It’s no secret that Chicago’s Burlesque scene is booming. From Michelle L’Amour’s Chicago Starlets to the Belmont Burlesque Revue, troupes are cultivating enthusiastic followings. Kiss Kiss Cabaret may be one of many, but according to producer Chris Biddle, the weekly show stands out. Our Town spoke with Biddle and burlesque performer Bella Ciao about why burlesque is so popular, performance anxiety and Kiss Kiss Cabaret’s much anticipated New Year’s Eve show.
Our Town Chicago’s Burlesque scene is going strong. Why do you think that is?
Chris Biddle I think Chicago's burlesque boom is reflective of the national resurgence of the art form. The neo-burlesque movement really began in New York and LA and by the early 2000's, it had reached Chicago. Chicago is notoriously friendly to small start-up theater troupes. There are affordable black-box theaters for rent and bars that will host an evening of erotic entertainment. Pick some music, design a poster and Boom! You're producing your own show.
OT What makes Kiss Kiss special?
CB I’m inspired by the fearlessness and courage of our burlesque artists. They take the stage and completely transcend common social anxieties about nudity, the human form and sexuality. They display their vulnerability onstage, defying judgement, inviting the audience to look at them and take them in. And in the process, they win the audience, men and women alike, over to their side.
OT Bella, for you, what’s the difference between Burlesque and strip tease?
Bella Ciao First of all, burlesque is a form of striptease, in the most classic sense! While we both remove clothing for an audience, contemporary burlesque acts are much more about presenting a story to the audience in a sensual, entertaining style, while paying homage to the history of the art. My experience has been that strip clubs are selling the idea of sex, while burlesque is selling a style of entertainment that historically includes humor, social commentary, and/or narrative storytelling in addition to the element of tease. It's sexy, but it's not just about the commodity of sex. I think this is something that helps us reach a wider audience, which is another distinctive aspect of the burlesque community - the audiences are so fabulously diverse. Strip clubs have a very specific clientele that they cater to, but burlesque shows are incredibly inclusive, welcoming environments -- We get everyone from bachelorette parties to college guys to couples celebrating their anniversary at Kiss Kiss Cabaret.
OT Chris, how would you describe the show’s aesthetic?
CB Artistically, we are pretty heavily inspired by the roots of burlesque performance, specifically the German cabarets and the New York style of classical burlesque. Big comedy and sly burlesque. I also worked with The Belmont Burlesque Revue for 8 years and I gratefully acknowledge that they were a big influence on our show. It's also a not-very-well-kept secret that I am also creatively inspired by The Muppet Show and Bozo's Circus, for their wild, anarchic energies. Both of those shows were wild and unpredictable,a style we definitely emulate.
OT Bella, how do you approach your act?
BC My personal background is primarily in dance and acting, so I tend to approach my acts as storytelling through movement. One of the things that really inspired me when I was creating my burlesque persona was silent film and how actors from the era used their faces - how to convey a story or emotion when you can't use words. As a result, the character of Bella Ciao is more than a little rooted in that aesthetic.
OT Thinking back to your first time performing, what was your biggest fear?
BC That nobody would applaud! My very first time performing a striptease was at a bar show and I had stocked the audience pretty well with friends, so there really wasn't any reason to worry, but I distinctly remember my greatest fear being that I would get out on the stage, do my act, and be greeted with dead silence. Luckily, that didn't happen! Burlesque performers depend so much on the audience response during our acts, so a quiet audience can really throw you, because you have no way of knowing if they're just being polite or if they're just completely disinterested. Sometimes, especially with people who maybe have never been to a burlesque show, they're following proper theatre etiquette and sitting quietly and only applauding at the end of each act, but with burlesque, we want you hooting and hollering whenever you see something you like!
OT How has performing changed your relationship to your body?
BC I came into the scene thinking that I had a pretty healthy body image, but the burlesque performers I met really raised my standards for what a positive body image could be. It's been amazing, and probably the single most important thing I've learned in the scene. The first time I attended a burlesque show, before I'd started performing, I was really blown away by how fantastic is was to see performers of all shapes and sizes being celebrated as sexy, talented women and presenting themselves as such on their own terms. I pretty much knew I had to be a part of that. I had danced and worked as a figure model previously, which had given me this combination of being very confidant in my body, but also being hyperaware of every potential flaw. Burlesque has mellowed that self-criticism and really forced me to get past some of the sillier insecurities that I had. At this point, I'm comfortable enough in my skin that jobs that require me to wear pants seem really restrictive. It's hard to hate your body when crowds of strangers cheer every time you take your clothes off, which is something I wish I'd known years before I started performing.
OT Finally, Chris, what can audiences expect from the NYE show?
CB Where to start? Our New Years Eve show, last year, was so much fun. We packed a two hour show with tons of special guests, a full buffet and a big balloon drop. (The first one I've ever actually been under. It was amazing!) At midnight, we had the entire audience up on stage with us, kissing and dancing and drinking tiny champagne bottles with us. It was such an amazing moment. Truly unforgettable. This year, we had to up the ante, of course! Highlights include: Mindy the Capuchin Monkey, on hand for a meet-n-greet with the audience. After the show, the cast gets to let their hair down and dance the night away, at our Post-Show Dance Party, deejayed by J-Bo of the Fabulous Ladies of Fitness dance party! J-Bo spins a really fun retro dance party, mixing dance hits from the 70's 80's and 90's. I met her spinning at a FLoF show at The Hideout. I don't normally like to dance with a DJ, it cuts into my "getting drunk at the bar time", but I danced all night long for her. She just lays down an excellent mix. We're thrilled to have her there.
To purchase tickets to the New year's Even show go here.
A writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum freelances for sites like Pop Matters and
afterellen.com Her debut novel, “Herself When She’s Missing," was called “poetic and heartrending” by ALA Booklist. Sarah is also a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago’s StoryStudio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She's kind of looking forward to it actually.
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