Backstage with the Boston Babydolls
The man referred to only as "Scratch," the gregarious ringleader of the Boston Babydolls, is sitting across the table and peppering me with rhetorical questions he's often asked about the tease behind his trade.
“Why would someone want to go to a burlesque show, 'where you can't see nothing,' when you can go online and watch people have sex with farm animals for free?” he says.
Over the next two hours of interviews and rehearsals, the answer becomes clear: because burlesque is an entirely different beast from, say, bestiality. It's not porn, or a peep show, or some Coyote Ugly-style countertop routine. It’s more of a manic melting pot of music, dance, fashion, comedy, storytelling—and yes, a healthy dose of undressing.
The Boston Babydolls' latest production, Mr. Cupid's House of Love, will be steaming up the windows of the Cambridge YMCA Theatre. House of Love represents an ode to a bygone New Orleans: a time when the French Quarter overflowed with flashy showgirls and brassy Dixieland jazz, when men wore hats, women wore gloves and everyone drank martinis.
“New Orleans has this duality of Southern gentility and yet a sort of wild abandon that echo the basic tenets of burlesque,” says Scratch. “The best routines have that perfect combination of restraint and hedonism.”
Never strictly striptease, Boston Babydolls performances feature circus arts like hula-hooping, snake-handling and aerial maneuvers. Lead choreographer Betty Blaize draws on her experience in belly-dancing, swing and classical Indian dance to orchestrate the group's playful moves. The elaborate costumes strike a delicate balance of glamour and excess—elegant evening gowns and corsets, but also feathered boas, rhinestones, pasties and enough glitter to coat two Ke$has and a Gaga.
A Boston Babydolls production is a fascinating mish-mash of high- and low-brow. Audiences are encouraged “to hoot, holler and cat-call” at every turn. They never fail to oblige, yielding a vibe that's more Spearmint Rhino than Shakespeare in the Park. At the same time, troupe members—many of whom have extensive theater backgrounds—are quick to highlight the care and professionalism that they put into crafting each routine.
“People have always used dance to tell stories,” says Blaize. “There's a character arc in every piece of choreography I create, even if it's as simple as going from sad to happy, or clothed to nearly-naked.”
The troupe's roots stem back to the early '00s, when Scratch invited theater acquaintance Mina Murray to teach striptease classes at his members-only adult entertainment club in Providence. In 2004 a visiting conference asked for entertainment, and Scratch threw together a makeshift burlesque show with “Miss Mina” and his belly-dancing friend Blaize. The event proved such a success that the trio decided to put out a call for dancer auditions. By the fall of 2005, the Babydolls were born.
Tryouts take place for every new show, with five new cast members joining this past January. In addition to the shows, Miss Mina and company partake in the au naturel book series, “Naked Girls Reading,” and run the Boston Academy of Burlesque Education (yes, B.A.B.E.), which offers both burlesque instruction and exercise classes like “Bump-N-Grind Your Butt Off.” Scratch is also the Founding Chair of the annual Great Burlesque Exposition, which runs April 22 to 24 in Cambridge.
In the last five years, the Boston scene has burst at the seams with burlesque, from the Babes of Boinkland's “Slutcracker” to regular events at the A.R.T.'s Club Oberon. The recent revival might seem arbitrary, but Scratch points out that during the art form's golden age in the early 20th century, the United States found itself in the midst of major wars and tough economic times. Sound familiar?
“It's an escape for people,” he says. “It's family entertainment, where you might not actually want to invite your whole family.”
Mr. Cupid's House of Love is at theMar. 11 + 12