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The Sexy Side of Fun

‘History of Burlesque’ at Charles Allis Museum

May. 5, 2015
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Two mannequins in men’s suits hang out at the top of a marble staircase in the Charles Allis Art Museum. A card pinned to one reads:

My father said, “Don’t go

To a burlesque show;

You’ll see things you shouldn’t see.”

And he was right,

For the very next night

I saw Father in the row in front of me.”

On that saucy note, we’re primed for “More on Less: The History of Burlesque in America from Lydia Thompson to Amber Ray.” Curators Annemarie Sawkins and Martha Chaiklin dress scholarly research and collectible ephemera with a wink and shimmy of sequins, feathers and fishnet stockings. As a performance genre, burlesque is described as “popular, lowbrow entertainment,” and by photographer Katharina Bosse as “a kind of old-fashioned striptease, with the emphasis on the tease, not the nudity.” Historian Robert Allen proposes that in the late-19th century it was “the most thoroughly feminized form of theatrical entertainment in the history of the American stage to that time.”

Enjoying a revival during the past 25 years, Neo-Burlesque costumes and photographs are joined by show programs, magazines and other vintage items. Amber Ray, one of today’s best-known performers, contributes a number of pieces including her Lotus Blossom costume. It is a pink, blue and purple swirl of diaphanous skirt and sleeves, shown on a voluptuous mannequin posed as though on the stage. During a recent visit, one of the figure’s pasties spontaneously popped off. The exhibition does not reveal the secrets of their application.

Alongside the souvenirs of burlesque shows past and present are works by artists on related themes. Photographer Garry Winogrand maintains a sensual mystique in images like moments of fuzzed-out film noir. Conversely, Katharina Bosse photographs performers like Dirty Martini in the light of day. Martini poses outside on a red carpet, a colorful echo of her giant ostrich plume fans and heels. In the background, a table littered with Diet Coke cans is a reminder of ordinary life while her starkly illuminated body in the sunlight argues for the simultaneous reality of fantasy.

“More on Less: The History of Burlesque in America from Lydia Thompson to Amber Ray” continues through July 5 at the Charles Allis Art Museum, 1801 N. Prospect Ave.

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