Like the speakeasy, burlesque was born and raised in city underbellies, in smoky theaters filled with rowdy working-class men and loose women. And here in Charleston, the saucy art of burlesque is va-va-vooming right under our noses.
Some of the romantic image associated with burlesque is likely mere embellishment, but the underground feel that it evokes is definitely real. It's part of what drew burlesque performer Evelyn DeVere to the artform in the first place.
DeVere, founder of the Charleston fringe artist group Carnivalesque and its predecessor Ménage à Trois Burlesque, graduated from the College of Charleston with a degree in theater and a concentration in costume design, which is both a passion and a day job. But she was bitten by that glittery burlesque bug when she was in high school. "I'd always been interested in vintage, especially the 1930s and '40s," she says. "I guess it started with my fascination with clothing and style ... then I became fascinated with that whole world." Her growing interest coincided with the tail end of a burlesque renaissance that began in the 1990s. Remember Dita Von Teese, known for her tiny waist and short marriage to Marilyn Manson? Aside from being the face of many girly vanity products, she's largely responsible for bringing "neo-burlesque" to the masses.
After college, DeVere moved to Salt Lake City, which is, oddly enough, where she really got her start as a burlesque performer, doing shows every month with a troupe. After a year in Mormon country, she decided to move back to Charleston and develop her performance into something more than a hobby. "I wanted to do something different, something professional, set the bar a little higher." The result was Ménage à Trois, a professional burlesque act consisting of DeVere and two other women. They performed their first show this past March. They were well received, due in part, DeVere thinks, to the unique nature of their act. It's something refreshing and unusual in a city known for its mega-celebration of the high arts, Spoleto Festival USA.
DeVere had bigger ideas, though, than just burlesque. Her ultimate vision was a collective of fringe artists that could present a variety of performances and, in doing so, create more work for everyone, both individually and as a group. And so Carnivalesque, a sort of umbrella group for the remarkable, bizarre, or uncommon performer, was born.
As you can tell from the name, Carnivalesque takes its inspiration from the old-time carnival circuit. "It's the marginalized section, not the big time circus, but the freaks and the fringe," DeVere says. "I really like that aesthetic of being the poor man's show. We're keeping it gritty and true to the original carnival."
Historically, the group is poised for success; acts like these gained popularity during the Great Depression, when a cheap escape was all most people could afford. Carnivalesque is staying true to that in both admission costs and aesthetic — they'll be playing their first show, Carnival Revival, at the Tin Roof in West Ashley, which is known for its deliciously lowbrow dive-bar atmosphere.
Audience members can expect a wide variety of performances, including burlesque by DeVere and a fellow member of Ménage à Trois, Plume de Paname. Joining them will be the Wonderson Duo, a team of aerialists who perform feats of acrobalance (they also teach aerial yoga); Drew Reynolds, a strongman who can roll up a frying pan and break a baseball bat in half; and J Honea, the emcee and pain-proof man whose scary talents include eating glass. Both Reynolds and Honea will also debut all-new acts at the Carnival Revival. The show will be set to live music by the Flat Foot Floozies, with Matt Lohan on accordion. Although this is Carnivalesque's first show as a cohesive group, members of the collective frequently perform at events and parties, and — make a note of this, girls — the burlesque contingent even does bachelorette parties.
It's easy to see how Carnivalesque provides a sort of home for these performers whose skills don't really fit into typical artistic genres. They're the outsiders: A hundred years ago, you might have found them in a carnival caravan, roaming America's countryside like gypsies with talents for entertaining rather than thievery. That spirit is what Carnivalesque's performers are trying to recapture. DeVere says, "We've all had that moment where we wanted to run away and join the circus, and now we're sort of doing that." And now — for one night, at least — you can too.