In Performance: burlesque artists strip away pretension | Calendar | Chicago Reader

In Performance: burlesque artists strip away pretension 

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Nora Herting took the stage at the Hideout last month wearing nothing but a red wig, a pink feather boa, two pink fur pasties, and a dozen pairs of white cotton briefs, each embroidered in red with a confessional slogan like "When I get bored I fantasize tragedies for my loved ones" or "I make my life unnecessarily complex." Herting--an artist who first displayed the undies in a show at Artemisia gallery last September, stuffed with newspaper and strung from the ceiling--proceeded to take them off, one at a time, to musical accompaniment.

She wasn't the only person taking off her clothes. Burlesque Tartare, a variety show put on by a group of costume designers, fashion designers, and artists collectively called De Corps, also featured Adam and Eve stripping down to heart-shaped fig leaves and a dancer wearing light-up pasties; wig maker Kathi Isham debuted her collection of braided and pin-curled merkins attached to the models' underwear. Hideout co-owner Katie Tuten liked it so much she asked De Corps back for two more performances this weekend.

The group formed last fall, made up of people "really frustrated with not being able to make the kind of work that they wanted to," says founder Angela Altenhofen. "For example, if they were designing costumes for a theatrical show, their creativity is really controlled by the artistic director, the director, the playwright, the actors. They wanted an opportunity to make these fabulous things that they had in their head," then put on fashion shows of wearable art.

The first one was a Halloween celebration at Artemisia last fall, where De Corps debuted six creations, including Altenhofen's human pinata--a donkey suit covered in hundreds of strips of woven fabric and equipped with a papier-mache stomach full of candy. The person in it was attached to a harness and hoisted into the air, and then someone knocked the stomach open with a stick.

Altenhofen is an Art Institute-trained sculptor whose current project involves soft-sculpture bricks, a reference to minimalist artist Carl Andre's piles of bricks and cinder blocks. In school she worked in ceramics, but "when you can't afford to buy a thousand-dollar kiln, you find other ways to make stuff." Since she'd always sewn--she's also worked for ten years as a professional costume designer--she went back to fabric.

"I like its organic quality, and the way it references the body, and the way it references--well, change, I think. This is kind of what De Corps is about. What you put on your body changes your whole sense of self-identity. And you can control that by what you wear, and change that." In addition, "Fabric tends to accept history, by where you wear it, how you wear it, what happens to it while it's being worn. It gets stained, and it gets torn and ripped, and it takes on meaning."

For their second project, members of De Corps decided to do something sex themed, but when the performance looked like it was going to get too serious they turned it into a burlesque show. The result intersperses singers and vaudeville shtick with strip acts. A fan dancer is in the lineup, as is a fire-eating belly dancer. Then there are the more high-concept acts, like "The Demystification of Kali"--in which the Indian goddess of destruction, outfitted in bright blue panne velvet, "strips" off her Velcroed-on extra arms and breasts--and a foam rubber Venus of Willendorf puppet that performs the dance of the seven veils. "I wanted to do something with alternative body forms," says milliner and costumer Laura Whitlock, who created the puppet. "It's supposed to be totally over-the-top."

Altenhofen's contribution, a bodysuit made from an inflatable sex doll, ended up in the song-and-dance number that closed the April show.

"I don't really want to call it performance art, because it's more about the object," she says. "The performers are secondary," but not completely without appeal: "There were an awful lot of guys there, and they were just really excited," she says. "They could enjoy watching half-naked women without feeling guilty about it."

Burlesque Tartare runs at 8 and 10:30 at the Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia, on Saturday, May 11. Some of the acts have changed; the merkins won't be on display, but Altenhofen has added something involving a red, bow-tied dancing bear. And this time, says Tuten, "we're doing it with chairs, so the sight lines are better." There's a $7 cover. Call 773-395-0644 for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Cynthia Howe.

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