Nerdlesque: When Burlesque Gets Nerdy

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The art of burlesque is hardly anything new, but a recent trend is adding something special to the age-old performance art. With a splash of Doctor Who, or a slice of Marvel Comics, possibly even Disney or Star Wars, and swish it around with the established burlesque elements, and you’ve got “nerdlesque”. Nerdlesque routines are popping up all over the country as well as being added to the convention schedules as being part of the overall experience.

Nerdlesque isn’t just simply cosplay on stage, it encompasses creating a story arc in a short span of time with sometimes intense choreography and theatricality. It’s still in the budding stages having only been around a few years, but there’s already a Nerdlesque Festival in New York that started last year. What does it take to become a nerdlesque dancer, though? What is the creative process of putting on a performance?

ComicBook.com recently sat down with Atlanta performer and producer Persephone Phoenix as we talked about her inspirations into putting on her own show, her career as a performer to directing and producing, as well as the trend itself and thoughts on where it can go from here. She also talks about her own Harry Potter-themed show that she's currently producing. 

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CB: Persephone, I want to talk to you a little bit about the Nerdlesque trend. I know you have Harry Potter-themed show that we'll get into later, but let's talk about the trend right now. Why do you think cons are having local and sometimes not so local troupes at their venue performing? What do you think the appeal is?

PP: You mean aside from the obvious? [laughs]

Well, yeah….

While cons are a great place to attend panels, meet celebrities, and spend your lifetime savings on that one exclusive print or whatever, they are also a place for entertainment. Bands, comedians, and performers of all types are hired by cons to add to the overall experience which each ticket pays for. It was just a matter of time before burlesque became a mainstay on the con circuit.  But not just any burlesque -- nerdlesque.

What does nerdlesque mean to you?

Nerdlesque, to me, is as true to the original creative objective of burlesque as you can get: it merges the classic satirical roots of burlesque with the more recent neo-burlesque movement, by parodying current pop culture, geek fandoms and common nerd archetypes. Nerdlesque, while being sexy, silly, and smart, is also hugely empowering, not just to those on stage but to the audience. People of all shapes, sizes, gender identities, ethnicities, and talents are able to portray beloved characters in a way only nerdlesque allows us to do.

I mean, who wouldn't want to see Dolores Umbridge peel off her pretty pink frock? Or watch Catwoman scale a set of aerial silks? Or witness the Beauxbatons as they shed their good girl exterior?

And you're a performer as well. How long have you been performing and what brought you to art?  

I started performing burlesque specifically in August of 2012, but had been practicing and occasionally performing aerial silks before that. I don’t think we're going to count the cumulative 12 years I spent in grade school and college in various performance capacities, unless you really want to. I actually started burlesque partially as a means to differentiate myself from other aerial silk performers, and in part to encourage me to embrace my body as it was. That's something burlesque has done for a lot of us- helped us to learn to love ourselves, just as we are, without comparing or devaluing. But it didn't do only that: it changed my entire life for the better, including my home life, my creative life, and my work life as I had a complete career change.

When starting out, did you ever think the trend would gain this much traction? I mean, there's a nerdlesque festival that just started last year.

When I started, I didn't have any clue Nerdlesque would be my eventual destination. I thought I'd be this alternative, dark, sort of gothic stage personality, when in fact, my inner geek was what eventually prevailed. But I can't say that it was a very new concept to me - my very first show, [fellow performer and friend] Lola LeSoleil performed her Dalek number in all her geeky glory.

As for the festival, well.....where there is demand, there is always someone willing to entertain. Festivals are a place for us to not only share our love for the art, but to gain perspective into what’s being done all over the country, as well as to critique and review our acts with the help of some of the best and brightest in the industry.

Can you take me through the thought process of a performance, especially one designed to be part of a pop culture theme?

For me, my acts are sparked one of two ways: a song suddenly speaks to a plot or concept in pop culture, or I am so moved by a plot or concept that I must find a song and choreography to fit the tenor of the scene.

As an example of the former, while it wasn't a song that was ever too far from my consciousness, hearing "Closer" by Nine Inch Nails sometime in 2013 sparked an idea that took years to come to fruition. Because the song is so sexually aggressive, I immediately pictured female Droogs, from Clockwork Orange, preying on a hapless audience with lots of chair slamming, thigh slapping, and thrusting. The number was finally performed on stage at Dragon Con Burlesque in 2014, and later on stage competing at a local festival.

As for the latter, a large portion of the initial acts in Sexpelliarmus were devised by picking a character, finding a concept to run with regarding them, and then finding a song to fit.  For instance, everyone knows Dolores Umbridge is secretly -or not so secretly, if you’re a fan- a controlling, dominating, self-loving sex kitten. Naturally, the song "Master and Servant" seemed apropos, especially when covered by Nouvelle Rouge. Throw in a little sadism and a riding crop and you have an act that basically writes itself (though it couldn't be performed quite as beautifully by anyone but [Atlanta-based performer and friend] Roula Roulette!).

You run your own show, Sexpelliarmius, which is a Harry Potter nerdlesque show. Can you tell us how this all started out?

Sexpelliarmius started out with what seemed like an impossible dream. I mean, I remember thinking “this is way too big for me to do."  My first brush with nerdlesque was graciously provided by [Atlanta performer and production partner] Talloolah Love when I was accepted to perform a Ravenclaw love potion number, where my character devoted it to Neville Longbottom, on the Dragon Con Burlesque stage in 2013. It was very easy, when further diving into the Potterverse, to see each of these significant characters as parodies of themselves: Lupin peeling to "Hungry Like the Wolf." Bellatrix swinging her wand and dancing with crazy fervor to "Maneater."  A whole host of silly, sexy acts played out in my head, but at the time, they felt like pipe dreams.  

It wasn't until I got some real production experience under my belt, through various other outside endeavors --some successes, some not-so-successful-- that I even entertained the idea. I mean, honestly, at first, I was just hoping to bring some acts to a local Harry Potter party! I had sourced a whole cast worth of people who shared my passion, all ready and willing to perform these acts, putting together costumes, discussing plot, planning meetings. When the party fell through, it seemed a waste to discard all the preparation the cast had done, so with the help of a mutual contact that was scored through my partner in Hysteria Machines, Sketch MacQuinor, Sexpelliarmus found a venue!

The acts weren't the only big plans that seemed impossible, though I wanted a whole, immersive experience, complete with floating candles, living newspapers, seating by your House, character mingling, food and drinks from the Potterverse. So, with a lot of ingenuity from a cast I consider to be some of the most professional, committed, positive, amazing people ever, most of these things came to fruition.

And what started as a small time production quickly had greater demand than we could accommodate in a smaller venue.  We recently moved to one of the most immersive venues in Atlanta, The Shakespeare Tavern, which brings with it a whole host of new, fun challenges to creating that signature Harry Potter experience.

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Nerd culture has fully infiltrated the cultural zeitgeist these days, so do you  you think that the nerdlesque trend has reached its height of popularity? Or, is there still room to expand?

Nerdlesque has no where to go but up. Perfect example, Dragon Con Burlesque hosts over a thousand people, with very little standing room, and usually turn away hundreds of people. Local communities are adding new, bigger shows all the time, too. At any one moment, there are likely at least 3-5 of the same themed shows happening all over the country- and there is still room for more, that’s the thing. Seeing that nerdom and geekery are widely accepted nowadays, it'd be foolish to think that you are the only game in town with that idea, but what makes each show unique, is their unique take on these tested and true stories: whereas one group might use a Breaking Bad number as social commentary on drug addiction, another group might take the Crow and make him a slapstick mime, or maybe a My Little Pony routine inspired by Magic Mike. The possibilities are really endless!

Just because you've seen it once, doesn't mean you've seen it all.

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Do you have a routine you'd love to try down the line, but still working out the kinks for, so to speak?

To be honest, as much as my love of the stage was how this whole story started, I have found that my real strengths lie in production. My troupe, Hysteria Machines, is producing, of course, Sexpelliarmus in June and it just keeps getting bigger and better. In November, we will be sponsoring and partnering with the Harry Potter-centric convention CONjuration to bring an experiential Potter Party and possibly original Harry Potter line dances.

Line dances?

That’s a rumor for now, but it’s a big possibility!

Then later in November, we are producing Gotham: A Tale of Two Faces, which is a departure from any show I've been a part of. As a plot-heavy, script intensive show, this burlesque revue brings a new depth and cohesion to your typical Nerdlesque show. I think anyone who is a fan of Batman: Brave and the Bold will really get a kick out of this one.

What would you like to see from this trend in say, five years from now?

Well, more of the same! More people indulging their fan-fic fantasies in a safe, positive environment on a stage in front of an eager audience, a continued acceptance of all versions of each character, and acceptance of the portrayal of each version by anyone, regardless of size, shape, age, ethnicity, or level of experience with that fandom. I feel that the only way we can do bigger and better produced and more immersive shows is, obviously, with fan support!

And what about something like Sexpelliarmus?

For Sexpelliarmus, we have big plans for raising the production value of our show, which in turn, increases the cost. I believe we have the demographic, the fan base, and the passion from our city to sustain a larger-than-life, environmental and experiential production. The problem is, we as the production team don't have the capital to sustain it. So, we're reaching out to our fans, colleagues and collaborators for some assistance in making that a reality. In five years, Sexpelliarmus and Hysteria Machines will hopefully be a mainstay in Nerdlesque, with a few tours, several successful shows, and some viral videos, and possibly even an EP under our belts.

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What’s the biggest possible venue that you’re contemplating for down the line, or something you'd love to see come to fruition?

Booking something in Liechtenstein, Germany, where apparently you can rent out the entire country for $70,000 a night. Think about the possibilities of a country-wide Harry Potter Nerdlesque field day. You’re welcome for that imagery.