Burlesque wows at Highline Ballroom


A performer shows off her elaborate costume at The Golden Pasties on September 29. Photo: Averi Harper

A performer shows off her elaborate costume at The Golden Pasties on September 29. Photo: Averi Harper.

The New York Burlesque Festival held its 11th awards ceremony at Highline Ballroom on Sunday night to celebrate the culmination of its annual gathering of burlesque performers, vendors and fans from around the world.

At the venue underneath the High Line park, performers from more than 125 countries and every state in the union assemled for The Golden Pasties, a celebration to close out the four-day festival. Organizers said the showcase started in 2002 with a couple of shows at small clubs, but has since grown to become a flashy fete that annually sells out large venues, drawing burlesque enthusiasts and curious strangers alike.

Performers flaunted thigh-high hemlines, feathery boas, fishnet stockings and glittery red lipstick that shone even in the smoky haze and low red lights of the ballroom. Many of the showgoers were dressed just as elaborately, in masks, jeweled headbands and even latex.

New York Burlesque Festival founder and burlesque performer Angie Pontani said she is proud that the festival contributes to a wider conversation about the art form. “It’s a cultural hot topic, a theatrical art form that is so uniquely American,” she said. Dita Von Teese, the ex-wife of musician Marilyn Manson, is often credited with reviving the art form, and the 2010 film Burlesque, starring Cher and Christina Aguilera, also thrust burlesque into the mainstream.

The festival is Pontani’s way of ensuring that the burlesque community has a permanent home in New York City. For her, burlesque is a form of self-expression and a celebration of beauty and imagery from years past. “I love the imagery from the 30s and 50s,” she said. She started the festival to recapture that imagery, which she said got lost in popular, trashier misconceptions of burlesque.

The Golden Pasties was more of a variety show with awards presentations sprinkled in between acts than a serious awards event. Pontani called it a “silly spoof of the Oscars.”

The backgrounds of the performers varied widely: They included trained dancers, comedians, aerialists and even body builders, and were diverse in terms of gender identity, sexual orientation, body weight and age. The various comedic themes represented in the performances are the root of burlesque tradition, but the dramatic numbers tackled story lines with serious themes like suicide. 

A 23-year old performer whose stage name is Bunny Buxom won the Golden Pastie award for “The Hottest Freshman,” her first performance at the festival. Buxom is a New Yorker and 2011 graduate of the New York School of Burlesque, a 10-year-old Manhattan program where she learned all her performance skills. Buxom wore a waist-whittling corset and skin-tight mini dress, reflecting her interest in pin-up culture, the images of scantily clad models from the 1940s. “Burlesque is important to me because it’s super empowering,” she said, “I feel like a rock star and I can do anything I want when I’m on stage.”

Donna Denise, a performer from Dallas and one of the night’s only African-American acts, said she liked the inclusive atmosphere that the burlesque community provides. The former body builder said that she started performing burlesque on a whim, went to her first audition two years ago with no expectations, and has been performing ever since. Although there aren’t many African-American burlesque performers, she’s never felt that her stage skills were overlooked or underappreciated. “That four or five minutes I’m on stage is absolute pure bliss,” she said.

Although the burlesque community supports the festival, there are still many who fail to understand the breadth of the art form. Pontani has a word of advice for critics. She said naysayers who reduce burlesque to stripping “need to lighten up and come see a show.”