June 22nd, 2012 | Published in Interviews
You see or hear the world “burlesque,” and your mind wanders to one of two places. The first is a seedy red light district where scarlet, block-lettered XXXs adorn tattered posters and poorly-lit marquees. It’s a veritable boulevard of broken dreams, where transvestites give private performances in dark alleys for crack, their furtive gestures accompanied by the plaintive, almost musical impacts of tainted droplets spilling from dented gutters overhead. Perhaps Cher’s recent film occurs to you, along with random images from the sordid Striptease and Showgirls momentarily flicker in your frontal lobe—then blessedly fade away.
Your other recollection destination is the woebegone land of pin-ups and cheeky, sepia-tone silent movies. This is the age of Betty Page and pretty girls provocatively posed with Mustangs on calendars thumb-tacked to the corkboard in the auto shop.
Terra Incognita would have you know burlesque hails from both of these worlds—and neither. She would know.
Terra’s more than just a hot bod. The model commands attention with high cheekbones, mesmeric eyes, and a bob haircut—none of which was lost on Cleveland director Darrin McDonald, who cast her in Old School Sinema’s latest schlock horror film, She Devils a Go-Go.
We caught up with Incognita some time ago to talk about her performance art and the resurgence of burlesque.
PETE ROCHE: Could you explain the art of burlesque for someone not familiar with it? Is it a distinctly American form?
TERRA INCOGNITA: It is a classic style of dance. It predates go-go and other forms of exotic dance, and those dances have their roots in burlesque. The main difference with burlesque is it is more about the tease, and very little is actually revealed. No, burlesque is not distinctly American, as evidenced by the French name. It originated in Europe, but the European form and the American forms are different. American burlesque tends to focus on the sexy, whereas European tends to focus on the funnier side of things. But, American burlesque can be funny, and lean towards the vaudeville side of things. It depends on the performer, the show format, etc.
PR: Is there a distinction between dancing / stripping / entertaining / teasing, etc and how does burlesque combine these elements?
TI: Yes, as I mentioned, burlesque is the art of the tease. It is more about the sexiness, the funniness, the costumes, the props, and is very little about the actual showing of skin. That is how it differs from “stripping.”
PR: Is there a tongue-in-cheek sort of coyness about burlesque that separates it from more prurient dance forms?
TI: Yes, there can certainly be. It varies. Some people do funny or cute performances. Other times it is slow and sultry. It depends on the show, the venue and the individual performer
PR: Explain the use of costumes, props, pageantry in burlesque shows?
TI: Costumes are very important. They are used to portray the character you are depicting in your act. Typically, women wear many layers of costumes, so one is removed, only to reveal a new one! That is part of the “tease” aspect. Also, during an act, the women portray a character, and often will metamorphosis into another character as the act proceeds, and this is shown via costumes and props.
PR: Is usage of a stage name the norm? Why is that? Are some performers embarrassed by it, or prefer to keep a separate “identity?”
TI: Stage names help with creating the illusion larger-than-life glamour
PR: Following up on that, how do your friends and family feel about your work? Are they understanding / supportive?
TI: Of course.
PR: Could you tell a little about the history of burlesque?
TI: Burlesque is a literary, dramatic or musical work intended to cause laughter by caricaturing the manner or spirit of serious works, or by ludicrous treatment of their subjects. The word derives from the Italian burlesco, which itself derives from the Italian burla– a joke, ridicule or mockery.
A later use of the term, particularly in the United States, refers to performances in a variety show format. These were popular from the 1860s to the 1940s, often in cabarets and clubs, as well as theatres, and featured ribald comedy and female dancing. A number of producers attempted to recreate the spirit of this form of burlesque in Hollywood films from the 1930s to the 1960s. There has been a resurgence of interest in this format since the 1990s.
PR: Following up on that, could you explain the history / resurgence of the art form in Cleveland?
TI: The Cleveland Burlesque Company is will be celebrating our first anniversary April 1st. It has been a busy, amazing year. Clevelanders have embraced having burlesque available to them on a regular basis, and I get inquiries about new shows, and inquiries from potential new performers regularly!
PR: Can you talk about the connection of burlesque dancing with live music, especially rock and roll?
TI: We regularly perform with the band The Madison Crawl, more of a rockabilly blues band. But, I have danced with Deadbolt, Batusis, and the Dwarves. Live music and burlesque seem to compliment each other well.
PR: Any favorite kind of music you prefer to dance with? Is that kind of music different from what you might ordinarily enjoy?
TI: Jazz. I dance to a lot of jazz, old show tunes, Dean Martin, Rosemary Clooney, Jacques Morali, Sonny Lester, the Del Rays…I tend to listen to faster punk music, but prefer slower beats for performing.