JJ Pearls has it down to a formula. For every minute of stage time she sees, $10 leaps from her pocket. "You do a five-minute piece, that's a $50 costume most of the time," she says.
This is true even though JJ performs with Burlesque Noir, Albuquerque's primary neo-burlesque company, which isn’t known for its elaborate costuming. In Noir, 14 women work together to conceptualize, choreograph and dance. Though the group doesn't don the traditionally ornate garb of its revivalist counterparts, even simple garments come with a price.
"We've had just simple bra and underwear and that's it," says Noir performer General Blackery. "The dancing is what we're showcasing."
Troupe founder Holly Rebelle has a 14-year history with dance and, along with Tony Travis, choreographs most of the group pieces. Though the costumes are sometimes less extravagant, the performances themselves, often two-and-a-half-hour affairs before a capacity crowd, are anything but simple.
"The whole package is very complex," Holly says.
Their set can incorporate anything from construction barrels to pirates and ninjas to vaudeville to political statements to live piercing on stage or suspension acts. "The hardest part is narrowing down all the pieces we want to do," says the General. Given the company's broad experimentation, some wouldn't even consider it burlesque, adds Cherry Automatic. "There's a big split," acknowledges the General. "We're not rejecting the past. We're embracing the present," Pearls says.
Comedy plays a big role in what these women do. "It's easier being sexy when you're funny than just being straight-off sexy. That's very hard," says Blackery. Humor also adds an unexpected element that keeps the audience on its toes. "If you're just a sexy woman, people put you in a box. They think they know how to treat you. If you're sexy and funny, you're pushing a lot of buttons all at once. You're making them think," adds JJ.
In spite of the heavy emphasis on choreography, having a strong dance background is not required to get a hopeful into Burlesque Noir. "Everyone's allowed to audition. Not everyone makes it. A good stage personality really helps. They have to be comfortable and willing with their body," says General Blackery.
So is there a particular body type Burlesque Noir is looking for?
The women quickly, almost simultaneously, give a resounding "no."
"I consider this a feminist project on my behalf, and it's a pretty big part of my life," says Holly, a women studies major. "For me, it's about being able to portray women of all shapes and ethnicities and sizes as what they are and using your body in a positive way that makes you feel good."
After every show, Holly gets three or four anonymous e-mails from strangers, usually women, telling her how appreciative they are of seeing a collective of women producing something like Burlesque Noir. "That's been a real special part of doing this project."
Cherry likens it to being in a band. "Your success is built off how much people like you. That's the awesome part, the feedback, getting up there and listening to people cheer for you."