As trends in pop culture have a tendency to wax and wane over the course of time, it is often a treat when those which have fallen by the wayside resurface with renewed vitality. Such is the case with Sarasota’s Black Diamond Burlesque, a contemporary interpretation of the classic performance art form whose origins date back to ancient Greece.
Armed with corsets and coquettish smiles, the ladies of Black Diamond Burlesque both tiptoe and sashay along the thin line between naughty and nice; past and present. Their antics are playfully tongue-in-cheek as well as seductive; one part bawdy and two parts class. The resulting sum is a whole lot of fun.
Although the history of burlesque dates as far back as ancient Greece, the inspiration behind Black Diamond hearkens primarily to the 1930s vaudeville culture in the United States. It also draws inspiration from pinup queens of the 1940s and 1950s – namely, the imitable sex symbol and cult siren, Bettie Page.
“I’ve been collecting pinup magazines from the 1950s for years. That’s kind of where it all started for me,” said Black Diamond founder and performer, Virginia Hughes, who is known as “Miss Petite Coquette” on stage.
Although some have criticized Black Diamond as a crass display of excess, the performances have been generally well-received since the troupe’s inception in September, 2010. The general consensus is that Black Diamond Burlesque has successfully created a show that is all at once sexy, sophisticated and humorous.
“Most of the feedback we receive has been positive because we’re careful to make sure that our show doesn’t cross the line of being raunchy,” said Hughes. “It’s sexy and provocative, but we think it’s hugely important to maintain the glamour and class of traditional burlesque.”
Fellow Black Diamond performer and professional singer, Joelle Davis – better known by her stage name, “Lotta Love” – recognizes the controversial nature of burlesque and takes the occasional criticism in stride.
“Black Diamond is first and foremost a creative outlet. For me, there’s also a political slant to it. You run a risk whenever you do something controversial – but I think that’s important because it raises awareness,” Davis said.
“This pushes boundaries and makes people think harder about their perceptions of women; of sexuality itself,” she said.
Hughes, a professional photographer and Ringling College of Art and Design graduate, got her burlesque start with Le Teaze, a Tampa-based troupe, in June, 2010. Frustrated by the restrictions on creativity that she encountered, Hughes teamed up with Laura Daniel Gale and DJ Rus Deep of Plush Entertainment to start a burlesque troupe in Sarasota in September.
“All of the girls do their own choreography and are in charge of making their own costumes,” said Gale, who co-produces the shows with Rus Deep, and made her own performance debut on July 28 at The Golden Apple Theatre. “We let them be as creative as they would like to be.”
Surprisingly, Black Diamond Burlesque’s sharp-tongued comedic MC, Sarah Brown, is the only member of the troupe with a background in theatre. Some of the ladies and gentlemen of the troupe are trained dancers or musicians while others have virtually no performance background whatsoever.
On stage, however, their polished performances come across as anything but amateur.
During the July 28 show at The Golden Apple Theatre, Hughes put on an act in which she attached a canvas to her torso and painted away her clothing. Erin Murphy, performing as “Madame Morphose,” played the role of a jilted bride who used a pair of scissors chop away at her wedding dress until she was reduced to lingerie.
Mariel Purdon, known as “Mademoiselle Rowdy Pants” on stage, possesses a background in ballet and ballroom dance and said that she is pleased with the allowances that Black Diamond provides for creativity.
“Burlesque is such an amazing avenue for a trained dancer to come back to,” she said. “I get to choreograph whatever style I choose, so it’s a really great creative outlet.”
Although the majority of performers in Black Diamond are female, there are also a handful of men who participate on stage. Each burlesque performance features a stage hand – known as the “stage kitten” who cleans up and arranges props between acts. Black Diamond’s newest stage kitten, “Top Hat Dave” Charlton recently made his debut as the first man to fill the role. The more clothing he removed – and the more tattoos he exposed – throughout the course of the show, the more popular he became with the ladies in the audience.
Since its inception, Black Diamond Burlesque has taken the stage at venues such as , , Polo Grill and, most recently, . The troupe also performs for private parties and charity events, including participation in the Night of Red in September to benefit the community AIDS network as well as Planned Parenthood’s Safe Sex Halloween Party in October.
Co-producer DJ Rus Deep said that the ultimate goal will be to extend Black Diamond’s breadth outside of Sarasota and take the show on the road.
“It’s been very fulfilling just to see the way it’s already grown over the past several months,” he said. “This is the most fun and inspiring group of people I’ve ever worked with and I’m excited to see where it goes from here. We’d like to eventually see Black Diamond become a brand name – kind of like Cirque du Soleil.”
Members of the cast unanimously expressed surprise and satisfaction regarding the diverse nature of the audiences that have attended performances so far.
“I’ve been really surprised at the number of older people attending our shows,” said Hughes. “We really love seeing that. It’s been a good balance between old and young, which makes for a really great variety.”
“I think that it primarily appeals to women because it’s so empowering,” she said. “But I think that a lot of people just come out for the experience of pretending to be in a cabaret 50 to 80 years ago. Lots of people, both young and old or male and female, come for the retro experience.”
“A burlesque performance isn’t just about making the men in the audience want you,” said Davis. “It’s also about making the women want to be you.”
Maia Lamport – “Lola Palooza” on stage – can attest to the empowering nature of performing in burlesque.
“It’s really changed my perception of myself,” she said. “I’ve always loved my body, but after doing burlesque I have a new appreciation for it and am even more comfortable with being a woman; with my self-image and my sexuality. I think that every woman should at least do a little dancing in front of the mirror now and then. It’s just fun and it feels great.”
Miss Petite Coquette, Madame Morphose, and Mademoiselle Rowdy Pants will be representing Black Diamond Burlesque and Plush Entertainment at the Late Night Prohibition Party to Benefit the Muscular Dystrophy Association at 9 p.m. Saturday night at the Sarasota Vineyard.
Following Saturday’s performance, Black Diamond Burlesque plans to announce the date and location for its next show. For more information about upcoming performances, contact Plush Entertainment at firstname.lastname@example.org.