Pearls Before Swine
Ladies and gentlemen, you are about to take a mythical trip to the bayous of Louisiana, where deep in the mist lies Evangeline. Once a year, under the light of the full moon, Evangeline comes out to mate. And tonight, it is mating season...it is mating season...it is mating season...
It is also the springtime of burlesque's long-awaited revival, and Jane Blevin, aka Evangeline the Oyster Girl, is ready for it. "It's just weird enough," she says about burlesque. "It's just sexy enough. It's got the right kind of music. It's not just a band and it's not just a stripper. It's a little erotic play."
Now 27, Blevin did not enter the world of burlesque by happenstance. She was raised in a feminist household where her mother "did nothing but paint abstract vaginas." The environment made rebellion difficult but not impossible. "My mother was afraid I wasn't going to use my head," she says. "She didn't want me to go through life thinking my body was what was going to get me ahead. She tried to push me to 'be smart, be brave, be brilliant.'"
After graduating from college with a degree in poetry, Blevin traveled to Thailand, where she lived among the northern hill tribes. "Before that, I had no experience with performance or any visual mode. It was a sensual awakening. The culture centered around costume and dance. Every moment, the women were completely lovely and sensual, from young girls bathing in a stream with flowers behind their ears to a woman making a gorgeous sarong in one afternoon, then putting it on and going out to a rice paddy to farm." She was struck by the "immediacy of costume--the idea that a pleasurable aesthetic life has nothing to do with money or modernism. It's just a natural need we have to be beautiful." Soon Blevin was buying silk in Thai markets and feathers in Australia. When she returned to the U.S., she says, "the showgirl was born."
Blevin began dancing at Big Daddy's and the Bourbon Burlesque in New Orleans. She quickly distinguished herself from the gyrating g-string contingent by wearing tiny feathered outfits she'd crafted herself. "In the beginning, the other girls were confused," she remembers. "They didn't know why I was doing that. It definitely didn't mean I'd make more money. If anything, I'd make less. They wondered, 'Why the show?' But after a year or so, whenever I'd get on stage, they'd stop what they were doing and come and watch.
"I started to regularly incorporate the style of classic burlesque, which is so subtle. When I'd go on stage, I'd take an extra long time to get on the stage," she continues, drawing out her words in a delicious imitation of the act. "Then, bam!--all of a sudden, people would be out of their seats, clapping. It's how you take the audience. You have complete control. The slightest sensual movement is so much more than any of the cliche strip moves. That's what burlesque is--the way a finger lifts or an eye goes that means so much."
This approach didn't make Blevin a favorite of club owners, whose sutra, she claims, is "get 'em in, get 'em drunk, get 'em out. Don't try to be different, because then you could actually make them stop drinking and lift their heads up." Likewise, DJs programmed to spin only Top 40 tunes balked at her musical selection: Big Mama Thornton. Eventually her fancy got her fired--but she doesn't have any regrets.
"There's no memory in any of those places," she says. "It's eerie to be in them now and feel the resonance of what went on before--the old clubs, the great stars of burlesque--and no one even aware of what happened." In the early days of jazz, she goes on, many New Orleans musicians regularly played burlesque venues to pay the bills. "In every club there was a live band. The music created the dances. The rhythms and sounds instructed the dancers when to feel something, when to move a certain way, when to heighten the sexual frenzy. Jazz was born out of Storyville, which was the legal district of prostitution in New Orleans. Music creates the sexual feeling. It's no wonder burlesque came out of jazz."
Among the masters of burlesque was Kitty West; she played a character she called Evangeline the Oyster Girl during the Forties and Fifties before withdrawing into suburban anonymity. Appropriately, Blevin was cast as Evangeline for The Life of Kitty West, a documentary on West's life--and under the tutelage of her role model, she learned that burlesque is much more than a revelation of flesh. "The complexity and range of emotion is the most difficult part. The audience is viewing Evangeline having a sexual metamorphosis. She is going from being the virginal swamp goddess, unaware of her sexuality yet primally drawn to it, to being completely enveloped in rapture."
This effect is accomplished via minimal nudity and maximal props. When Evangeline emerges from a luxurious shell wearing a shimmering handmade costume and a swamp-green wig, eroticism becomes the fruit of the drama. "The movement comes from the feeling. When Kitty would teach me this dance, she would say things like, 'You're like a young girl at the beach. You want sex, and you look at that one, you look at him, you look at him. You want him, but you don't know why.'" Switching to an impression of West's Deep South drawl, she adds, "'You're all fidgety in the beginning. You go to do a bump, but you can't do the whole bump. You go into another move, but you can't finish it. Your body's calling you to do something, but your mind isn't ready.'"
Another aspect of classic burlesque Blevin found inspiring was the royal deportment of its star performers. "Kitty taught me what being a burlesque queen was all about. There's a way you hold yourself, a pride you carry on stage and off that says, 'I'm the queen. Everything I do, I am proud of.' It's not an ego thing but a demand for respect and admiration--a resplendence."
To do justice to West's stylings, Blevin needed an appropriate musical accompanist, and she found one in Chick Cashman, whom she met during the filming of the documentary. Cashman had been staging a jazzy burlesque show every week at Tucson's Hotel Congress in conjunction with his combo, the Countrypolitans, and when it came time for Blevin to re-enact the Oyster Girl routines, West graced the bandleader with the original 1947 score that became her musical trademark. Blevin and Cashman subsequently took this show on the road--and though its major elements are burlesque relics, Blevin believes that the performances are charged with interpretive spontaneity. "So much depends on the audience--who's standing in front of you that gives out the energy that'll make you give that move you've never done before."
The person providing this inspiration is often female, Blevin reveals. Unlike modern stripping, which primarily caters to men and their flexible wallets, she says that burlesque is for everyone. "I dance the same way for a man as I would for a woman," Blevin contends.
Nonetheless, Blevin admits that some women fail to understand the thrust of her art. While performing with the Crash Worship collective in Europe, for example, Blevin rode a giant wooden ox through a flaming corridor dressed in "a green-leather-and-black-ostrich-feather medieval showgirl costume" she'd designed. Later she was told that women in attendance had reduced her bit of primal theater to "running around naked trying to please the men."
In bewildered defense, Blevin sighs, "I always assumed that I'm a girl and I'm naked and I'm having a great time...Isn't that the best thing a girl could be?"
Evangeline the Oyster Girl, with the Denver Gentlemen and Kid Cyberfire. 9:30 p.m. Saturday, April 27, Mercury Cafe, 2199 California Street, $10 singles/$15 couples, 294-9281.
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