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You might not know it from a quick survey of the dance floors at several LoDo nightclubs, but, as many people who first began going to disco-theme parties in the late '80s can tell you, '70s nostalgia ceased to be interesting around the same time Shelley Long stuck a Mrs. Brady wig on her head and played groovy for the movie cameras. One can only milk the irony out of a full-throttle freakout to "You Sexy Thing" for so long before it becomes apparent that all of those Disco Sucks T-shirts were printed -- and sold by the Pinto-load -- for a reason. (Hell, even Homer Simpson has one.)
Yet for many people, there's still something compelling about retro movements in general -- as evidenced by the ever-present rotation of fashions from the '50s, '60s, '70s and even the ungodly '80s. (Check out those weird zippery trousers everyone's wearing on the 16th Street Mall and try to tell yourself they don't resemble parachute pants just a little bit.) But in the realm of art and music, the challenge of revisitation lies in crafting something that incorporates elements of the past into something relevant to the present -- something that has more to do with inspiration than imitation.
For Michelle Baldwin and her fleet of dancing girls, it's all about slapping on some pasties and doing a pelvic grind.
It would not be accurate to call Baldwin a "madam" in the Mayflower or Heidi Fleisssense of the word. She's not a pimp, after all; she's a producer. A vivacious visionary. But she probably wouldn't mind it if you did attach the title, so long as you did so in a reverent way. Madam Michelle has a certain vintage charm, a retro ring. Which is precisely what Baldwin's performance group, Burlesque As It Was, is all about. She does maintain a roster of more than twenty nubile young women who are more than willing to disrobe for audiences of strangers in a performance setting. Equal parts variety-style vaudeville, turn-of-the-century striptease, B-movie camp and modern theater, Burlesque As It Was aims to re-create -- and update -- an era that was more tease than T-back, a time when a little belly-wiggling was the closest one might come to a lap dance.
"The burlesque tradition is all about putting the 'tease' in striptease," Baldwin says. "It's sexy and cute. It's all about trying to pull audiences in rather than just putting everything out there."
Baldwin -- a photographer, writer, sculptor and, as Vivienne Vavoom, co-host of the Golden Aux Lounge Internet radio show on the locally based Auxiliary Radio (auxradio.com) -- says her interest in burlesque revival was sparked during a visit to New York City a couple of years ago. She stumbled across a performance, liked what she saw, and left inspired. ("I knew that I could do better," she says slyly.) Investigations of vaudeville/burlesque history followed: She learned about famous dancers like Gypsy Rose Lee, the costumes of the 1880s through the 1920s, traditional dances like the Southern Fan Dance. She learned about burlesque stars who became famous for their elaborate routines, such as starting a number in a bubbly bathtub, or acts that involved the putting on of one's clothes.
"The old burlesque was pretty simple, actually," Baldwin says. "It was very drawn out. It involved props and sets and costumes, but in a kind of limited way. I think modern audiences need something that's more of a spectacle, so what I am trying to do is incorporate burlesque traditions into more modern elements. We have very elaborate sets, and we work with bands that can help us enhance the show, as well as using old music from the era or other sources."
With her sister Andrea, Baldwin organized her first Denver-area burlesque show at the Bluebird in 1998; the Perry Weissman 3 provided music for an evening that Baldwin admits was pretty scattered. Since then, though, she has formed an informal partnership with Jason Stoval of Grim Productions, a local company that does everything from video and film production, Web design and advertising to event promotion. The pairing proved to be fortuitous: In addition to designing Baldwin's Web site (burlesqueasitwas.com), Stoval helped the sisters produce two more shows: the Ooh La La! Burlesque Français at the Gothic Theatre in October of 1999 and the Valentine's Day Burlesk at the Bluebird on February 13.
"Jason has been great at getting us sponsors and actual bookings," Baldwin says. "Rather than us renting a hall or something, he's been able to convince promoters and clubs that this is a viable performance that will sell tickets and should be allowed access."
(Stoval also has a hand placing some of the city's other unconventional acts, including a series of live, interactive gonzo game shows, hosted by the not-so-mysterious Sid Pink, that have been popping up in some of area's more curious nooks and crannies; on Friday, June 23, Pink will host "The Satan Says Show" as part of a lineup at the Aztlan Theater that also includes sets from Seraphim Shock and Obeah along with female oil wrestling.)