Burlesque, an ancient and honorable part of theatre, has always appeared in various forms.
It emerged in the mid-19th century as an exaggerated and often risqué comic form in theatre and music-hall “revues,” tweaking the “serious” art and politics of the day. At the same time, in night clubs, it appeared as a “girly show” (with or without the satire) where women stripped to tease the patrons.
But by the mid-20th century, burlesque had all but died, thanks to puritanic morality crusades. It fell to a few superstar performers –such as Lilli St. Cyr, Sally Rand, Gypsy Rose Lee, and Tempest Storm — to keep the art of “exotic dancing” alive.
The 21st century is a different world. With sexual positivity and gender fluidity fast becoming cultural norms, burlesque has been reborn. And this time, it’s not about an idealized woman arousing a roomful of anonymous men; it’s about women of every shape and size celebrating their bodies, and everyone enjoying the shared mystery of sexuality. (The satire has morphed into character dances, half cosplay tribute and half gentle parody.)
The rebirth has come swiftly. A decade ago, groundbreaking LA impresaria Amanda Marquardt was staging 20- to 50-seat shows anywhere she could find space. Today, several companies regularly fill such large venues as Fais Do Do with hundreds of chanting fans.
At the same time, one of the sweetest parts of burlesque tradition has been been brought back to glowing life at the Vampire Lounge in Beverly Hills.
Every other Thursday night, a group called Cabaret le Fey presents about 90 minutes of new, original numbers; many of the shows have dark themes befitting the venue. There’s usually a trio of dancers — and the tiny wine bar holds only two to three times that many patrons.
The result is an intimacy even greater than in the cabarets of Paris (which Toulouse-Lautrec painted) or Berlin (immortalized in the films Blue Angel and Cabaret). There is no stage, no proscenium. Each dancer performs within a few inches of every audience member.
The boundaries begin to blur. You feel the tension and release in each movement, the electricity of each emotion passes through your body … you’re being performed with, not just performed for.
The dancer is not a sexual object, nor only the subject of her own sexuality; instead, you sense her moving both your bodies at once — a communion more subtle and more thrilling than any strip tease.
Cabaret le Fey is an offshoot of True Focus Theater, an adventurous woman-centered troupe that has created memorable multimedia theatre in its few years (Cat Fight; Love Sucks; and Hex, currently running at Zombie Joe’s Underground Theater in NoHo). Artistic director Vanessa Cate performs regularly at the Vampire, along with Deneen Melody and Cheryl Doyle (both choreographers), though other True Focus artists often step in.
The Cabaret le Fey team has been sharing their quietly intimate form of burlesque for several months now, with individual shows planned up to Thanksgiving week. To enjoy an experience that could not exist until this time, in this place, arrive early and join the lucky few.
Cabaret le Fey, at the Vampire Lounge, 9865 Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills 90210.
Alternate Thursdays at 9:00.
No reservations, no cover charge; 1-drink minimum.
Check for performances at <truefocustheater.com/cabaret-le-fey> or (310) 826-7473.