Outlaws of dance and music, outlaws of traditional good taste, outlaws, nearly, from the 19th century: Burlesque lives again, out there on the fringes.
It doesn't live anywhere as well as it does in New York, where venues such as Pinchbottom Burlesque, Wassabassco Burlesque and even Coney Island have become home to a peculiar theatrical hybrid. It involves pretty ladies in elaborate, though often minimal, costumes performing a kind of theater that winks or scoffs at the culture, modernizes vaudeville and balances on one sparkly stiletto heel between innocence and extreme naughtiness.
By Susan Gardner's estimation, there are approximately 150 to 175 burlesque dancers in New York, not counting musicians and assorted folks who produce shows in Manhattan and Brooklyn — the East Coast's biggest concentration of burlesque. The shows have all the indications of a nomadic existence, wear and tear, she says: “You can tell we've schlepped our sets and costumes on the subways.” Gardner knows; she's in the New York burlesque scene. But before that, she was an outlaw in Richmond.
Gardner, alias RunAround Sue, wanted for: fan-dancing, performing burlesque with philanthropic intent, multitasking, attempted community organization.
Gardner went to Godwin High School and studied theater at Virginia Commonwealth University, from which she graduated in 1998. Then she hit the road for a decade, living with Native Americans in Canada, on a commune in Georgia, in Washington, D.C., and in Queens, where she shared a one-bedroom apartment with four other people. She taught chess. She got involved in burlesque dance, got some big feathery fans and adopted the RunAround Sue persona. She says her stage self is bratty.
Now she's coming back home after a 10-year exodus to import a little more burlesque to our city. In March 2007, an illustrator, writer and model named Jen Caban, alias Molly Crabapple, brought her Dr. Sketchy's Anti-Art School to Richmond for one night of high-speed drawing assignments. Dr. Sketchy's combines burlesque and life drawing, creative people in creative poses for anywhere from a minute to 20. As a franchise, it's spread around the world. Gardner was asked to create a franchise here. She wants to start regular Dr. Sketchy's events at Gallery5, with live music and less stuffy subjects and settings than typical university sets. “That's the point,” she says — “to get them out of the classroom.”
But Gardner has her own bag of tricks, too. In New York, she co-produces Sugar Shack Burlesque, a regular burlesque show, with Crosby Brook, alias Legs Malone. “Most shows are produced by two people,” Gardner says, “and then everyone else just freelances.” This is how she knows the approximate burlesque population of the New York area. Gardner also hosts a burlesque dance party, works on a burlesque brunch and is the founder of Bleeding Hearts Burlesque, a nonprofit burlesque troupe whose events benefit an organization that helps developing communities install drinking water and sanitation facilities. So it becomes clear that she won't be doing just the one thing when she moves here to kick-start Dr. Sketchy's Richmond.
RunAround Sue already has plans for her franchise, Sugar Shack South. She wants to add to the nubile young burlesque community out here on its own fringe. She also hopes to import some of that New York dance talent for regular productions, expanding the reach of that concentrated community. She also wants to see that burlesque dance party become a fixture here. That should keep her busy until spring, she thinks.
It'll be interesting to watch how Gardner's affable outlawism affects Richmond, and in turn how her old home will affect her. She says moving to Richmond that first time as a child mellowed young RunAround Sue, at least as much as a fan-dancing chess freak can be said to mellow. “It really made me a much gentler person,” she says. A beat. “I mean I grew out of that.” S
Auditions for Sugar Shack South are Jan. 12 at Gallery5 at 6 p.m. The inaugural Dr. Sketchy's Anti-Art School is Jan. 14 at Gallery5 at 10 p.m. and every second Wednesday of the month. For more information visit www.myspace.com/runaroundsue or call 644-0005.