Burlesque Performers Convene in Beacon for Unique Summer Camp

‘Camp Camp leads to live show July 5

By Sommer Hixson

Summer. The season of vacations, festivals, pool parties, barbecues and sleep-away camp. Last weekend, a distinctly different kind of event kicked off in Beacon: workshops for women honing their skills in burlesque performance, a form of theatrical entertainment influenced by circus arts, vaudeville and commedia dell’arte. “Camp Camp,”organized and hosted by renowned-in-her-field Lynn Sally (who prefers to go by her stage name, Dr. Lucky), is comprised of three 3-day retreats scheduled through August, including a “performance edition”the weekend of July 4.

Last year's Camp Camp participants (photo provided)
Last year’s Camp Camp participants (photo provided)

This is the second year of Camp Camp, which is held at a private residence. “It was so nice for me to get out of the city,”said Lucky, who moved to the Hudson Valley from Brooklyn 10 years ago. “I wanted to share the experience with other burlesque performers, because we run around a lot and never get a chance to relax. Everyone remembers their childhood days of going to camp. What was so great about it was getting away and bonding. We live together. We cook together.”

The camp routine

Any comparison to summer camps of yore stops there, however. Twenty-four adult performers from as far as Brazil have signed up to work with their host and four guest counselors. Inspired in part by BurlyCon, an annual convention in Seattle, Washington, Camp Camp is packed with a diverse curriculum to keep students physically, intellectually and creatively stimulated. Programming covers the basics, like make-up, costuming and hairstyling (wigs, mostly), but the main attractions are master classes in movement, performance technique, and character and persona development.

Kristina Neykia, a dancer and circus contortionist from Los Angeles, was a guest counselor for the June session last week. A professional ballerina, choreographer and filmmaker from Los Angeles is participating in the upcoming “performance edition.” A well-known drag-star and Angie Pontani, of “The World Famous Pontani Sisters,”are also counselors.

A first-time attendee, a graduate student from Toronto pursuing a degree in communications and culture at Ryerson and York Universities, specializes in acts inspired by nerd culture —a fan dance based on Game of Thrones dragons, for example. “Most training like this is only available in workshops at conferences,”said the student, who, like most participants, declined to make her real name public. “Camp Camp is great because I’m getting the intense push I need from the best of the best in the business.”

Dr. Lucky, director of Camp Camp and host of "Fireworks!" — the performance edition. (Photo by Lynette Astair)
Dr. Lucky, director of Camp Camp and host of ”Fireworks!” — the performance edition. (Photo by Lynette Astair)

A performer, producer and educator, Lucky holds a Ph.D. in performance studies and teaches the History of the American Burlesque at New York University. She is a veteran of New York’s downtown theater and club scenes, having produced and performed at P.S. 122, Coney Island’s Sideshow, The Slipper Room and Le Poisson Rouge, among many venues, and has headlined and hosted numerous burlesque festivals. She is working on the memoirs of Burlesque Hall of Famer Dixie Evans, who died last year.

Camp Camp registration is closed but the July session culminates with a live performance at Dogwood on Saturday, July 5. Each camper will perform her act, preceded by two practice sessions and followed by critiques the next day.

Burlesques background

This will not be burlesque’s debut in Beacon. Earlier this year, Lucky organized a post-screening Q-and-A and live show for the Beacon Film Society presentation of Beth B’s documentary, Exposed.

Burlesque was introduced to American audiences in the 1860s, when Lydia Thompson brought her “British Blondes”across the Atlantic. New burlesque, or neo burlesque, emerged in the 1990s out of people’s desire to return to vintage culture and the lifestyle of swing dancing, pin-up fashion, lounge music, classic cars and tattoos.

“Most neo-burlesque performers are interested in a storyline or narrative, and political commentary, so that the ending of a number is not just a reveal but also a punchline. That’s not saying that earlier performers didn’t do that but it’s something that is more explicitly a part of modern burlesque,”explained Lucky. Artists who don’t center their work on politics, current affairs or feminism are often referred to as “classic burlesque”performers.

“One thing I really love about burlesque is it can literally be anything,” Lucky added. “What you see on stage is someone’s idea, from concept to costuming, from execution to choreography. It’s like a little piece of their brain, visualized.”

Stage names

Burlesque star Dirty Martini performing at Dogwood in February 2014, for a screening of Beth B's documentary, Exposed. (Photo by S. Hixson)
Burlesque star Dirty Martini performing at Dogwood in February 2014, for a screening of Beth B’s documentary, Exposed. (Photo by S. Hixson)

Adopting a pseudonym is an important artistic aspect of burlesque but also serves to protect a performer’s privacy and shield her from possible repercussions in daily life. This is one of the first exercises Lucky works on with students before moving into act development. The stage name is usually a clever play on words and might relate to the performer’s background or personality. Examples of participants’ names this year include Lux LaCroix, Isis Vermouth, Heather Whatever, Dolly Would and Delicia Pastiche.

In response to concerns about the risqué nature of burlesque or whether it can be correlated to illegal activity, Lucky has this to say:

It’s a slippery slope argument that has been outdated for at least 60 to 65 years. If anyone is concerned it is because they don’t know what to expect. If they come to the show, I think they will be surprised by what happens. Yes, there will be a variety of women’s bodies in different stages of undress and they will be unapologetic in their performances. For some people in the audience it could be liberating, exciting or revolutionary, but for others it might be scary. Society in the 1920s and ‘30s was much more used to the female body on display in entertainment or popular culture than it actually is today. The World’s Fairs of the ‘30s and ‘40s were teaming with burlesque shows — the entire midway.

Recently, students in an exhibition development seminar at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) curated WorkinThe Tease: The Art of Baltimore Burlesque. Lucky wrote an essay for the brochure. In it, she states:

Burlesque performers are in charge of creating and performing their own persona. What you see is what they created. This self-authorship can be radical, especially for women who are still fed and often internalize narratives about how they are expected to behave as women in the public sphere …this is part of the allure of burlesque, and why so many self-possessed, intelligent, creative people are drawn to it.