Pasties & Politics | Cover Story | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

June 26, 2019 News » Cover Story

Pasties & Politics 

Despite facing archaic regulations, SLC's underground burlesque scene manages to thrive.

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JASON KAMERATH/HIGH ISO PHOTOGRAPHY
  • Jason Kamerath/High ISO Photography

It goes down at 666 S. State St.
Burlesque artists, magicians, acrobats, clowns—vaudevillians of all persuasions congregate at The Beehive Social Club on the first Wednesday of every month for a night dubbed "Salt Lake City's grittiest punk rock cabaret." Featuring humor, sensuality and a healthy dose of radical politics for good measure, Behind the Zion Curtain is a variety show like no other.

"[It's] a punk rock cabaret that grew out of a collective frustration with having nowhere we felt comfortable putting the other acts," says burlesque performer and producer Havoq Luscivia, surrounded by duct tape, a length of industrial chain and an ample supply of fishnet stockings. "I want to do punk-rock burlesque; I want to do weird things; I want to have armpit hair on stage and have nobody whisper about it or say, 'Hey, we're not going to book you.'"

Luscivia, who uses the gender pronouns "they" and "them," started the revue last summer with the goal of building a space that was explicitly supportive of burlesque performances with political content. The nouveau ringleader also wanted to highlight the talents of performers of color, transgender performers and disabled performers, who Luscivia had noticed "getting boned" in Utah's performance art scene.

"I wanted a space ... that didn't allow racism, sexism, homophobia, bigotry or censorship," the self-proclaimed "chaotic SL,UT of the world's saltiest city," says. "Where marginalized people were welcomed, diversity was appreciated, and deeper meanings were explored."

The Burlesque Gospel
Behind the Zion Curtain is both a cause and an effect of Utah's recently renewed interest in burlesque. While the art form has been here for decades, it waxes and wanes in response to legal developments, cultural trends and opportunities to perform.

"Burlesque has existed in Utah for a very long time, but it is very oppressed," Luscivia says. "And sometimes there are fewer performers because of that—because they either don't have the energy to deal with the oppression or they go somewhere else."

But burlesque is having a moment right now, both in Utah's underground and mainstream performance scenes. Performer Madazon Can-Can, pictured above, speculates it might have something to do with the way burlesque aligns with third wave feminist principles like body positivity, sexual agency and radical inclusivity.

"All of the things that need to happen in the world are embraced by burlesque," Can-Can says. "The burlesque bible—the burlesque gospel—is spreading like wildfire."

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Prohibition(s)
Can-Can is a Salt Lake City native, and has been performing in Utah's vaudeville and burlesque scenes for five years. She says she's noticed a major uptick in public support since the 2017 opening of Prohibition, a 1920's-themed bar and restaurant in Murray, which features live burlesque several nights a week.

"Before then, we had to produce and promote our own events all the time," Can-Can says. "So once Prohibition opened, literally everyone felt a shift."

Can-Can says many of the bar's now-regulars stumbled into burlesque by accident after hearing about a speakeasy-style bar.

"Burlesque really brings in the people now, but it wasn't that way originally," Can-Can asserts. "They didn't know they wanted it until they knew they wanted it. Once they experienced the burlesque, they just wanted more."

The space occupies a specific niche, showcasing what Can-Can calls "burlesque for beginners." As such, the bar is many Utahns' first introduction to the art of the tease, and Prohibition performers honor that by toning down the overt sexuality found in some burlesque venues.

"I feel like [the bar] is a really good stepping stone to embrace the art of burlesque in a way that [audiences] can handle," Can-Can explains. "Because we are strippers! We strip, we take off our clothes, and that's part of it. But they feel like they're not watching something dirty."

Performers at Prohibition are asked to protect this perception, not only by venue owner Nate Porter, who purveys "burlesque that grandmas and grandpas can watch," but by the state of Utah. The state's restrictive laws on alcohol, nudity and "adult entertainment" are complex, and require performers to walk difficult, seemingly arbitrary lines depending on the context of each performance.

"Blue laws are the bane of our existence," Can-Can muses, invoking the colloquial term for the Beehive's dated alcohol regulations.

Because the space is licensed as a bar and not a "sexually-oriented business," full nudity is prohibited. Even the "pasties and a G-string" standard employed by Salt Lake City strip clubs is insufficient—"if there's alcohol, you have to cover yourself up," Can-Can says.

As a result, burlesque performers in public spaces like bars and clubs have made adjustments to perform locally. Can-Can notes performers "fuck around" with loopholes whenever possible, and that many performers visiting from out of state have been forced to purchase new lingerie to legally perform.

Things are different at private shows, though. Producers of private events are free to set their own restrictions–or lack thereof–on nudity and sexual expression.

"If you want to see a true cabaret, underground, nitty-gritty, nudity-positive scene, you have to go somewhere private," Can-Can says.

Enter the Beehive.

COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy photo

DIY Burlesque
The Beehive Social Club is an inventive DIY wonderland sandwiched between a tattoo shop and the old Sears building. It features a carpeted stage, blacked out windows and a kitchen known for its vegan chicken and waffles. A poster in the entryway features the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the words "say NO to drugs; say YES to pizza."

Beehive owners are "straight edgers"—members of a punk subculture that rejects drugs and alcohol. Since it doesn't serve booze, it makes for an interesting confluence of an all-ages venue hosting an adult-centric show.

Luscivia says The Beehive was the natural home for their Behind the Zion Curtain revue.

"I'm lucky to have a venue that has been a punk rock, DIY community effort from the start," Luscivia says. "We fit right in."

It's an important notion for Luscivia: the DIY ethos. It's baked into the history of burlesque, which originated as a vaudeville offshoot meant to be less beholden to standards of class and propriety.

"[Burlesque] started from a place of marginalized communities looking for somewhere to perform," Luscivia says. "And that's extremely parallel with the DIY punk rock community—the idea of, 'Hey, we're going to do this art. This space wasn't built for us, so we're going to make our own and we're going to put this frustration on the stage.'

"So the mentalities are very very parallel in both DIY punk rock culture and burlesque—the things that they say, the ways that they express things and the ways that they deal with oppression," they continue.

Calling it "an art of the people," Can-Can also emphasizes burlesque's utilitarian roots.

"As soon as it becomes overly filtered, then it really loses its heart, because burlesque has always been inherently political," she believes. "It's always involved every kind of weirdo, queerdo, big, little, small, black, white, Chinese—it doesn't matter.

"Whatever you have inside of you that you want to put on stage, you put on stage. And you're not just undressing yourself; you're undressing the stereotypes that society puts upon you. And that's what's so powerful about it."

In keeping  with that spirit, Luscivia's vision of radical self-expression frees performers to fully undress themselves in both the physical and philosophical senses.

"To me, burlesque is a lot about saying something with your art," Luscivia says. "And I don't like altering who I am as a performer to be more palatable. I wanted to find places I could do the things that I wanted to do."

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The Kitchen Sink
No one is ever asked to limit themselves at any Behind the Zion Curtain show. Luscivia, who is a multidisciplinary artist, books cabaret performers of all sorts, including drag performers, puppeteers, aerialists and mimes.

Many of these artists organize under the Utah Vaudeville and Burlesque Collective—an arts collective designed to support "any kind of person who considers themself a vaudevillian."

"We try to hit every demographic because vaudeville really is that," says Can-Can, who helps manage the collective. "As much as I'm a burlesquer and as much as I love being sexy and stuff, clowning really is my heart," she says. "And that's kind of the other side of it: yes, sex will get people in, but there's other parts of it that need to be recognized, too."

Kent Kingdon has been active in the UVBC and the general vaudeville community for two years. Kingdon joined the collective as a magician and sideshow performer—his most recent act involves swallowing razor blades—but he credits Can-Can and the UVBC with encouraging him to try out something he's always wanted to: burlesque.

"Burlesque speaks out to me because of the sexual repression of how I grew up, on top of just the social repression of having to fit in and go about life a specific way," Kingdon, who grew up LDS, says.

He's one of just four male burlesque, or "boylesque" performers currently active in the UVBC. He says it's important to him to model healthy sexual expression for men.

"Women have had sort of a nod in being sexy. It's been sort of like, given the go-ahead by the patriarchy at large," he says. "But still very much so, men, it's not OK to express your sexuality. Or you're a pervert and all sorts of stuff."

Kingdon says burlesque has been a valuable tool in fighting sexual repression and reclaiming his own sense of sexuality.

"It is something that fulfills a lot of things for me," he says. "I for a long time have felt like people should be able to feel sexy no matter who they are, and I never really applied that to myself until very recently."

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The Gift of the Stage
Burlesque has provided meaningful personal development opportunities for Can-Can, too. As an emcee for last year's Utah Pride, she was able to speak to her audiences about LGBTQ rights and book queer performers from across the state, providing exposure and recognition for the talents of her community.

"That was the biggest thing for me," says Can-Can, who lauds the diversity of the burlesque community, sexual and otherwise.

"Burlesque is a rainbow," she muses. "We're all diamonds. And all of these little sides of us reflect all of these—it's never one color. There's all these different colors. It looks clear, it looks white, but we're so much more complicated, especially when you shine a light on it.

"And when we're on stage, we literally have lights shone on us, and that's when the multiple facets or sides of ourselves can really shine," she says. "And that's the gift of the stage. That's the ultimate present: to be seen. Which is what gay people have wanted for-fucking-ever. Which is what every fucking person needs."

Can-Can has been seen, and that matters deeply to her.

"I've said my piece; I've shown my body; I've been very outspoken about why it's so important," she states. "I've talked about blue laws; I've talked about seeing the body as art; about seeing burlesque performers as artists and movers and shakers and political activists."

The End Game
Luscivia also seeks to engender respect for burlesque performers.

"My personal goal is to create spaces where people are getting paid what they're worth; where they feel accepted," they say. "I want people to feel respected and appreciated and have a place to do whatever they want."

Luscivia's performers earn a "door cut," meaning their paychecks vary along with the size of the audience. The more people Luscivia gets through the door each month, the closer they get to their goal of paying performers market rates.

"It's not enough yet, but there are places in this state that pay significantly less, so I'm a little proud of myself for doing that in less than a year," Luscivia says.

Can-Can's burlesque goals outlive her, with a focus on building long-term structural support for the performance art community.

"Every day, I think about what I want to do with the art community, how I want to serve the art community here in Utah, forever," Can-Can says. "My body will slow down, but if I can put things in place for the people coming after me, that's what I want to do. This is only the beginning."


Correction 6/26: A previous version of this article stated The Beehive Social Club hosts bring-your-own-beer events. It currently does not. Article has been updated.


COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy photo

Get in the Action
Here's where to catch burlesque in Utah.

Regular art of the tease nights in SLC can be hard to pinpoint, as more performance collectives emerge, so best to check troupe Facebook pages before heading out.

The Beehive Collective
666 S. State
Performances include the monthly Behind the Zion Curtain Cabaret and Beehive Magic show performances by Clusterphoque Cabaret.
facebook.com/pg/behindthezioncurtaincabaret
facebook.com/clusterphoquecabaret

Prohibition
151 E. 6100 South, Murray
Enjoy Thursday night "Burly-Oke" (a combination of burlesque and karaoke), plus Friday and Saturday night "Burlesque and the Beats" programs with a rotating cast of performers.
prohibitionutah.com

Beehive Broads
Troupe founded by performers Queen Bee and Miss Delta Rae Dixon performs occasional shows, and provides a welcoming, inclusive and body-positive environment for classes instructing the "burlesque-curious."
beehivebroadsburlesque.wordpress.com

Sketch Cabaret
Unique collective offering events that combine music and other live performance elements with opportunities for artists to draw live models.
facebook.com/sketchcabaret

Utah Vaudeville and Burlesque Collective
Collective of burlesque, circus, magic and other performing artists, with shows at venues including Prohibition and Ogden's Marshall White Center.
facebook.com/uvbcutah

—Scott Renshaw

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