Dr. Lucky PHD is a professor of burlesque. She teaches at NYU and has lectured at MICA, Penn State, SUNY and BurlyCon. Not only is Dr. Lucky a scholar of burlesque, but she is also a performer of note, having hosted and headlined in major festivals including Helsinki Burlesque Festival, Burlesque Hall of Fame, Toronto Burlesque Festival and New York Burlesque Festival. Dr. Lucky has just released her latest book, Neo-Burlesque: Burlesque as Transformation, which has been hailed as a “thorough exploration of the genre” by Dita Von Teese. I had the pleasure of chatting with the delightful Doctor from her home in New Mexico.
BT: How would you describe your book?
DL: My book is a focused case study of seven innovative performers and themes that emerged in the early Neo-Burlesque scene in New York City.
BT: When was the early Neo-Burlesque scene?
DL: I would argue that burlesque, as we practiced it in New York, and continue to practice it, actually has its roots in Avant Garde theatre and nightclubs. But the burlesque we know today sort of started in the mid-90’s.
BT: Do you think there was a spell where there was no burlesque until the ‘90’s? Clearly burlesque has been around for hundreds of years but my guess is it died in the ‘70’s. Is that true?
DL: That’s what scholars argue. But actually, the research that I’m doing now is looking at the nightclubs in the late 1970’s and early ‘80’s. Back then, performance art that was all about parody and using the body in explicit ways. Think of someone like Karen Finley, at a nightclub at two o’clock in the morning, doing her performance art, stripping all her clothes off and pouring chocolate all over her body. That might not have been read as “burlesque” at the time. But I think that has a lot to do with the type of performance that emerged in the New York City Neo-Burlesque as we know it today.
BT: So how would you say Neo-Burlesque differs from more traditional burlesque of, say, the ‘50’s and ‘60’s?
DL: I think there’s a lot more continuities between the two than people recognize or acknowledge. So let me talk about what they have in common. And that is this knowing wink. We know that this is ridiculous, walking around stage in a gown and rhinestones and elaborate feather boas when we have to hop on a subway to get home. There’s a disconnect between this opulence that is being presented and the reality of how people live. One of the main differences is that for a lot of the performers in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s, what’s known as the Golden Age of Burlesque, burlesque was their full-time career. That was their livelihood. There are Neo-Burlesque performers that do burlesque exclusively, but I think it’s more about the culture of burlesque today. So, I define burlesque as a performing art and a participatory culture. And that participating part is a really big part of it. The audience is in on it. You get to go and dress up. And I think that’s part of what makes it a really vital art form.
BT: In the book you touch on the fact that anything could happen. It’s in the moment, there’s no fourth wall, and that’s part of the excitement of burlesque versus a more traditional variety show, play or concert.
DL: And that’s what makes it exciting. Often times the act that goes awry is the one that gets the most applause. Because the person’s really going for it, and they’re so in the moment. There’s something really exciting about that. That’s what theatrical realism was based on. This idea that you get this slice of life. Add on top of that these ridiculous, over-the-top theatrics. And add the fact that costumes get stuck and things go awry and the audience goes wild. I think that’s part of its appeal.
BT: As you were saying before, there’s a performer in a beautiful ballgown but they’re acting bawdy. It’s a parody of upper-crustiness. The juxtaposition of those things seems to be very burlesque to me.
DL: Absolutely. And that, to me, has been what burlesque has been about since its inception. Particularly when Lydia Thompson and the British Blondes came to the United States and American burlesque was born. That’s the through-line that all of those things have in common, the Golden Age through Neo-Burlesque, is parody. It’s making fun. And for the audience, not only are you poking fun, but you’re also having a good time. It’s revelry. But that making fun is also where the subversion comes in. You can poke fun at politics. You can poke fun at contemporary culture. You can poke fun at lots of things. And that’s also a shorthand way that makes burlesque possibly, potentially, a subversive artform too.
BT: Burlesque is punching up.
DL: Absolutely. And that’s the roots of Mikhail Bakhtin’s Carnivalesque. I talk about this in my book. That’s about these Medieval fairgoers that would poke fun at upper-crust society, at dominant society, and they did it through these grotesque, exaggerated bodies. When I think about Doctor Donut, he very much is this exaggerated, grotesque body of the Carnivalesque. I think that using the body, and using extremities and grotesqueness as a commentary to punch up helps invert social roles to some degree.
BT: In your book you follow certain performers in the Neo-Burlesque scene. Can you name some of them?
DL: Of course. When I started thinking about this book, I thought about the performers and the performances I really enjoy, but that also get me to think. MsTickle’s blow-up doll is one that instantly comes to mind. I knew when I came up with the scope of this project…that MsTickle’s blow-up doll was something I wanted to talk about. I wanted to talk about comedy, and a lot of people use comedy and humor and wit in the early era. So Little Brooklyn came to mind as someone that was quintessentially about that. I wrote a chapter about Julie Atlas Muz and Ridiculous Theater and connecting her to that cabaret nightlife that I was talking about earlier. I have a chapter on World Famous *BOB*, Dirty Martini, and Dita Von Teese as one of the Monster/Beauties of Burlesque. I also have a chapter on Bambi the Mermaid’s Miss Coney Island Pageant. Now, I want to make it clear that this is not a comprehensive history on burlesque. This is not the book on burlesque. It is simply a book.
BT: I found it intellectual yet readable.
DL: That was absolutely my goal. I wanted educated people to be able to read it. Not just academics sitting in their ivory towers. So, I made it readable for an average audience. That was really important to me. But I must say, there’s a lot of footnotes in there. But you can skip that and just look at the pretty pictures.
BT: Ooh, there’s lots pretty pictures!
DL: I just want to give a shoutout to Ed Barnas. There are 50 color images in this book and Ed Barnas provided 38 of them. His work, and all photographers and videographers, their work in documenting burlesque is so important because it’s a live performing art. Live performance only exists in the present and then it disappears. I wrote a description of each act and, with several images, it turns into a bit of a photo essay. I hope that this propels people to go out and see live performance, and to check out the performances I talk about in the book in person. That is the goal. To help preserve, but also to celebrate, this artform.
When I was picking images, another thing I focused on, was showing the stage lights, the side of the wing, the spectators looking at the performers. The reason I did that is to give you a sense of the feeling of what was happening in the moment. Instead of the perfection of a studio shot that’s perfectly angled, I like the glaring spotlight in the photographer’s face. I was looking for that messy backstage coming into the frame.
I also wanted to mention that the audiobook is coming out soon, and it is narrated by the one-and-only Miss Astrid, also known as Kate Valentine. Miss Astrid makes an appearance quite a bit in this book. She was an important part of the early scene
BT: Thank you for speaking with us Doctor Lucky. Your book is fantastic.
DL: Thank you for having me and remember that reading is fundamental!
For a copy of Neo-Burlesque: Burlesque as Transformation Doctor Lucky encourages you to order directly from the publisher: www.rutgersuniversitypress.org
(They are a non-profit academic press and need your support! Beyond that, it is available wherever books are sold.)
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