May 27, 2012

Spiegeltent Empire

Last night I saw Spiegeltent Empire in Times Square. They are the same people who produce the hugely popular & successful Absinthe show in MGM Las Vegas where NYC's own Melody Sweets stars in. I have been a long time Spiegeltent fan ever since they made their NYC appearance many summers ago in South Street Seaport. I went every year and have seen Julie Atlaz Muz there among many other performers who have now become regulars in the Spiegelworld family. My boyfriend at the time was from New Zealand and he used to be flatmates with one of the guys from "Flight of the Concords" (I think it was Jermaine) so we all went once together as a group along with other Kiwis. This was right before Jermaine and Brett hit it huge on HBO. I think they were in NYC for the "One Night Stand" show. Another time at Spiegeltent I saw Julian Lennon hanging out in the beer garden. Spiegel certainly transformed the seaport into a destination point for us locals and added an element of artistic entertainment and magic to an otherwise dismal tourist attraction.

Empire did not disappoint like all Spiegeltent production. It was a packed full house. A mix of artsy looking people and Times Square tourist people. I didn't know what Empire was going to be and it was hard to explain to my friends who are non-Spiegel-ers what kind of show it was. It was not vaudeville or cabaret or theater or burlesque. Although there are elements of everything, well no burlesque at all, there were little kids there. Empire seemed to have a storyline in the beginning with a song about New York's old name "New Amsterdam" so I realized the show is called "Empire" for NYC and perhaps an homage to NYC. The host character and his show wife established that they were showing us what was left of their "empire" so I think that was the loose narrative of the show. But the acts were so tight and the lighting production so dramatic, I didn't care if there was a storyline or not. I was really pleased to see a few Chinese acrobats in the show along with a duet featuring two black gymnasts who got a standing-O for their act. It's not that I go to every show "on the lookout" for minority representation but it's just so damn unusual to see Asians in show business! And I do identify with them so it did make me feel proud to see the Chinese duet do their thing. Many mainland Chinese go into circus training for acrobatics or gymnastics from a young age. If they don't make it into the national Olympics, they often go on world tours with people like Cirque du Soleil and in this instance, The Gazillionaire snatched them up for Empire.
Chinese acrobats
All the acts were amazing. I am not going to describe them all. If you have the opportunity to see it while it's still here or next time, I highly recommend it. There was one particular act that was astonishing. It was an older guy whose costume reminded me of "sand people" from something like Mad-Max-Meets-David-Caradine from Kung Fu. He did a balance act that I have NEVER seen before in my life. He started out holding one feather plume. Then he added another single plume and balanced it on top of the first one. From there, he gradually added bigger and bigger objects like LONG petrified wood or bone pieces until he had a huge strange & surreal nomadic sculptural piece all balanced precariously and cosmically on top of each other. The entire tent was so silent while he took his time to build this sculpture. You could see the amount of concentration and meditation trickling down his face and body in sweat and labored breathing. His movements were so slow and calculated, reminded me of the older Chinese doing tai chi'. In the end he rested the entire thing on the top of the largest piece of bone and with a deliberate gentle move, he removed the original single feather plume and the entire sculpture collapsed with a feeling of enlightened release that was palpable in the tent.

Empire was heavy on acrobatic acts, and although it is really impressive to see what other people can do with their bodies that I can't, it got a bit repetitive in certain spots. I hesitate to compare Empire to the dreaded Quebecian-creation Cirque du Soleil, but if I had to explain it to non-users, I would say it it is an edgier and darker version of Cirque minus the awful music and faux-language plus a side of naughty humour and fun. There was something with bananas that was really amazing. In terms of seating, I would get the cabaret tables or the booths. Those have the best sightline. It was muggy last night so the tent was a bit stuffy. I saw a few tourists who can't handle the heat leave early and many people were fanning themselves with napkins and paper towels. If there was air conditioning, it wasn't very cool. So dress cool!

I can't wait to see Absinthe though next Sunday when I'm in Las Vegas! I must go pack!

Beautiful blonde aerial dancer inside a huge plastic bubble

The chanteuse of Empire. I liked her Chinese qipao a lot and a pair of long fringe gloves she wore later on.
Another crazy acrobatic performance by a guy wearing grizzly bear johpurs

May 21, 2012

Busy Week Before Vegas!

Here's one of my favorite photos from the series I did with David Bowles at the Hudson Opera House. I love it for many reasons, but as my favorite blogger and THE expert on all vintage Asian cinema historical information, Durian Dave commented and perfectly encapsulated, "The shoot powerfully evokes the enduring vitality of burlesque from the 19th century to the 21st."

What he said has been on my mind a lot lately along with asking myself questions like where do I want to go with burlesque? What is my goal? And what is that feeling and voice I am hearing in the back of my head about something... (I swear it's not the devil talking although that might be interesting). I recently watched the PBS documentary called "Hollywood Chinese"  and it had a profound effect on me. It was inspiring to say the least but it also gave a really good overall sweep of the history of Chinese people in the acting/entertaining world. There were tons of interviews with Chinese actors which basically were almost everyone who appeared in "Joy Luck Club" - and tons of interviews with famous Chinese directors like Ang Lee, Wayne Wang, etc. They were focused on the Chinese in Hollywood only, not Japanese, Korean, or Southeast Asians. Over and over again in almost every interview, they talked about the difficulty of representing a real experience and a real character  when there were no scripts written for Chinese actors. The documentary showed a clip of Justin Lin's Q&A session at The Sundance for his film A Better Luck Tomorrow and how one audience member stood up and asked why he made such a sad, horrible film showing all these Asian American youths as violent and angry. Then Roger Ebert stood up and basically condemned that guy's comment as offensive and asked why should this film "represent" any particular "model minority" experience? He then said that this film has a right to exist as it is because it represents an individual experience. I don't have any articulated thoughts about myself yet, but it is an enthralling documentary that I highly recommend!

This is my last week before I leave for Las Vegas' Burlesque Hall of Fame! I am getting more and more excited but also really paranoid that the airline will lost my luggage and my fans. I'm going to try to cram as much as I can in my carry-on so, in the worst case scenario, my costume will still be with me, just no fans. Everyone is neck deep in planning their outfits by day, outfits by night. That's all I've been seeing on Twitter and Facebook. I haven't even started planning because I have to get through this week with several meetings and rehearsals, then next Monday is Macao Trading Company's annual Drunken Dragon Festival party in which Shanghai Foxtrot (Shien, Jesse, Blanca) will be performing at and I will be hosting and performing with Nikki Le Villain ("snake girl" - lol). Then I have "Les Fleurs de Shanghai" show on Wednesday, May 30 at Duane Park! Then I'll pack....I hope to see you there!

Photo by David Bowles

May 20, 2012

"Les Fleurs de Shanghai" Trailer - Chinese jazz, dinner & burlesque!

The next show is Wednesday, May 30 featuring guest performer Ruby Valentine - The Alabaster Beauty. You may have seen in cameo in a little known TV series called "Mad Men". She played herself as a burlesque siren in the pilot episode.

May 15, 2012

It's All in the Presentation & Other Tips

I get many emails from performers visiting NYC who are interested in getting booked so I've compiled some of the best and worst practices I've seen and in doing so I hope this will provide some tips for anyone who is seeking for future bookings.

Introduce Yourself & Familiarize Yourself
If you are a local performer the best way to get your face familiarized is to attend one of the shows you hope to be booked in. Stay for the show and approach the producer afterwards, introduce yourself and express your interest in performing there. Follow up with an email and send video clips and descriptions of your act (I will go into this in more detail later). When a performer introduces themselves to me in person, it helps solidify who they are to me in my mind among a sea of faceless emails and complicated burlesque names. It also helps me to know that the performer already knows what the venue and the venue's clientele are like, and more importantly, what type of acts are booked and what type of stage (or lack of) she will be dealing with.

For instance my Thursday night show "Spanking the Lower East Side" at Nurse Bettie is extremely space-challenged. The bar is small with a maximum capacity of 70. There is a tiny small square stage that measures maybe 4' x 4' and to further complicate things, there is no dressing room. We have the back corner of the bar and pull close two curtains as a makeshift "private" area for ourselves. There is only one bathroom so using that to get oneself ready is out of the question. I even had to create a Do's & Don'ts document with critical information such as, "Don't bring your roller to this show" for new performers.
Nurse Bettie - tight squeeze on the stage
Friday night's show "Room69" at Hotel Chantelle offers another set of challenges. For one, there is no stage. The show is "in the round" and audience interaction is highly encouraged. Not always the best place for newer performers who are not comfortable improvising part of their act or need to be in position before the music starts otherwise it throws them completely off, or engaging with the crowd and owning the bigger floor space.

Hotel Chantelle - no stage, in the round. Photo by Francine Daveta.
Obviously all of the above applies only to local performers. I personally like it when traveling performers contact me and show that they know which shows I am currently producing. It's always good to show the producer that you are familiar with the shows they produce and that you did your homework to familiarize yourself with their work. Make it easy for me and I'll make it easy for you.

Make It Easy
Speaking of making it easy, a short and sweet PDF of performer information goes a LONG way in getting booked. What I dislike most is receiving emails with no pictures, no video links, and simply, "I really would like to perform at your show etc etc. My acts are XYZ." One can talk the talk, but I need to see you walk that walk! Images and clips are critical. I DO look at everything everyone sends me, and video clips are especially important. It doesn't need to be fancy or lit magnificently. I look for the following qualities:
  • Stage Presence (Does the performer command the room? Does she exude confidence, joy, playfulness or intrigue the moment she's on stage? Does she say "Look at me" with her body?)
  • Movement (Fluidity in movement, hand gestures, eye contact with the audience)
  • Costume (There are some shows where I can be more lenient about costume quality, but some venues ask for more - and for those places I will NEVER book civilian clothes with some rhinestones passing as a costume)
  • Overall Presentation (Does her hair, makeup, shoes, costume all work together?)
Also please don't write a lengthy email, just 2-3 short paragraphs will suffice. And 3 good video links that represent your best work are better than 20 links. Make it easy for me to watch your clips or visit your web site. Embed your links in your email. Please don't say, "You can find me on Facebook where I have pictures and videos." If I have to go on your Facebook and dig around to find a clip or comb through a million pictures to figure out what your act looks like, you are not making it easy when I have 20 other inquiry emails to read through.

Spell & Grammar Check Your Email
English is my third language. My native language is Chinese Mandarin. My second language is Spanish when we lived in Bolivia. So if I can spell correctly and type with proper punctuation marks and sentence breaks, there is no reason a native English speaker can't especially when we all have access to spell and grammar check.

Sending out an email with misspelled words, long run on sentences that read like visual diarrhea, no sentence breaks, train of thought derailed and wrecked, oh and my favorite, using ghetto ass slang in the email all reflect poorly on the sender. It makes me think they are stupid. If not stupid then it makes me think they are unorganized (perhaps they will show up late?), messy (does she know how to do her hair and makeup?), and a hot mess (is her tampon string hanging out? is she going to be a handful backstage and flip out on stage?). When in doubt ask yourself, would I use this tone of voice or these choice of words at a prospective job interview? When in doubt, err on the professional side. You don't need to say "Holla!" or "Hit me back" to people you've never met before. Your personality will shine through your professionalism.

Your Burlesque CV/Resume
You don't need a big fancy web site to get booked, but I will address the most cost efficient way to create a web site for yourself with some working knowledge of the publishing software in the next section. For now, a good CV is all you need just like applying to any job. When I was in college I made some extra pocket money helping people put together their resumes so here is a general template for a solid burlesque CV's (Curriculum Vitae) that is a combination of the best ones I've seen for their information organization and communication efficiency. Don't forget to keep the PDF under 4mbs! Most servers will kick back file attachments that are too big. And you never know where the receiver will be when trying to download an extremely large document.

Your Name 
(Include your tag line if any, phone number, email address, web site URL or other social media presence)
Burlesque Bio/Statement
(This is the place to write your witty repartee. Three to four sentences that quickly describes your background such as "...with a BA in Theater and ten years of dance experience" or "armed with a self-taught passion for performance and theater", and then describe your style is such as, "Calamity Chang can be seen on stage covered with rhinestones and lush feathers stripteasing to vintage Asian music and other exotic classics...")
Solo Acts
(List all your solo acts one by one, paragraph by paragraph. Describe the style, the song/band name and length of song, costume appearance, props used, set up required, and final reveal costume. 
If you have pictures of each of the acts, include them along with the video URL)

Duet/Group Acts
(Same as above and please credit other performers and troupes where credit is due in these acts especially if the original concept is not yours)

 Press (optional)
(List up to 5 most recent press mentions. If it's something that you didn't scan, just pull the quote from the publication, list the publication name, writer's name, and date of publication. Like the bibliography information you used to do for college papers)

Performance History
(If you have performed in festivals, list them here. Or if you are a newer performer, list the shows and producers you have performed with thus far. This acts as the "reference" section in a typical resume)
Performance Images (optional)
(I personally like to see on the last page a big montage of the performer's live action photos. These are not professional photos but snap shots taken during shows. It makes the resume come to live, and who doesn't like seeing a ton of photos of the same thing all together?

The good news is, once you have this done you can send it out to a lot of people over and over until you need to update it. It is especially good to have when you are doing a private gig or a big holiday gig and the venue wants to approve the acts first. For example, here are two one-pagers that Stormy Leather and I submitted to The Beehive's New Year's Eve party in Boston, MA.

A sample of how to present your solo acts in CV-form for burlesque performers

A sample of how to present your solo acts in CV-form for burlesque performers

Your Burlesque Web Site
As I said before, you do not need to have a fancy web site to get booked. It's nice to have it because you can compile all your work in one place. But it's expensive to have a good web site that represents your style and aesthetic properly. It almost always mean you need to work with a good art director who can truly reflect your sensibility online. My background is in digital media. I've spent all my 13 years in NYC working as an art director in major advertising agencies. I design everything from logos (my least favorite), to full blown out web sites, Facebook applications, iPhone/iPad apps, to banner ads. The cost of having a web site is NOT cheap. Many people have asked me if I would be interested in designing their burlesque sites. It is not that I am not interested in helping but I know what burlesque performers can afford, and $200-800 is not going to get you a good web site. Especially since once the site is up, you have no way to update it on your own.

This is the most important advice I want to give on this subject. If you decide to get yourself a web site and trust me, you will at some point, don't dig yourself in a hole with a designer who is going to leave the country and leave you no way of updating the information on your own.

This is why I advice performers to look into a myriad of other online options out there where you pay a minimal monthly fee to pick a template you like, upload your pictures, write your information, and make other customization choices to your site where you can edit, change, or revise it whenever you want from your own computer with your own password and log-in name. People are visiting your site to A) look at pictures of you B) find out more about you C) want to see where you perform next. You don't need a "cinematic experience" or an "immersive sound environment" - burlesque sites are what we in the industry call, "brochure sites." Information. Information. Information.

Lastly, do NOT get a full Flash web site. Flash is becoming obsolete because smart phones don't support Flash. The only time I create anything for Flash now-a-days at my day job is for banner ads and the face of online advertising is changing as I write. Who knows where Flash will be used in the next fiscal year? Based on my own web site's statistics, many people are looking at my site on smart phones (probably hiding from their wives or work people) so it is absolutely essential for your site to be smart phone-friendly. If anyone tries to convince you to get a Flash site cause it moves and makes noises, just say NO.

So some of the DIY sites I recommend are:
  • - a big favorite among photographers who want their photos to be showcased XL much like burlesque performers. This site requires more advanced knowledge of how to use their software like customization your own site. But its WORTH it!
  • - just discovered this group, comes highly recommended by my photographer and blogging fanatics
  • - WordPress remains the most accessible and powerful free platform to me for our purposes
  • - another new one that I just started poking around in out of curiousity
Anyway, so that concludes this post. I love booking out-of-town performers so hopefully this post will help expedite the booking process so everyone is happy!

May 1, 2012

Jungle Asians

I forget which comedian it was who introduced this term to me. All you Asian peeps out there know what I'm talking about. When Asians say "so-and-so is Asian" we mean Japanese, Chinese, or Korean. "Asian" to Asians does not include Filipinos, Vietnamese, Thai, Indians, Indonesians and other Southeast Asian groups. So how do Asians describe this "other" Asian group? The comedian called them (and himself) "Jungle Asians." I thought this was the funniest shit ever when I heard it. Because it's true! I personally have the impression that "Jungle Asians" are more musical, better at dancing, eat spicy foods, and less sexually prohibited. My impressions are embarrassingly colonial.

Recently, I created a new act inspired by a vintage green dress that I found on eBay. The dress is bright green with yellow accents and a beautiful floral pattern. It has been sitting in my closet for almost 6 months because I couldn't find the right music or act to go with this beauty. So sadly it was the "Dress with No Name".
The green floral dress
Then one week at Shien's "Nuit Blanche" show at Brasserie Beaumarchais (every Wednesday from 9-11pm), the theme was "Exotic Garden of Eden". I took out the dress and added some flowers to the halter area and wore it for that night. I love the dress. It makes you feel floaty and pretty. But I still needed to find the right music to go with it. Of course, tiki culture is an obvious choice but I do not want to dress up as a hula girl with a grass skirt. That's as cliche to me as being a school girl (which I have done). I started researching vintage Hawaiian music from Hawaii and that's how I stumbled on a Facebook invitation that simply said, "Hawaiian Music - LIVE in NYC for one night only...." - and of course I went and made Michael go with me.

The event took place in the downstairs lounge of a Japanese noodle shop called Jebon on St. Marks Place. I had no idea what to expect and not knowing who the musician was either. Michael was hoping for slack steel guitar, I was just happy to be out and be entertained rather than entertaining. The space was very intimate with lots of low Japanese style tables and low ottoman-like chairs. There was a really nice hardwood floor stage in the corner, quite sizable. One would have never expected a performance space downstairs from Jebon which was populated by NYU-age students.

An ukulele player opened the show then the headliner came out. He is San Francisco’s Kawika Alfiche who is apparently the Led Zepplin of Hawaiian music, one of the organizers told me. He sang along with a very cool looking Japanese bass player with his hair slicked back in a ponytail. Actually I'm not sure if he is Japanese or not because everyone there looked like they could be Asian or Jungle Asian. It was obvious that everyone there belonged to the API community, or as the guy who sat across from me said, Asian Pacific Islanders. He too looked like he could be Filipino mixed or Japanese mix. I do love that ambiguity. Pacific Islanders have such an interesting history. I've met Hawaiian people from so many different backgrounds ranging from Chinese to Japanese to the more indigenous Polynesia background. Our lead singer Kawika looked Polynesia for sure but without the floral Hawaiian shirt, I might have thought he was Asian-Mexican mix. Anyway, as you can see, I am fascinated by racial ambiguity.

Kawika opened the show with traditional Hawaiian chants to various goddesses (there sure are a LOT of goddess in Hawaiian mythology). Then the hula dancers came out. There were two women and three men accompanying Kawika all night. Kawika played the ukulele while another accompanied him on guitar.

All the songs they sang were in Hawaiian so I don't know what the songs were about, but the melody and the drum Kawika used were very moving. 

He was really funny too in between songs. He talked about his own mixed heritage, Mexican, European, and more. He spoke about hanging out with the mariachi bands in Mexico and how much he loves mariachi music. Apparently hula is HUGE in Mexico and Tennessee! Go figure.

The hula dancers both men and women were absolutely mesmerizing. The women's dresses were pretty covered up but you would never want to see more skin as you do in burlesque, because their hip, hand, and torso movements were so fluid and so sensual. Absolutely beautiful. I spoke to a few of the musicians afterwards and found out that last year when they came to NYC, they performed at Symphony Space in the Upper West Side. Most everyone attending this show are members of the  Halawai Community. I think Michael and I were the only people there who attended carte blanche. It was inspiring to see what one can find a community for ANYTHING in NYC. Towards the end of the night many of the hula class students also joined the dancers on stage. Everyone sang along to some of the old Hawaiian songs, and I left the place in such a great mood, inspired by the sheer joy the dancers exhibited and the uplifting spirituality of the songs. Michael said he thought it was cheesy all the praying to the gods stuff and he didn't like that aspect, but I thought it was moving and made me stop for a moment in my materialistic life of rhinestones, trims, makeup, glamour, etc and think about the space I dwell in. I think its specially hard to feel connected to nature living in NYC, and I live in a giant high rise building and I am not near any parks. I have astro turf on my balcony. It was refreshing for me to experience mythology through music and dance that night.

Here's a clip from another live performance from another tour: