“A throwback to the true form of what burlesque once was”
Today, burlesque is nothing short of an art form. Performers combine the most explosive aspects of costumery, dance, comedy, and music in a type of live entertainment that places nudity on a pedestal. So many have turned the tassel-friendly genre of performance into an evolving practice that challenges everything conventional — from gender politics to sexuality and the public’s perception of the naked body.
Burlesque has a long history in the city of Chicago, from its American roots being traced back to the Columbian Exposition of 1893 with Little Egypt and her scandalous belly dance, and later on with Sally Rand and her legendary fan dance at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair.
Burlesque fell out of vogue in the mid-century, and resurfaced with the Neo-Burlesque movement in the 90s. Today, the burlesque scene in Chicago is a varied and exciting melting pot of several sub-genres. Performers come from all kinds of backgrounds and bring an incredible range of talents to the stage.
We dove into the photographic storytelling to showcase a visual taste of burlesque and the team behind Burlesco, the burlesque and vaudeville Review (Ray Ray Sunshine, Co-founder, Mark “The Knife” Faje, Co-founder / Host, Matt Gandurski, Band Member of Grit & The Double Knit and Joni Kat Anderson, Photographer). Behold.
RAY RAY, TELL US ABOUT BURLESCO.
Ray Ray: We are a classic burlesque styled show that incorporates elements from all of different types of talents. We like to think of every act as a conversation between the performer, the band, and the audience. Not only are we the only monthly live band burlesque show in Chicago, we are proud to have a solid and always improving relationship with a single band: Grit and the Double Knit. Their original music is a huge part of what sets Burlesco apart from other monthly shows in the city.
We endeavor to bring the purest form of burlesque entertainment to our audiences through live music by Grit and the Double Knit, improvised burlesque by the best in the business, and thrilling daredevil variety by professional Danger Comic, Mark the Knife.
Burlesco is classic burlesque and vaudeville brought into the 21st century and every show is a unique experience shared between the audience and performers.
There are lots of different approaches to burlesque… some shows are about the glamour and seduction or about the mystique or the tease. Our show is all about the impression made on the audience as well as female empowerment.
Matt: The band filled in the uniqueness of this show. Typically, shows do big band but we really focus on jazz and house-band style.
HOW DID THE NAME BURLESCO COME TO LIFE?
Ray Ray: It was as going to be called “Hot Box.” Ha!
Mark: It’s the Italian phrasing for Burlesque! But really it was the combining of all of these different companies, hence the “co.”
WHAT INSPIRED ALL OF YOU TO COME TOGETHER?
Ray Ray: I was really drawn to having a live band during burlesque shows and the art form that the music helps to create. Really, we just all fit well together — birds of a feather, flock together.
Matt: It was really a no brainer. We’ve been the luckiest show in Chicago as far as all of the partners that have come on board.
DESCRIBE THE MUSIC.
Matt: Our vibe is a spooky, Tom Waits sort of vibe and it totally fits this show, specifically. We started out with sharing our songs and let the dancers pick their style. Since then the level of artistic vibe and what I’ve written has changed, as we’ve grown together. I’ve really started to think about, ‘Does this fit a burlesque performance?’ It’s filled the weird entertainment gap that I think a lot of bands are stuck in as far as creativity. This is our hook and the performance piece adds this visual element to what we do best.
Ray Ray: The music is so easy to dance to. Sultry and inspiring for the performances. All of the feedback I get from the performers is fantastic. It really gets the dancers to think outside of the box when it comes to their performance. It’s all about being in the moment.DO YOU MAP OUT EVERY MOMENT OF THE SHOW?
Ray Ray: Actually, almost everything is improvised. There is an element of being in the moment for the band and performers. You never really know. When you’re improvising with someone else there has to be eye contact, you have to ensure you are communicating about the change in a note or the end of a song. That interplay creates a whole new style. Sometimes the way we would typically end a song becomes something totally different and it becomes part of the act.
Matt: There are times when dancers have fooled us into thinking we have messed up, but that was what they meant to do. They wanted to make it look a little weird and to keep the audience on the edge of their seat the whole time.
Ray Ray: It’s a great way to work. Most of the performers have their unique way to communicate and the band has a great eye for seeing what’s happening.
IS THAT NORMAL FOR BURLESQUE?
Ray Ray: Everyone has their own way of doing it, but it’s how I work. We want raw performances and to be in the moment with the crowd. A lot of the veteran performers are like, ‘Surprise me’, and will let the band pick the performance.
TELL US ABOUT THE DANCERS. WHERE DO THEY GET THEIR NAMES?
Ray Ray: It’s just a feeling when it comes to picking the dancers for our show. I want them to come see the show first and hear the music. But it’s really just a gut feeling and an attitude I can feel. And a sense of confidence that each woman has. You never know what you’ll get—that’s the fun part. The name is important. My name was a kind of a joke – wasn’t meant to stick. I entered a contest called Naked Girls Reading, which I won by the way! I needed to come up with a cooler name than my birth name and I watched a John Waters film and the character’s name was Ray Ray. It was a great name. Ray Ray Sunshine sounded good and it stuck. Others choose their name really carefully – mine just kind of popped into my head.
RAY RAY, HOW DID YOU GET INVOLVED IN BURLESQUE?
Ray Ray: It was because of a book. I didn’t really know anything about burlesque and at the time that I discovered it, I was doing graphic illustration work for a band. They didn’t pay well, ha! So my partner and I were looking for other things to do. I went to a book store one night and found this burlesque poster book. I thought this is cool, this is clearly a thing! So I went home and googled, ‘Burlesque in Chicago,” and found a variety of troupes so I put together promo packages for them to review. No one hired, but I did get a bite from a performer who taught burlesque and they had a live drawing event, so went to that. I ended up taking classes there and it was the mothership calling me home.
WERE YOU A DANCER BEFORE?
Ray Ray: No. no! I took dance as a little kid but I wouldn’t have described myself as a dancer. It was something I took on later in life.
WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST EXPERIENCE ON STAGE LIKE?
Ray Ray: I loved it. No fear. I built this act that was huge, dumb and crazy. It was a student showcase that was a good, friendly environment. I then worked with a couple of different troupes at the beginning but I hated taking orders from others, so I went independent and that was just the tits. Going solo has really helped me grow as an artist and a performer because I really had to hustle.
WOULD YOU DESCRIBE BURLESQUE AS AN OUTLET FOR FEMALE EMPOWERMENT?
Ray Ray: Everyone has their own motivation for getting on stage and taking your clothes off. I personally do it because I love it and I feel strong and confident. I really look forward to the audience interaction and taking people out of their day for 5 minutes. I know some women feel empowered and it’s some sort of feminist motivation, and I don’t discount anyone’s motivation for doing it. I forget myself when I’m up on stage and sometimes I get off stage and am like, ‘What happened? What did I just do?’ Because I’m so in the moment.
Joni: From a photographer’s standpoint, it isn’t a matter of women taking their clothes off. It’s a series of moments when attitude is being shot out like laser beams. When you’re just performing for the people – that connection is really shown through the photography. The photos show the interaction of the crowd, the music, the musicians and the performers. That is what Burlesco encapsulates – that rawness they all have is what is so enticing for the audience. And I just wanted to be able to capture and convey all of it in a flat image.
Ray Ray: Joni says it and does it so well.
Joni: You can get someone in a studio and try to pose them but it’s not the same when the music is booming and the energy is so high. It also allows women to merge masculinity and femininity. I think the music plays into that as well. It allows the performers to tap into the more animalistic version of themselves in the performance.
HOW DO YOU KEEP THE HISTORY ALIVE?
Ray Ray: Well, Matt and Mark are the yin to my classic old-fashioned yang. Which I think creates magic.
Mark: Well, some of the acts are kind of classic and some are more modern. Everything evolves. Music evolves. Even what I do in comedy has changed. The creativity has exploded – in the old days, I don’t think there was much creativity.
Matt: My first experience with burlesque was with a show Mark used to host. And the picture I had in my head was from The Simpsons, when the burlesque house opened in town. They had the fan dance and comedian playing a violin saying, ‘OH here’s the next girl’. it had that very classic vibe. But then I went to Mark’s show and there are girls basically pop-locking to dubstep and shooting sparks out into the crowd. It was crazy shit but was still burlesque. And that was so different.
Mark: But think we are a happy medium of all of this.
Ray Ray: The music and what the band does is a really modern vaudeville that matches well with my classic style. It’s really great to find this classic burlesque niche that isn’t boring. What the band and what Mark does really helps to modernize our show. You have to have somewhat of a vintage sensibility to do burlesque.
MARK, TALK TO US ABOUT WHAT YOU DO.
Mark: I try to be the wacky goofball. I’ve been doing this for 30 years so it’s become pretty easy to improvise and be the person that can bring cohesive style of burlesque and merge it with comedy, improve and music.
WHAT’S BEEN THE WILDEST THING YOU’VE DONE ON STAGE?
Mark: Probably catching a bowling ball on my head with steak knives sticking out of the holes. Then I kick it from my foot to my head. I was a semifinalist on America’s Got Talent and have been on David Letterman, so these crazy antics come naturally to me.
Matt: Mark’s pretty damn talented.
WHAT’S BEEN YOUR FAVORITE MOMENT OF THE SHOW?
Matt: Dahlia Fatale’s performance (burlesque contortionist). There was something about that performance. There was this connection between her and us that was this indescribable connection where you come out of it and you go, ‘That was something else.” I can’t say why, but it was one of those moments where the crowd and everybody just had the air sucked out of them.
Ray Ray: I love getting on stage every time. And the stage at Upstairs is really great because I can look everyone in the eye and it feels like I’m having a conversation with them.
Mark: Mine is when the show is done. Love doing it but to talk to the people after and how appreciative they are for what we did, that is the biggest thing for me. We did something right.
Joni: I’m obviously not performing with everyone, but I feel like I’m integrated with both the audience and what is happening on stage. So, any time I am there shooting it’s so special for me. And when I find a moment when everything is aligned and the band is in a good frame and the light is perfect – those are the standout moments for me.
Don’t miss Burlesco at Upstairs, the 3rd Friday of every month and the photography exhibit displayed in The Commons Club, Shag Room.