Take a Peek

Festival founder Violetta Beretta, who also is the president of Cherry Blossom Cabaret KNDL PHOTOGRAPHY PHOTO

Festival founder Violetta Beretta, who also is the president of Cherry Blossom Cabaret KNDL PHOTOGRAPHY PHOTO

Violetta Beretta has been dancing her whole life — she started ballet at age 4 and worked for years as a professional dancer. But when she discovered burlesque about eight years ago, it was like stumbling upon uncharted territory, the dance equivalent of a blank canvas.

“One thing that really struck me about burlesque was the fact that it was sort of the Wild West in terms of performance,” Beretta explains. “It was like a show onto yourself — you can create and do whatever you want on stage.”

In the last several years, she’s traveled extensively as a burlesque dancer, making frequent appearances at clubs and festivals throughout the country, as well as becoming a mainstay in the local burlesque scene with her troupe Cherry Blossom Cabaret.

As a way to share burlesque with others, Beretta founded the Hawaii Burlesque Festival & Revue.

Now in its fifth year, the event returns to the Honolulu Museum of Art’s Doris Duke Theatre Sept. 22-24, featuring burlesque workshops and three nights of varied performances. (For the full rundown, see the sidebar below.)

Beretta, who acts as the event’s producer and director, created the festival as a way to fill the gap in the local burlesque scene that she and Cherry Blossom Cabaret had noticed.

“Most large major cities, they all have burlesque festivals. It was a natural thing to kind of think, well, these other places have them, and Hawaii has great talent and great performers, we should have one as well,” Beretta explains.

Things started small — “we weren’t really sure if it was going to catch on,” Beretta admits — but it’s grown, with this year’s fest set to host both nationally and internationally known performers alongside local dancers and troupes.

“A lot of our audience is a repeat audience that has attended throughout the years,” Beretta says. “A lot of the faces have become familiar, and people really seem to enjoy themselves at these shows, so that always makes me happy.”

Metro recently had a chance to crash a rehearsal where Beretta practiced with a small group of other festival dancers. Here are a few things we learned about these dancers and their craft.

Madame X of Cherry Blossom Cabaret TIEN ENGA PHOTO

Madame X of Cherry Blossom Cabaret TIEN ENGA PHOTO

IT’S AS MUCH ABOUT THEATER AS IT IS ABOUT TEASING

“Here is the thing: I never grew out of playing dress up or make believe,” explains Austin Lee Dylan, an independent dancer who occasionally collaborates with other ensembles.

Burlesque, she explains, is a way for her to do both of those things.

On the surface, burlesque may seem like an everything-but form of stripping, but it’s more nuanced. Sure, there’s the striptease aspect — but here, it’s all about the anticipation, about the creative, stylized way that things are being revealed. It’s just as much a theatrical performance as anything else. Combining elaborate story-lines and costuming with various forms of dance — things like singing and aerial also are often infused — burlesque is its own particular breed of performance art.

“I feel it is a blend of entertainment — dancing, as well as humor and (social) commentary … like what you might get in a play,” says Cherry Blossom Cabaret dancer Luna Velour.

(In its earlier days — burlesque dates back to the 19th century — in fact, burlesque was mostly about Vaudevillian-type comedy acts.)

“Every single piece is almost like a little mini one-act play,” echoes Madame X of Cherry Blossom Cabaret.

IT’S “LOOSE AND FREE”

“(Burlesque) has an aspect that is very loose and free in terms of not having to do someone else’s choreography, wear the costumes they say you have to wear, or represent a subject on stage that you might not have picked,” Beretta says.

In one of Beretta’s best-known acts, for instance, she plays a hula girl lamp that comes to life. In another, set to Bjork’s It’s Oh So Quiet, she plays a librarian “who is trying to restrain herself but just keeps getting progressively louder and crazier.”

For many of the dancers, it seems to be that type of no-boundaries creativity that drew them into burlesque.

“The theatrical format of burlesque encourages performers to be more story driven and interactive, where other disciplines or more explicit occupations are a lot more limiting in terms of a performer’s ability to present similar stories,” Beretta explains.

“It gives (the audience) a chance to see something they can’t ordinarily see,” she continues. “A lot of the acts are really funny, they’re clever, and they’re compelling. It’s an (interactive) sort of entertainment, not as passive as, you know, watching shows on Netflix.”

Trixie Little is among the festival's featured performers. PHOTO COURTESY HAWAII BURLESQUE FESTIVAL & REVUE

Trixie Little is among the festival’s featured performers. PHOTO COURTESY HAWAII BURLESQUE FESTIVAL & REVUE

THIS ISN’T THEIR DAY JOB

When dancer Mahina Hong is approached by fans, they’re often surprised to find out her day job: a hair stylist.

“There is always this idea that you are a burlesque dancer, so you must be in some type of industry that is close to it. Nope, I cut hair,” says Hong, who is part of Honolulu Zouk.

The dancers involved in the festival represent a range of various industries. Madame X leads outdoor tours by day; Beretta has a career in research; others from various troupes are in the medical field, interior design and more.

While the group is widely diverse, they do have a common ground: Many have some sort of dance background, whether it be ballet or pole dancing. Like Beretta, many have been classically trained from a young age.

YOU DON’T HAVE TO LOOK A CERTAIN WAY

Not all of the dancers are eager to share details of their off-stage lives, some of them saying that they want to keep their professional or personal lives separate from their image as a dancer.

That could, perhaps, stem from the fact that there are, of course, differing viewpoints on the decency of burlesque, involving debates of sexism and exploitation.

“Some people think that any exposure of the female form to any gaze — be it male or female — is exploitative,” Beretta asserts. “When I look at things like MTV, HBO, Game of Thrones, things like that to me are so much more strikingly sexual.”

Beretta also argues that the burlesque industry tends to be friendly and accessible to women.

“We definitely try to make sure that our performers, who are mostly women, are in charge of their own art, that they are getting paid for what they are doing, and that they have the upward mobility to produce shows, star in them, direct them, do whatever they like,” Beretta says. “It is a real women-centric business.”

Dancers also say that there is one perhaps unexpected element of it all: body positivity.

While ballerinas may have to be tall and thin to have a hope at a career, such constraints don’t have a hold over burlesque — which seems to largely celebrate varying body types.

“I feel like in many types of dance, there is a lot of focus on how you look — or how you should look,” Velour says. “And in burlesque, it’s very accepting. So even though we are wearing less clothes, it’s actually allowed me to feel more comfortable because I knew I didn’t have to fit a particular ideal.”

“Everybody thinks (burlesque) is just everybody being sexy all the time, crawling on the stage — and, yes, there is a lot of that — but there is also so much body positivity,” Hong says. “There is this communal acceptance — this is who I am, this is what I look like; I can make fun of it, you can appreciate it.”

“And it’s still f****** sexy,” adds Dylan.

Festival Lineup

It all kicks off Sept. 21 with burlesque workshops led by featured festival performer Trixie Little from 7 to 9 p.m. at Paradise Tango.

Then there are a series of three shows Sept. 22-24 at Doris Duke Theatre. Shows begin at 7:30 p.m. each night, with a cocktail reception starting at 6. The reception also features catered food from Da Spot and pre-show entertainment.

“Each show is completely different, with a completely different cast, completely different theme,” festival founder Violetta Beretta explains. “We try to make them interactive and have a lot of audience participation. It is more about trying to get the audience to have fun and be the star of the show, in a sense.”

Thursday, Sept. 22 The Aloha Follies: A Glamorous Night of Classic Burlesque

“We will be featuring all classic burlesque numbers — things like fan dances and boa dances, and most of the music will be classic jazz and blues,” Beretta explains.

“It has a story within a story, and that story is we are in a classic burlesque house watching a show, but at the same time, there is a squad of vice cops that keeps on coming around and trying to shut down the show,” she says.

Audience members are invited to wear vintage attire from any era: Think flappers, Mad Men, etc.

Friday, Sept. 23 A Hawaiian Whodunnit: An Interactive Murder Mystery Burlesque Show

“The premise of the night is basically to try to help us figure out who is killing all the burlesque dancers, so we will have some audience interaction, we will have some guessing and clues, and just all kinds of crazy stuff happening,” Beretta says.

Black and white film noir-themed attire is encouraged.

Saturday, Sept. 24 Pineapples, Pasties & Pop Culture: A Pop Culture Extravaganza, Burlesque Style!

Trixie Little takes the stage here alongside local dancers. Little is the official “Queen of Burlesque 2015″ and boasts a decade-long career that has included a residency and at Off-Broadway theater and tours throughout the world.

“This is our big party blowout … featuring anything and everything under the sun in regard to pop culture — people like David Bowie, Michael Jackson, Madonna,” Beretta says.

Attire should be anything pop-culture related.

Tickets for each show cost $35 or $30 for Honolulu Museum of Art members. VIP tickets, which come with preferred seating and a swag bag, cost $45. The official after-party is hosted at Scarlet Honolulu starting at 11 p.m. Sept. 24. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit honolulumuseum.org or hawaiiburlesquefestival.com.