; each were caught by two of us, so next year, we’re planning a four-way clown wedding between me, Mary Strawberry, Tifa Tittlywinks, and Donatella MeLies. Next time, I bet we can stupider.
Then it was time for the show! Oh, the show… Overall, I thought it was a notch down from the year before. In the debut category, there were a few acts I could have done without, some of which my memory already has. I know that it’s unfair of me to judge performers based on their bodies, but I have to admit that I was a bit bored with the repetition of so many long-legged skinny dancers (and I love long-legged skinny dancers) but was relieved when I saw a woman with curves. I meant that more as a reflection on the selection than on the women themselves, who cannot help how nature made them. Despite a few disappointing performances, there were several that were very good. The act that won deserved it; Bonnie Fox gave one hell of a performance. It was energetic, entertaining, gorgeous, and sexy. Actually what it was perfect. It wasn’t my personal favorite act, but I’m a weirdo and I like weird stuff. Still, I was satisfied with her win. It was BHoF.
Jeez Loueez also really, really killed it. The lighting operator was a bit slow, so Jeez’s entrance onto stage with a side aerial flip was almost invisible. But from there, she rocked that house, alternating cool kid badass machismo in leather and a black and red Mohawk with androgynous sexy grinding sensuality. She’s known as the Powerhouse of the Midwest, and as such aptly filled that room with energy so furiously that she received a standing ovation on her exit. And then she came running back out and gave some more, bringing the crowd to their feet again on her second exit. And then she came back out again, kicked some more ass, and received her third standing ovation in four minutes with two false exits. Damn, girl. I only wish I had thought of it first.
My personal favorite act of the debuts, though, was performed by Voracious V as a space queen. She really expertly used her body and movements to build tension and then seductively melt it away. I found myself being taken on that journey with her, each time being drawn further in. Her costume was beautiful and original, with sharp metallic lines and angles, coupled with panels of flowing fabric billowing from her hips. I adore these kinds of juxtaposition. The panels of her skirt also detached to become fans, which she used beautifully, before transforming them back into a costume piece as a regal collar. I loved it. Repurposing costumes as props and vice versa gives the audience the experience of making assumptions and judgments about something, and then being forced to reconsider them. I believe this is important, and V really pleasingly gave us that experience.
The group category, which consisted of three duets and one trio, was my favorite section of the show. Each of them was exquisite in its own way. The Land of The Sweets was a luscious piece of erotic theater, consisting of two male servants to some kind of goddess figure. I would have liked to have seen more narrative of the servants’ relationship to either each other or to their mistress, as they did somewhat feel like human props in her story, but hers was the story to which we were treated. Next, Kitten ‘n’ Lou performed a duet as a disco couple drinking Drano (for some reason). I didn’t understand why Lou was feeding Kitten Drano, but I quickly dismissed it when the talent of comedic and choreographic timing whisked me away through a shatteringly entertaining routine. Equally skilled, but more subdued, were Lola Frost and Rita Star as a flapper couple. Rita was adorable as a man, and Lola was, as always, a pleasure to watch. It was just so damn cute. The pairing of two gender-bending time-period style-specific dance duets back to back was delightful. But nothing could have prepared me for the adorable ridiculousness of Circus de Moccos, from Japan. To quote Norm Elmore, “what would we do without Japan?” Gilbert de Moccos and Coppelia Circus played a pair of clowns in black jumpsuits and bright red afro wigs. They seemed to approach burlesque from a completely different perspective than North Americans, one where the sexuality is an inherent and almost accidental component of everything else that they do, rather than either a goal or a starting point. It’s less dirty and more playful when they do it. It’s more innocent. And I loved every moment of it.
By contrast, the troupe section was my least favorite part of the show. Everyone performed very well, but none of it really felt like it had much soul to it. Don’t Blink Burlesque had probably the most, as four women shakin’ they asses to Sir Mix-A-Lot. It was very well structured and fun to watch, but didn’t really do much for telling any kind of story, or revealing anything new. Similarly each of the other troupes danced and stripped as collections of sailors, maybe, or people with umbrellas, or pretty dresses in the colors of the rainbow. It all just felt kind of trite and obvious. Honestly I could have done without the whole category.
The King competition was good, but not of the level of last year. Mr. Gorgeous did what we love him for, which is being an exaggeration of his true personality, but the act had more emphasis on structure and use of his props than what I really wanted to see, which was him. Trojan Original performed a very seductive tease with a red sarong that he never let slip to reveal his privates, even at the end when he walked off leaving us unfulfilled. It was a terrific exercise in tease, but was more suited to small cabaret than to the grand showroom. Eddie Van Glam, as Macho Man Randy Savage, performed his heart out, running and jumping and sliding on his knees across the stage. He fully committed to his character and to showmanship and gave a really fun performance, but lacked the finesse required to really charm a crown out of the judges. And Paris Original performed as a beautiful blue mythical creature, murdered disturbingly, and rising again as a red phoenix-type version of itself. It was a gorgeous costume, ingeniously transformed, but choreography never reached the depth of emotion that the costume and story called for. These may be nitpicking comments, though, because the performances really were all great, just maybe not sublime.
The Queen Competition was as varied as the show was long, which is to say quite, but not overwhelmingly. The second and first runners up were both very classic, very beautiful, and very sexy, sparkly strip teases, but as I mentioned earlier, I’m a weirdo, so neither of them was in my top three. The three standouts to my mind were Midnite Martini, who became our Queen, Melody Mangler, and Ophelia Flame. Midnite’s act was brilliant. She had an eye to production value, opening the curtain to reveal her dramatically suspended in blue fabric, with her legs spread and draped to the floor as if she were on stilts. When she drew back the fabric, she revealed a stepladder as the first of several clever surprises. She then proceeded to use the ladder as a kind of horse for acrobatic magic trickery. The thing that I love so much about Midnite Martini is the thing that I so loved about Voracious V’s act, which I so loved about Tansy’s performance two years ago. Midnite consistently considers objects the rest of us take for granted, and discovers new ways of viewing and using them. Last year she combined feather fans and opera gloves into feather-fingered gloves. This year, she reimagined the capabilities of an ordinary stepladder, and its relationship to other aerial apparati. She even reimagined stocking pulls into a signature move, and then reimagined that to do it fully inverted on the side of a ladder! It’s that kind of ingenuity that I want in a Burlesque Queen. And we shall have it.
Similarly, Melody Mangler presented as a Puritan goodwife, with an enormous petticoat under her black dress belying her beautiful figure beneath. But when she removed it to the tune of Season of the Witch, the understructure inverted to become not just new costume and props, but even scenery, as she flipped flames up and around her. But her performance was not just the grace of great costuming ingenuity. Her presence on stage was precise, perfectly promising a heart and mind full of unrepentant lust for unholy pleasure. I hesitate to be swayed in my imagery by the obvious connection to hers, but falling in line with her performance, I’m giving in to temptation. Her performance was hot as hell and she set the stage ablaze. It was flawless and exquisite.
And then there was Ophelia Flame. Before the show started I expected her to win. She’s competed several times before and is one of the performers I consider to be among the “world class.” A few months ago, Jo Boobs was trying to describe to me something that the legends have or do in their performances, but none of the rest of us seem to grasp. She couldn’t really put her finger on it, or tongue I guess, but it had something to do with nonchalance, I think. I watched the legends performances with that in mind and I saw it, but I can’t quite identify it either. In the Tournament of Tease, I saw it again in Ophelia Flame’s performance. It may be patience, but that’s not all of it. It’s power and self-possession. It’s like Chili Palmer’s character said in Elmore Leonard’s Get Shorty, “I own you, but I don’t feel one way about it or another.” Ophelia performed with complete authority, where the rest of us still seek approval from the audience, as if she were saying, “I’m doing this. You can watch if you like.” And of course we do, because we want to, but she doesn’t deign to try to make us want to; she just does. When I watch her perform, I feel like I’m completely powerless, just a thing in her pocket. That’s absolute power and she has it.
Sunday morning I rose early to do a photo shoot with the amazing Eli Schmidt, a photographer shooting a series on male burlesque performers, whom I met at the pool on day one. Afterwards I had breakfast with a bunch of wonderful Canadians and I spent an hour at the pool party before popping off campus for the wedding of Peekaboo Revue’s Cherry Bomb and Kevin Bagby. It was a delightful wedding full of wonderful people. I love the Peekaboo Revue family. They are some of my favorite people I have ever known and I’m grateful to have been invited to their intimate and special occasion. Sadly, I had to flee the wedding, just as I had to flee the pool party, to make it back in time for the Sunday night show, which was great.
The first act was Koko La Douce, whom I had never seen outside of the film Burlesque Assassins, and I was completely blown away. She was marvelous, performing a balloon dance, within a balloon dance, within a balloon, with a bubble, and a big confetti-filled balloon. Trixie & Monkey did a really animalistic sadomasochistic duet that dripped with sex and Tigger! mimed a striptease and fan dance from an already naked state. There was one act that it took me a little while to figure out, and that was Captain Kidd’s traniwreck act. He was in drag, but in grotesque fluorescent green drag and unshaven, chewing gum obnoxiously and flipping his ill-fitted bad wig overdramatically over his shoulder. I kind of hate that drag notion of a ‘hot mess’ being charming. I would much rather see a drag performer have her shit together. But before long I came to believe that Captain Kidd felt the same way as me and was mocking the whole trashy diva business because of how incredibly exaggerated it was. The thing that sold it was that when he was hooping, his tricks were sharp and successful, rather out of keeping with his character. It felt to me like he was saying, “be a hot mess if you feel like, but you’d better be able to back your shit up when it comes to the test.” And I salute him for saying it. Good on ya, mate! I don’t think there’s anything charming about being crap, and if that’s not what he was going for, at least that’s what I got out of it.
After the show, I got some food with the Canadians (I love those Canadians) and then hung out for a while. I tried partying, but I was a bit worn out from the weekend. It turns out I was worn out from more than just the weekend. I was worn out from camping, and from the week I spent sleeping in a van in Arizona in late May. I was worn out from living in a car on and off for fourteen months. I was worn out from waking up in a different place on Monday than I went to sleep on Friday. I was worn out from worrying about money, my career, and my future. I was worn out from smiling, and from crying. I was worn out from working out and from stretching, and from driving and pushing myself to see how long I could stand living homeless. It had been 62 weeks of traveling, even if I wasn’t traveling that whole time. But I was. I was without a home. I was without a place I could feel safe without fearing that someone was going to break in and steal everything I owned and could not replace. And so, when I left Las Vegas and the Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekend on Monday morning, without even really having said goodbye to most of the people I knew there, I felt only a little bit of regret, far more filled with a sense of relief. It was over. Now, it was really over. I was going home. I drove all day Monday, arrived in Tucson late in the evening, unloaded the essentials, and flopped into what is now, at least for the next two months, my bed… in my home. And I felt relieved that my last leg, indeed the whole damn thing, was over. It was the relief I craved in my seat at the show on Thursday night. It was time for me to give up and go home.
Now it’s over. And now I’m home.