Arts & CultureTheater Notes

Grotesque Burlesque: Secret City Is All Brains, No Bras

Halloween is Athens’ favorite holiday in celebration of all things wild, quirky and local, and Secret City’s annual Grotesque Burlesque is the perfect opening to the biggest local party weekend of the year. This always-popular Halloween event is part of Secret City’s open mic Burlesque Beta series: a themed variety show in sexy, postmodern Vaudevillian style with striptease, standup, music, improv and dance—plus an extra helping of scary special effects for the season. With the motto “All Brains, No Bras,” and the belief that burlesque is for everyone, the troupe’s main desires can be summed up in two parts: Love the body you have, and make ‘em laugh.

Secret City was formed about three years ago by troupe president Vicious Delicious, who started Burlesque Beta when she was a member of Effie’s Club Follies. Secret City emerged out of Burlesque Beta after it outgrew its home base at Go Bar, performing as Secret City at Frolicon and then at 7 Stages in Atlanta. Secret City has since performed all over Athens, but is best suited to small music venues like Caledonia and The World Famous, though now the troupe has the chance to get (mostly) naked at the 40 Watt Club.

For theater lovers who know little about original burlesque beyond the stocking-peel, Vicious Delicious is happy to play the role of sexy history teacher. She describes the first stirrings of burlesque in variety shows and the vaudeville circuit: “Dancers used to entertain audiences between comedy acts, and eventually producers realized that audiences enjoyed the dancing, stripping ladies more than the acts. Burlesque dancers became headliners and established resident companies in the big cities.”

From the 1860s–1940s, it was all about the striptease and the elaborate costumes, but it eventually gave rise to go-go dancers in the ‘60s and, ultimately, modern strip clubs. Satire, comedy and social critique were abandoned along with the pasties as the tease was disconnected from stripping.

Neo-burlesque arrived exuberantly in the ‘90s, reviving classical burlesque and giving birth to newer, unconventional forms of sexy entertainment. The highly theatrical, comedic Secret City is firmly rooted in neo-burlesque radical self-expression, while simultaneously drenched in the finest tradition of classical burlesque in all its variety. Athens is a town ripe for this form of entertainment and a logical place for neo-burlesque to spread from the movement’s major centers, like Atlanta.

“We even have our own spin of boylesque-brolesque,” troupe member Callsign Charlie points out. “Essentially, I think, we just have the right culture and willing audiences that allow burlesque to grow here.”

Secret City’s acts range from comedic to dark, from improv to the intricately choreographed, striking a balance between funny and sexy. As troupe member Miss Andrea says, “No matter how sexy someone is, there’s always gonna be something funny about tassel-twirling.”

Secret City has a distinct DIY edge, as well. The aim isn’t just to entertain, but to educate “about burlesque, sex and body positivity, and provide a platform for anyone who wants to get involved and explore those things,” says member and MC Captain James Tiberius Cock. The shows firmly embrace empowerment for the audience and the performers.

Callsign Charlie finds this sort of performance liberating: “Being on that stage, I’m about as free and happy and as comfortable with my body as I can ever remember being.” Daisy Ya’DareMe adds, “Growing up female in America, you tend to get a lot of really mixed signals, to be ashamed of everything from your body to your desires. You aren’t really encouraged to be honest about enjoying sex, about feeling sexy. Burlesque not only forced me to confront the weird way our culture views sex and the female form, it has allowed me to kind of throw those things out the window and learn to be comfortable in my own skin.”

Audience members, encouraged to vocalize their positive enjoyment, are hopefully also inspired to participate. Secret City welcomes that interest, as long as no one tries to jump onstage in the middle of the show without an invitation (please don’t touch the performers). This sort of sexy, joyful fun—with a bit of gore for the season—is a great introduction for burlesque newbies or for the delight of seasoned regulars.

As Cock says, “It’s sexy, funny and theatrical: three things Athens loves. I think the beauty of burlesque is, there’s room for all of us.” And don’t be afraid to bring a date, Miss Andrea adds. “If they don’t like our show, they just aren’t The One.”

WHAT: Grotesque Burlesque
WHERE: 40 Watt Club
WHEN: Friday, Oct. 30, 9 p.m.