By MIKE CHAIKEN
One of the chief features of the annual SWAN Day event in Connecticut is the festival’s showcase of the art of burlesque.
SWAN Day (Support Women Artists Now) is an all female festival of arts and music. This year’s event will be held on Saturday at Trinity-On-Main in New Britain. It was organized by Bristol ex-pat Jennifer Hill.
Mistress Leona Star has entertained the SWAN Day crowds in the festival’s previous incarnations. And she is bringing her burlesque routine back again for her third journey.
“I initially discovered burlesque at a relatively young age,” said Leona, who began her performance career as an actress. “I loved watching old black and white movies and I remember watching ‘Lady of Burlesque’ with Barbara Stanwyck and, of course, ‘Gypsy’ was influential, too. After that, I began to do my research into the world of burlesque. I did lots of reading and watched anything I could get my hands on. I knew it was an art form that I had to pursue,” said Leona in an email interview.
Among the artists that inspired Leona were “Tempest Storm, Josephine Baker, Jean Idelle, Lili St. Cyr, and Gypsy Rose Lee. I loved seeing women bravely grace stages around the world in an era in time where women were kind of inhibited sexually. I thought that it was so progressive.”
Leona, however, is not tied just to the past stars of burlesque. “A few contemporary artists I looked up to are performers like Jo Weldon, and of course Dita von Teese.”
“Dita has become a household name and did a great job of making it seem less taboo in a sense,” said Leona.
A step has to be taken, however, to move from an admirer of burlesque artists and becoming a burlesque performer. “When I was a teenager I would get into all the clubs and would go see drag shows pretty regularly. I always admired the queens that performed and even would joke that I wanted to be a drag queen when I grew up, I actually still make that joke,” said Leona of her journey.
“The opportunity arose to audition for a burlesque troupe five years ago and I jumped at the chance,” said Leona. “We worked on our debut show and the rest is history.”
In modern day burlesque, the end product is as much performance art as it is entertainment. “I love putting together my routines,” said Leona. “I keep a list in my phone with ideas when they come to me, sometimes a song will inspire me and I will come up with an act to go along with it, other times I get an idea for an act from random thoughts, or something I’ve watched or read.”
“I really enjoy watching it all come together,” said Leona of the nascent routines. “I customize my costuming with rhinestones, fringe, spikes, studs, feathers, whatever goes best with what I plan to perform. That’s the fun part being able to take an idea and watch it come to fruition, putting acts together is a labor of love.”
“The best part about it is every act that I do is mine,” said Leona of the art of burlesque. “I have complete control over every aspect of it when you model and act you are showcasing someone else’s art, with burlesque it is solely yours, it makes it special.”
Burlesque circa 2016 is not afraid to offer up a bit of sauciness with its entertainment value and its artistic demeanor. “I don’t really set out to find a balance (between those dimensions) when putting together my performances,” said Leona. “When I have an idea I just go with it.”
“I will say that when I first started burlesque I did my research and learned the proper way to perform, you could call it burlesque etiquette, I suppose,” said Leona. “There are certain things that are frowned upon and I just try not to do them, most of them at least.”
“Finding that balance is interesting, sometimes I have an idea and I really love it, but what I like may not be for everyone,” said Leona. “I have learned how to charm the crowd into liking whatever I portray, it’s an art in itself.”
Modern burlesque has become an arts community unto itself in recent years, and it’s a community Leona appreciates. “I thoroughly enjoy all of the friends that I have made over the years in the burlesque community. The relationships I’ve gained are really special and the community is very supportive and accepting. We are all very lucky to have each other to fall back on.”
“We sometimes bounce ideas off one another and help each other out with costuming or silly things like safety pinning each other into something backstage or borrowing glitter,” said Leona, who has been a member of Bon Appetit Burlesque, Beat City Beauties, and New Haven Burlesque over the years. “It’s a wonderful little community of smart, funny, charismatic, and creative people. Most of us are very similar personality wise and it is wonderful to be around like-minded people.”
Addressing some of the misconceptions about burlesque, Leona said, “Burlesque is an art form a very special empowering art form. As performers, it is our job to educate people on what burlesque truly is and its origins. I encourage people to come to shows all the time.” said Leona
“I enjoy talking to newcomers after shows and revel in their happiness and surprise,” said Leona. “Burlesque is amazing. We have fun, make people laugh, get people thinking. I keep it classy and so do all my fellow performers.”
“It’s not about stripping,” said Leona, “it is always all about the tease.
“Burlesque is for everyone. We have people of all ages and all walks of life at shows.”
“I want people to come to the shows because most people have a preconceived idea of what they think it is and it’s sometimes a negative one,” said Leona. “Burlesque encourages women and men to be comfortable with who they are as a person and embrace their body’s imperfections and perfections. It is meant to empower you and make you feel good about yourself and make others feel good.”
As a returning artist to SWAN Day, Leona said, “I think that having an event that showcases women artists is a beautiful thing. I am honored to be apart of SWAN Day CT… What Jennifer Hill (the organizer) does by uniting so many creative women all under one roof is admirable. So much goes into putting a show of this magnitude together and we all band together and make it happen. Supporting your fellow woman is something that needs to happen all the time and supporting each other and our various art forms is a really special thing. It’s empowering to see the bands, artists, and vendors showcase their talents and really helps facilitate a sister hood where we can all help each other and support one another.”
And for the newcomers to the world of burlesque coming out Saturday for SWAN Day, Leona said, “You can expect to have a smile on your face the entire time. You are going to witness charisma, confidence, beautiful costuming, lots of shimmying and dancing. There is always a good glove peel and a titillating stocking peel, and, of course, lots of tease.”
“Each performer brings something different to the table, some bring schtick, others bring sexy, and there’s always some classic elements and lots of glamour. I bring a lot of sass and a little bit of a kick butt vibe when I am up there.”
SWAN Day CT will be held at Trinity-on-Main, 69 Main St., New Britain on Saturday, March 5. Doors open at 5:15 p.m. and show time is 5:45 p.m.
Ebony Amber of Ebony Amber Cosplay and Darcy Anderson-Abbott will be hosting. Musical performers are: Them Damn Hamiltons, J Cherry, Chaser 8, Post Modern Panic, Dina Brass, Canyon, The Girls From Ruby Falls, I Am Snow Angel, Murderous Chanteuse, Someone You Can X-ray, Gracie Day, Nicki Mathis, Nan Roy, That Virginia, and Kiersten Seiser. Burlesque performers are: Victoria Van Layer, Mistress Leona Star, Vivienne LaFlamme, Vanil LaFrappe, and Hula Hooper Danielle Duncan. Blissninja Shamenpunk and Bad Bunny will showcase their fashion designs and Ebony Amber Parish will show her costume design collection. Kerry Kennedy will paint live.
Tickets are $25 and will be available at the door.
Comments? Email mchaiken@BristolObserver.com.