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The New Burlesque

Torchy Taboo puts the tease back in striptease

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It could be just another summer night in Cabbagetown. But in the cool hallway of a shotgun bungalow, where soft twilight filters through gauzy colored scarves, it feels like a Sunset Boulevard boarding house, circa 1942, where traveling salesmen, clip joint operators and showgirls bunk.

A redhead and a blonde out of James Ellroy's wildest imagination go over their nummmba for a show that night. Milt Buckner's "The Beast," a twinkly tune that sounds like ice stacking up in a highball glass, plays in the background as the two dancers break down their steps.

Every now and then, as if to burst the retro bubble and send reality crashing back into the rock 'n' roll present, a heavily tattooed, punk rock-type emerges from a bedroom. He's the redhead's boyfriend, a fire-breather and stilt-walker with a local rock band.

No, it is not 1942. The redhead and the blonde are not preparing for a show at the Follies. Despite the preponderance of sequins, plumage, pasties and tease, we are a good six or seven decades removed from the prime days of burly-q. But it's a testament to the heady power of the New Burlesque that these women could almost make you believe ...

In its heyday, burlesque was a winking, naughty smorgasbord of sex and comedy, with stand-up comics, singers and other clothed entertainers sandwiched in between elaborate striptease sessions.

During the mid-'20s and '30s, dancers such as Gypsy Rose Lee strutted across Los Angeles and Manhattan stages and top-name dancers created signature acts that defined their showbiz identities, like Lili St. Cyr's onstage bubble bath and "Evangeline the Oyster Girl's" halfshell routine. After a period of stagnation following World War II, the phenomenon revved back up, revitalized by dancers such as Georgia girl Tempest Storm, who served up a champagne-bubble fantasy of gorgeous girls, girls, girls.

But in the '60s and '70s, as depictions of sexuality grew increasingly more frank, burlesque became associated with the prudish, stilted sexuality of parents and other outmoded folk. The artifice and showbizzy aspects that had been so glamorous suddenly seemed hokey and dishonest to a new generation. Instead of elaborate peel sessions, topless waitresses were the rage and nudie shows became go-go-athons with nimble young women dancing naked without the theatrical elements of a show or any sense of individual identity.

Well, hold onto your hats, boys and girls. In a refreshing response to the in-your-face sexuality of the modern age, burlesque is big all over again. In Atlanta, the New Burlesque that you can catch any night of the week in New York, San Francisco or New Orleans is still taking baby steps. For now, the local scene is dominated by a one-woman impresario of the shimmy-and-shake. Enter the aforementioned redhead: Eve Wynne-Warren, aka "Torchy Taboo: The Human Heatwave." As the fire-wielding, flame-haired temptress and headliner for her deliciously old-style dance troupe Dames Aflame, Wynne-Warren has resurrected the lost art of burlesque, juicing it up for the 21st century's gimlet-eyed scenemakers.

At various moments in its life cycle, Dames Aflame has turned a girl in a monkey suit into a sexy beast ("Gin-Gin the Wild Woman") and featured Greasepaint band member Jim Stacy as a bellicose clown who filled the gaps between song-and-dance numbers by insulting the audience. But as the headlining act, Wynne-Warren routinely sends the show over the top with a torch-lit number that culminates with her bra bursting into flames.

At 39, Wynne-Warren is a fascinating combination of dreamy girliness and gritty, jaded adult. Dealt a different hand, she might have been the dynamic head of her own company, a brilliant saleswoman. She is that odd beast, an Alpha-female in a slacker world. Maybe there is something in stripping, the ability to assume other personas, the flexibility of identity, but Wynne-Warren is hard to pin down. Even in her "civilian" life, she seems to perform an act, and it's never clear what might be revealed should the mask ever slip.

As a performer, Wynne-Warren has perfected the look and ambiance of old-school burlesque -- the ultra-sexy glances thrown out like gold coins at the audience, the provocative but highly controlled gestures. She has that old-fashioned quality show people call "stage presence" and a bewitching ability to make you believe she was there at the beginning, back when va-va-voom was invented. A demitasse Venus at just 4 foot 11 inches, Wynne-Warren is transformed on stage into a statuesque showgirl by her sexy charisma and sphinx-like smile. With her flash of red hair, those ironically arched eyebrows and that vintage striptease strut and sway, Wynne-Warren is the epitome of the '40s-era burlesque performer, a hybrid of Salome, Bette Midler, Rita Hayworth's Gilda and any woman who's ever used a fan and a grin to advantageous ends.

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