“Any virgins in the audience tonight?” Up went my hand. Glancing around, I was relieved to see that I wasn’t alone: A smattering of giggling patrons at Off Center for the Dramatic Arts were ’fessing up, too.
No, we weren’t a bunch of stunted, sex-starved theatergoers. But we were first-timers about to take in the second-ever performance of the Green Mountain Cabaret, Burlington’s new neo-burlesque show. That’s what the MCs for the night — “Leif Peepers” and “Thom Peepers” — meant by “virgins.”
I’ll admit it: I was nervous about what would follow. Leif and Thom gave us the quick down-and-dirty: Yes, we’d be seeing a fair amount of skin tonight. No, we weren’t allowed to take any photographs. We dutifully practiced our hooting and hollering, and then, as the music came up, out marched five women with feather boas, hell-bent on shimmying, shaking and stripping their way down to — as we would soon find out — thongs and sparkling pasties.
Front and center was Alexa Luthor, the mastermind behind the monthly cabaret. She’s not your typical pinup girl. Her breasts are small, her hips soft and curvy. Overall, the bodies of the women on the Off Center stage more closely approximated what you’d see in a changing room at your local gym than onstage at a strip joint — with the added touches of thigh-high stockings and sexier underwear.
Heavy makeup accentuated Luthor’s eyes, which gazed at the audience from under a fringe of dark bangs as she draped herself around one of the folding chairs on the stage.
Of course, “Alexa Luthor” is not her real name: The pseudonym is a play on Superman’s nemesis, Lex Luthor. Onstage and in character, Luthor embraces the alter ego of the “original Burlesque supervillain,” as her website boasts, “plotting to take over the world one stocking at a time.”
Per Luthor’s vision, I was in for a night of stockings, gloves and sparkly bras — all soon to be discarded on the floor of the black-box theater’s stage. Burlington’s annual Spielpalast Cabaret has been bringing elements of burlesque to the region for 13 years. But the Green Mountain Cabaret, though styled after a vaudeville variety show, doesn’t go for the 1930s, Weimar Republic revelry Spielpalast embraces: Instead, the show is unscripted, the acts modern, and the main draw is unquestionably the striptease. Over the course of the night, Luthor and her “sugar shakers” shimmied down to pasties and thongs while the audience cheered its approval. Meanwhile, this “virgin” watched with interest — but with mixed feelings about the display onstage.
Run into Luthor offstage, and you might never guess she’s a burlesque buff by night. The “Kryptonite to clothing” performer is a chipper 26-year-old employee at a local college, who, like all of the burlesque performers with whom I spoke, asked that her identity be kept secret. The Essex Junction apartment she shares with her husband, “Leif Peepers,” and black-and-white cat, Poe, looks more like a college crash pad than a boudoir at the Moulin Rouge.
“I never would have imagined 10 years ago that I would be removing clothing onstage and loving it,” Luthor told me a few weeks after the January performance.
She grew up in the Essex area, attended St. Michael’s College and moved to Chicago after graduation. She’d studied ballet and jazz for years, and minored in theater as an undergrad, but Luthor wasn’t always keen on the spotlight.
“She was a theater kid, but she was — not shy, but she hadn’t come into herself yet,” said “Fler Lacelle,” who has known Luthor since high school and is now stage manager for the cabaret. “Kind of like a baby horse.”
So Luthor was as surprised as anyone when, after taking in her first burlesque performance at a bachelorette party in Denver, she found herself inexplicably hooked. As soon as she returned to Chicago, she signed up for classes at a prominent burlesque studio. (Her first class was with a woman she now describes as one of the “best tassel twirlers” in the country.) Luthor’s studies culminated in an invitation-only performance class, for which she choreographed her first striptease and then performed it for an audience. Her legs shook, and she was so nervous that she couldn’t smile, she recalled. But she did something right: Members of a new Chicago burlesque company called Kiss Kiss Cabaret were in the audience that night and tapped Luthor to join their group.
“You could tell she just really lit up the stage as soon as she began her performance,” said Chris O. Biddle, Kiss Kiss’ host, producer and artistic director.
It was Kiss Kiss Cabaret’s style — which borrowed from the vaudeville tradition, interspersing burlesque with variety-show acts — that inspired Luthor and her husband, when they returned to Vermont last June, to start their own company. The couple cobbled together $800 and staged auditions in November. Most of their dancers were complete novices, but four weeks later the Green Mountain Cabaret debuted at the Off Center.
“As a woman, to just get to do a show where ladies just, like, shake it and are really confident about their bodies and look like they’re having fun — it’s really exciting,” Lacelle said.
Burlesque first gained a foothold in the United States 150 years ago. By the early 20th century, the genre was a broadly popular, lowbrow blend of satire, comedy, music-hall performance and striptease. Scantily costumed women were a major draw, yes, but these shows were varied and lively, as witty as they were sexually suggestive.
The social crackdown of the 1930s and ’40s signaled the beginning of the end for burlesque. “It metamorphosed into strip clubs and the sex industry,” said Kiss Kiss Cabaret’s Biddle, “and it was easy for people to take a moral stance against it.”
By the 1990s, performers were looking to burlesque as an art form once again. It’s popular enough today that one can find burlesque performances in every major U.S. city. Burlesque even spawned a 2010 film starring Christina Aguilera and Cher, though burlesque performers such as Biddle and Luthor argue the movie isn’t an accurate representation of the burlesque movement.
The biggest misconception that lingers, Luthor says, is that burlesque is the equivalent of stripping.
“I mean, yes, we artistically remove articles of clothing, but we’re not walking the street, or getting dollar bills shoved down our underwear,” she said. “It’s an art form. It’s meant to titillate, but it’s not meant to make men dive onstage. It’s not sleazy; it’s classy.”
Stripping, the performers with whom I spoke suggested, is objectifying, transforming the body into a commodity. Burlesque, on the other hand, “puts a lot more power into the hands of the performer,” said “Doctor Vu,” a 33-year-old project manager by day who joined Green Mountain Cabaret in November. Because burlesque dancers need not necessarily look like Playboy Playmates, Vu said, she believes they’re banishing stereotypes of conventional sexuality. “It really expands the definition of what constitutes a sexually desirable body or person.”
That was evident at the cabaret’s January performance: As an audience member, I sensed that I wasn’t cheering an individual’s physical assets, or even her skill as a performer, so much as the confidence it required to stand up onstage and remove her clothes. While one aim of the show was certainly to entertain, the female performers’ desires drove the exhibition much more than the audience’s.
Though Luthor and her compatriots call their burlesque experience “empowering,” I had more trouble than I’d anticipated reconciling feminism and burlesque. This reaction stemmed in part from some of the performers’ obvious nerves: One woman’s hand trembled almost uncontrollably as, with her back to the audience, she fumbled with the clasp of her bra.
It’s not for me to say what is or is not empowering for another individual. But it wasn’t just the jitters that left me squirming. Only women stripped down to pasties and thongs at the performance. The men who also took the stage — the MCs, comedians, improv actors and a breakdancer — were fully clothed, and they joked about the thrill of the “boobs” on display that evening.
Peepers admitted his own persona as Leif is somewhat creepy. “He’s a high school boy,” he said. He may talk a big game, but as soon as one of the “girls” saunters by, he melts. The juvenile act is self-deprecating; Peepers said he knows the audience isn’t there to see him. But the MCs’ overbearing appreciation of the dancers’ physical assets came perilously close to undermining the artistry to which burlesque dancers aspire: seduction, sexiness and smarts.
Qualms aside, I admired the gutsiness it took for the women to step onstage and do something that still feels taboo. And later, they spoke of their experiences glowingly, praising Luthor as a supportive teacher and skilled performer.
“She teaches everyone how to savor sexuality,” said “Vienna Velvette,” a 34-year-old classically trained opera singer who is now apprenticing as a “stage kitten” with the cabaret. “She teaches all of us to let it linger — savor the moment, lift up the skirt a little bit … The way that she’ll trace her fingers up her thigh or across her chest or collar bones — it’s those subtle things.”
Still, subtlety can feel in short supply at a show where the MCs keep up a constant refrain of “Yeah, boobs!” We knew exactly what was coming at the end of each dance number — thanks in no small part to the Peepers brothers, who unapologetically assumed at the outset that we were there not for the tease, but for the skin.
Seduction, at its core, is an act of supreme confidence; it’s an exercise of power that has as much to do with conviction as it does with physical attractiveness. Perhaps inevitably, a cabaret made up primarily of novice burlesque dancers lacks some of that confidence and, as a result, the seductiveness that gave rise to burlesque in the first place. Time and practice might solve that issue. More problematic for the cabaret as a whole, though, is the MCs’ tiresome and demeaning shtick.
Onstage, Luthor herself is lacking in neither confidence nor seduction. When she stepped up for the show’s finale — her only solo performance of the night — her self-assurance set her apart from those who had come before. Her gaze was piercing and rebellious. The angry blare of Flogging Molly’s “Saints and Sinners” came over the sound system. Luthor had designed and sewn her costume herself: Her right side was clothed entirely in black, her left in white, a blunt line running down her middle from head to toe.
“We’re saints and we’re sinners,” growled the Celtic punk band as Luthor unbuttoned her shirt and flashed a shoulder at the audience. Before long, she’d wiggled — seemingly effortlessly — out of her shirt, pants and long gloves, discarding them gently around the stage. (Kicking off clothes, and especially shoes, is a burlesque taboo as far as Luthor is concerned: “It’s not sexy,” she said, and a flying high heel could inflict injury.) Soon she was down to a black-and-white bra and thong — then to tasseled pasties, one black and one white.
As she kicked up one elegantly extended foot, or pivoted around the chair planted in the center of the stage, Luthor’s dance training showed. So did her years of burlesque practice in Chicago. There weren’t any shaking hands or wardrobe malfunctions here. And when she broke out her signature move — there’s no way to describe it but a righteous ass shake — her audience went wild. This was a glimpse of burlesque as it should be: sexy, dangerous and defiant. Then, like the flash of skin, it was gone.
The print version of this article was headlined "Skin in the Game".
All photos by Matthew Thorsen.