Tête-à-tête with Alessandro Casella
Alessandro Casella is Rome’s Master of Burlesque Ceremonies—artistic director, producer, promoter and proprietor of Ellington Club.
We talked with Alessandro about creating a show, creating a scene, and creating magic!
Where are you from, tell me about your background? Did you grow up around entertainment?
I was born in Rome, Italy. No one in my family worked in entertainment, but I did have the chance to travel a lot. In 1982, when I was 14, I had the chance to travel to London, primarily in order to learn the language but I quickly discovered all the music and International vibes that we didn’t have in Rome. Rome felt like a small village compared to London and it changed my life completely.
I jumped right into the punk rock scene with both feet, and in a few months, I wasn’t a shy teenager from the suburbs of Rome anymore. From there I started to discover all kinds of things, new types of music, fashion, all the weird hairdos…I loved it.
I started to collect records in London—I’d bring them back to Rome, sell or trade them with my friends and record shops. This gave me the chance to re-imagine my life in Rome and make the world around me as much like my London experience as I could. It was difficult, but I was committed. That same passion that drove me to jump between music genres also drove me to increase my travel; first jumping back and forth to London, then to New York and Paris and then all over the world.
How did you transition from vinyl collector to live entertainment impresario?
In 1999, I started a magazine called The Jaguar Magazine, that was dedicated to the fashion, music, cinema, and art of the 1950s and 1960s. Every year, I would organize a three-day international festival that was all about vintage, including bands that covered everything from Bossanova to old Italian soundtracks. So, back to your first question, my background is really…homemade. I made it myself.
How did you discover burlesque?
I actually heard about the Pontani Sisters for the first time when I was booking the Vintage Festival. One of the DJs I invited to the festival showed me some video of them in NYC—these three amazing girls go-go dancing to 60s music. I wanted to bring them to the festival, but it didn’t work out at the time. Many years later I met Angie Pontani as a burlesque performer—we met in Rome and it was like meeting family.
But the first burlesque show I ever saw in my life was in 2001 when I was DJ-ing at the Las Vegas Grind Festival, I was DJ-ing in the lounge area and made contact with some burlesque performers. I came back to Rome with the idea of starting a burlesque show there. I started to try and learn everything I could about vintage striptease. In Rome, all we knew about it came from Fellini movies and the French movies from the 50s and 60s. Rome had never seen anything like the neo-burlesque scene that was happening in the US and London. In 2005, I became art director of a club which would be my chance to try bringing burlesque to Rome.
Were you confident that Rome would appreciate burlesque when you first started?
No, I had no idea. I didn’t know how the crowds would react. So, the first thing I did was invite Amber Topaz from the Lady Luck club in London to perform with DJ Nino. We didn’t even mention to the audience that there would be burlesque, we just wanted to go ahead, show it, see the crowd’s response and see if it could work here.
After the band, after the DJ, at around 1 in the morning, I announced the burlesque act…Everyone went crazy just like I had seen in other clubs in Europe and around the world.
I knew from that night that Rome was ready for it, so I started bringing burlesque performers from London because that was the most cost-effective place to bring people from.
Was importing performers a sustainable model?
Ultimately no. We initially planned to have shows once or twice a month but we saw immediately that there was interest in having more burlesque than that, which just wasn’t possible financially. So, we started to think about creating a school in Rome that could teach burlesque to local girls so we could have shows two or three times a week.
I started the Academy of Burlesque Art with a French woman who worked at the club, Mademoiselle Agathe. We had a casting call and told the girls if they passed the casting, they were invited to attend the school for no charge. We didn’t want to make money from them, we just wanted to help them grow and get them ready for the stage. Our goal was to create a pool of performers in Rome so we could do the shows the audience was craving. Then, we talked about doing an international festival where our local girls could perform with burlesque stars from around the world, and that’s how the Rome Burlesque Festival started in 2007.
You have multiple roles—you’re an artistic director, a promoter, a producer. What’s your process like creatively? Do you start with a theme or a certain performer in mind and then build from there?
It always starts with the music for me. I hear music and think it would make a great dance number, or a burlesque act, or a vocal performance.
To create a live show, I make a playlist of all the music I want so the whole thing just flows. I have put together a group of musicians who play the shows live, which is amazing.
The band does the arrangements and records the tracks which we send to the performers and the performers can create their individual acts to the music. Then we meet all together for 2 or 3 days to build up the show.
As an artistic director, what do you think is the element that makes a show magical and that separates your shows from other burlesque shows?
Because mainly it’s the music that drives my shows, having a live band really elevates things and allows for more dynamics than using recorded music.
I always look for burlesque performers who have an outstanding special skill—they have a great singing voice, they’re an incredible dancer, or have amazing body confidence. That’s a skill as well, one that maybe no other kind of performer has to have. To me, the belief that the striptease is the only way to reach the crowd isn’t enough. Once I see the special skill, I can figure out how we can work an act around that skill.
It sounds silly, but the other thing that makes a show successful is rehearsal time. It’s the most important thing in any performance. Sometimes, burlesque performers get bored rehearsing with an ensemble of artists because they’re used to being alone, going on stage and doing their number. In my case, I like burlesque to be a part of a bigger variety show. So, I need burlesque performers to open to that type of show and that kind of rehearsal. It’s especially important when you are going to work in a venue like a traditional theater where the audience is seated and just waiting for the show.
You’ve worked at many venues since 2005 and you recently opened your own venue with your wife, The Ellington Club, a live-entertainment venue with a restaurant and cocktails! What makes a venue special to you? When you opened the Ellington Club what did you want to do to make it distinct from other clubs?
First of all, the stage. We have a 35-meter stage where we can have big bands, swing bands…we needed that. We come from the entertainment business, not the hospitality business so it was a priority to have a space big enough to have a big stage. When you open a new bar or restaurant it’s not common to have a big stage. And then we had to have space to accommodate enough people in FRONT of the stage to pay for the cast, the musicians, and the rest of the staff.
Before Covid, we had a capacity of 143 people. Now, it’s 55 so we had to change everything. All of our business changed.
Before Covid, we had big bands, lots of dancers….but we have really had to cut the costs. We have burlesque shows Friday and Saturday with a piano player, singer, and a burlesque performer. We used to do multiple shows a night but we can only have one show now because of the restricted hours. We have to close at midnight, whereas before we closed at 2 am.
Covid-19 has obviously been devastating to our industry. In NYC it felt like after the initial shock, people very quickly started to create things…What was the vibe in Rome?
Here it was very depressing, and the vibe is still very down. There are a lot of artists trying to reinvent themselves under the current restrictions, but it’s very difficult after so many years, when this is your profession. Our experience has been particularly challenging, because we opened The Ellington Club, invested all our money, all our time, just four months before the shutdown. That killed the business completely. But ironically, it is actually our strength because I simply cannot let this place close. We have to find the energy, the money, and the help, to make this place open every day. First, we did crowdfunding asking for help from all of our patrons, friends, and families and raised enough money to pay the rent for a couple of months. And when we opened back up, we did it with a different mentality. We have had to cut the costs but this place is available for any artist who wants to use it. We can make a trade—you give me a show, I’ll give you the space to do your rehearsal, to make a video clip, to do whatever you need. We can help each other. I will open the doors for anything that can help people and can help us all to stay alive.
The burlesque community in New York feels at once very tight-knit but also very independent. It seems like you’re sort of the infrastructure of the Rome burlesque scene—how would you say it compares?
I think in Rome, the burlesque community is very like New York. It can be very divided, because everyone has their own way of interpreting this job. Dirty Martini always says burlesque is like rock-n-roll, anyone can play it with three chords but not everyone can play those three chords like The Beatles or Elvis. There’s only one Elvis, there’s only one Beatles.
In burlesque, becoming a performer is fairly easy to access, in just a few months you can be on a stage and ask for a fee. But there are very few truly creative and dedicated performers. There can be a very big gap between who is a professional and who isn’t.
I work very hard to create a stage, productions, a club that equates burlesque performers with all other performers. That’s always been my goal. Striptease can be an art as much as singing, dancing, any of the performing arts. But you have to work harder than any other art form because it’s such a new genre. You have to make people believe in it, especially in Rome where there’s a bigger gap of culture. Striptease is an art, and if you are an artist, you can raise your level higher and higher. Every day, every show, wherever you are, you can get better and better.
I always try to create the biggest stage, the biggest show, the best packaging for burlesque. Not for one girl, not for one show, but for the entire art form. I create bands to play live burlesque, I create productions for an 1890s theatre and I opened the door to burlesque for the first time after 100 years of cabaret. This has always been my goal, to give burlesque the dignity of all the other performing arts.
Where do you hope Rome’s burlesque scene goes in the future?
It’s hard to imagine the future now, most people aren’t working, clubs aren’t having shows, private events aren’t happening. Hopefully, it will be like after the world war in the 50s and 60s and there will be an economic boom. Lots of jobs, money, traveling, more opportunities. If you survive. Now it’s just about taking it day by day.
In Rome, there are lots of individual people that create burlesque together and then they hate each other and then they love each other and create together again. Lots of ups and downs. I think that’s how it goes when you work in such a small scene.
But any scene is all about the people— about the ambition that the people in the scene have to make the scene better and bigger. My hope that the process of recovering from Covid 19 will actually bring burlesque people together. I think if everyone just focuses on doing their own very best work, we can make burlesque a viable profession for everyone. If every person challenges themselves every day to be better, the scene will grow stronger as well.