Dita Von Teese, for any who may be unfamiliar with her is a multi-faceted performer with fingers in many pies, from fashion and live entertainment to fetish culture, music and publishing. Something of a modern icon of retro glamour, Von Teese evokes the starlets and grand dames from the Golden Age of Hollywood as well as the more transgressive flipside in the adjacent era of the 1950s, as epitomised by famous fetish pin-up girl Bettie Page. Dita is a kind of postmodern remix of all these influences of retro glamour and sexuality, and has come to be widely regarded as the Queen of Burlesque, having helped to popularise mainstream awareness of the resurgent artform.
Much of the burlesque I have previously reviewed has been at the more local, grass-roots end of the scene, squarely in the hip tradition of neo-burlesque that favours subversive humour. These kinds of acts often focus on pushing the envelope along the spectrum from the glamorous to the grotesque. In doing so, they are intentionally undermining and interrogating the underlying presumption that burlesque is, at the very core, ultimately supposed to titillate its audience on some level.
One’s personal tastes will vary of course, and many fans of neo-burlesque likely do attend and enjoy the artform for other reasons, not least of which may be an appreciation of that very impulse towards self-parody. Fundamental to so much of this modern work that I have attended is the deep-set undercurrent of irony, to the extent that those more straightforward acts which favour displays of technical skill combined with comparatively unironic sexiness seem like the exception rather than the rule.
As a result, watching Dita Von Teese’s decadently glamorous new show The Art of the Teese could potentially be somewhat jarringly conventional by comparison, if one were to come at it from that perspective. “Conventional” in this context is by no means a bad thing, but while more cutting-edge indie acts seek to deconstruct and satirise the gendered societal expectations of what constitutes sexiness and femininity, very little of that will be challenged here.
What we have instead is an unapologetically sexy, classy, classic approach to burlesque which seems, at least without benefit of a time machine or extensive research, far closer to the “traditional” burlesque striptease of yesteryear.
Well… not exactly. It certainly is “classic” in its aspirations, but this is big-budget burlesque, with the glamour and production values cranked up to 11, with sumptuous costumes, elaborate props, and a degree of professional showmanship that is second to none. And despite being non-parodic and unashamedly sexy, this is no po-faced nor self-serious endeavour either. Even historical burlesque has always had a tongue firmly in cheek, with the emphasis on the tease over the strip. Indeed, if the self-referential title of the show weren’t clear enough, Dita Von Teese has in the past described herself as a performer who “puts the tease back into striptease”, and you can certainly see how. With far more emphasis on the coy display of removing long gloves and stockings and demonstrating ballet and acrobatic skills, the eventual reveal of near-nude bodies would seem almost incidental… if such spectacular sensuality was not so thoroughly woven into these captivating acts.
Von Teese headlines but has considerable support in what might be described as a kind of “striptease revue”, with multiple supporting acts strutting their stuff, some of whom are actually recreating the star’s own well-known past numbers. Ginger Valentine performs an athletic routine in a large heart-shaped apparatus, her trim figure and dark locks clearly evoking Bettie Page. The exceedingly voluptuous former Playboy covergirl Gia Genevieve evokes a more Jayne Mansfield-esque persona, taking on another of Dita’s classics in a claw-foot iron bathtub, suds and a functioning showerhead for some pulse-quickening undulations.
Although in the undulation stakes no-one can challenge Dirty Martini, the one performer most in the neo-burlesque vein, and certainly the best known in the show after Dita herself, who praises Martini as the best in the business. A plus-sized lady with keen comedic timing equaled only by her bombastic stage presence, she poses and strips while riding Dita’s famous carousel horse, before stunning the audience with a virtuosic display of tassel-twirling. This is a classic burlesque skill, bolstered by the deployment of her generous assets and elevated by abundant practice and talent.
At risk of stealing the show, for my two cents, was local gal Zelia Rose, a remarkably dynamic performer who leans into what may well have been her likely historical pigeonhole as an “exotic beauty” with an almost tribal costume festooned with bananas. What distinguished her act though was a high-energy performance with a greater focus on dance, rather than posing and languid enticement. Her impressive gyrations and rug-cutting clearly took the crowd off-guard, as she initially elicited a far more muted response than her prodigious verve and exciting choreography deserved, until they warmed up to the change in pace and just about brought the house down by the end of her number.
Lest it be thought that the show is purely for those appreciating a good old perv on the female form, however, Dita’s “Vontourage” of Alex Palinski and Eliezer Martinez act as stagehands, back-up dancers, support performers and all around silent eye-candy, whether impeccably dressed in coattails or bearing their shredded physiques. Yet even they pale in comparison to the comedic highlight of the evening in the form of the token male solo act, Jett Adore. His Zorro-themed striptease brings new appreciation to the art of dramatic cape flourishes, not to mention equal-opportunity use of nipple-pasties, a derriere to outshine at least half of his female co-stars, and likely the most outrageous codpiece in the history of genital adornment.
Expertly stringing this all together was the hysterically funny master of ceremonies Jonny McGovern, whose loud and proud persona underscores his linking monologues to give the often straightforwardly sexy tone of the majority of the acts a winking and raucous framework. Waving a succession of increasingly outrageous fans like a parody of a Southern Gentleman, McGovern exhorts the crowd to cheer, holler and wolf-whistle from whatever perspective of sexual orientation or gender identity they bring with them. His schtick is camp and somewhat old-fashioned, yet the message is inclusive and his patois hilarious, a vivaciously queer burlesque hype-man par excellence.
Needless to say though, as truly marvelous as the support acts all were, the name up in lights is who everyone ultimately came to see. Dita Von Teese opens the show, with the latest variation on her most iconic act, as the girl in the oversized martini glass, now rendered as a shimmering champagne glass bedazzled with almost as many jewels as the glittering dress she must remove before splashing about. It was perhaps an unexpected opening for some of us, who might have expected her signature performance to be saved for last, but cannily it gets the show off with an almighty bang instead.
Later on we are treated to another famous number “Lazy”, as much a kind of faintly comedic skit as it is a striptease, with Von Teese lip-synching to a melodic dialogue sequence with her Vontourage in the role of servants to a lady of leisure, languidly rebuffing calls and expensive gifts from a parade of paramours. As she strips from her high-fashion outing clothes to a no less glamorous dressing gown, she reclines on a lush chaise longue by her diamond-encrusted vintage telephone, proclaiming to all comers that she loves only them but is simply feeling too lazy for any romance tonight. It is a delightfully cheeky number that relies on expert timing and runs like a well-oiled machine.
Drawing on the ballet lessons of her youth, Dita’s post-interval performance “Swan Lake” perhaps owes something to the Aronofsky film Black Swan in addition to the Tchaikovsky ballet. Resplendent in a black tutu until it is inevitably and seductively cast aside, she eventually substitutes the feathers of her costume for enormous feathered fans, in another classic burlesque staple. Seeing Dita perform one of her famous fan-dances is as impressive as it is to see her perform part of her routine en pointe.
The whole show is rounded out with Von Teese’s fourth and final act, “Rhinestone Cowgirl”. In an elaborate Western set complete with a tumbleweed opening, this aggressively pink and sparkly vision of the Wild West by way of a glitzy burlesque fantasy is arguably the most eroticised performance of the evening. As the gloves, bejeweled chaps, holster-belt, high-heeled spurred cowboy boots and even hat are teasingly stripped away, Dita mounts a spectacularly longhorned and shimmering mechanical bull, stereotypically associated with modern Texan bars. She then proceeds to ride as it dips, bucks and rotates, a moving tableaux for her series of lithely sensuous poses, arched and struck atop this glittering steed to decorum-shattering effect and the utter mania of the appreciative crowd.
Resplendently situated in the aesthetically perfect venue of the ostentatiously ornate former picture palace The State Theatre, this show is an utter delight. For those who can’t get enough of vintage retro glamour and epic showmanship in their tounge-in-cheek (or possibly more in earnest) titillation, Dita Von Teese’s The Art of the Teese is, it is fair to say, the ultimate ticket to an amazing evening.
Dita Von Teese in
The Art of the Teese
2018 AUSTRALIAN TOUR
Perth Friday 16 & Saturday 17 February | Astor Theatre
Adelaide Tuesday 20 February | Thebarton Theatre
Sydney Thursday 22, Friday 23 & Sunday 25 February | State Theatre
Melbourne Thursday 1 & Friday 2 March | Palais Theatre
Gold Coast Sunday 4 March | The Star Gold Coast
Brisbane Tuesday 6 & Wednesday 7 March | QPAC