Two years ago, I sat in the audition room of a theatre where I was interning, and my boss, as he often did, handed me a resume with his own annotations added. The actor in question had listed a burlesque show in her credits, and my boss had circled the title of the show and scrawled “NO! THIS IS NOT THEATRE!”
Well, according to the definition I was given in my Intro to Theatre class in college, it is. There’s a performer, a story, and an audience. That’s all it takes, according to the textbooks of my past. But I think my former boss’ frustrated dismissal of burlesque as “not theatre” had less to do with technical definitions and more to do with taking offense at the idea that something overtly sexual (and female-driven, I might add) belonged in the same category of high art as this theatre company perceived itself to be producing.
If you want to talk lofty ideas and Great American Plays, sure, a burlesque or a pole dancing show like The Wild Side isn’t the place to look. But if you’re searching for creativity, cleverness, humor, audience interaction, grace, athleticism, stage presence, charisma, spectacle, and surprises—many of the elements that make theatre enjoyable—look no further than The Wild Side for all this and more in droves. And yes, the show is also sexy. As. Hell.
The theme for the performance I attended on December 29 was “speakeasy,” which translated largely into 1920s aesthetics that were tons of fun to behold. Who knew that Britney Spears’ “Oops I Did It Again” would work so well as a big band number? (The folks at Postmodern Jukebox, apparently). As someone who’d seen a fair amount of burlesque but no pole dancing before this show, I spent a whole lot of time with my jaw on the floor. The physical skill required to pole dance is undeniably impressive, and several of the performers pulled out all the stops.
Company member Dalton Rhodes performed his first solo number, which in addition to being a gorgeous performance, was an exciting change of pace for me, someone used to the men in burlesque being limited to magicians, musicians, and comedy acts. It was exciting to see a gentleman join the ranks of graceful, seductive dancers. The show’s closer, Rachele Ribera, had a truly phenomenal sense of rhythm and grace. And Wild Side producer Anna May performed half a dance completely blindfolded, which was nothing short of stunning.
My personal favorite performer of the night, though, was Marina Mars, who in addition to a pole dancing routine, performed the best burlesque number I’ve ever seen. Rocking green hair and a vintage gown, she performed several hilarious and cleverly constructed bits that corresponded with the brass instruments in the music, removing her gloves in time with trombone slides and undoing her zipper in movements matching trumpet notes. The entire piece was brilliant and captivating from beginning to end, and I was nothing short of spellbound.
And I can’t finish this article without mentioning the show’s “hostess with the most ass,” Kat Sass. The quality of the host can make or break a cabaret-style performance like this one, and Kat Sass definitely fell into the “make it” category. With an extravagant gown and even more extravagant personality, she led flawless transitions between acts, worked her audience well, and expressed an enthusiasm for the performers that was so genuine it was impossible not to be excited for whoever was coming onstage next.
I will make no apologies for enjoying pole dancing, and I will make no apologies for considering it high art. The element of owning one’s sexuality that pole dancing and burlesque so boldly embrace does not detract from the artistic merit of these shows; if anything, it adds a touch of feminist ideals—people of any gender, race, and body type (even short girls with wide hips like me!) can be athletic, can be engaging performers, and can pursue the forms of artistic and sexual expression that speak to them. The Wild Side is indeed, as it advertises, a badass pole show, and it is definitely something I’ll be checking out again.
The Wild Side is performed monthly at Uptown Underground, located at 4707 N Broadway St, Chicago, IL 60640. For more information, visit the Uptown Underground website or The Wild Side’s Facebook page.
All photos by Ellen Beard Photography unless otherwise noted.
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