Dita Von Teese and Murray Hill Tear Up Avalon

Dita Von Teese likes to take baths. Last night at Avalon, for her first appearance in L.A. in two years, she took two baths in just an hour and a half, easily more than I take in a few weeks. (I do bathe, just the less glamorous way — standing up in a shower). Though I’d seen the host, Murray Hill, more times than I can count, it was my first time seeing Dita perform.

She did three sets — two of which she performs at the Crazy Horse in Paris: one set to her own remake of a Mae West tune, “A Guy What Takes His Time” that ended with her in a black bathtub giving herself a very luxurious bath; a second one put a twist on her classic martini glass act (it’s been altered to signify a Cointreau cocktail — they were the night’s sponsor). And her final act was brand new. It was dubbed “The Opium Den” and was set partially to the Cure’s “Lullaby,” and it featured an elaborate red and orange glowing “Oriental” set.

Dita’s burlesque, and to a large extent, the first half of the show’s acts, including Ava Garter (her bff from high school), a smashing redhead, Mayte, and Gregg Romeo, were historically correct burlesque (right up to Mayte’s belly dancing, sword-balancing act). Though they are performers during the “new burlesque” movement — which for all intents and purposes really started at the end of the 90s with Jo Boobs and Blue Angel in NYC, and here with Michelle Carr and Velvet Hammer — they are really old-school burlesque.

If you watch an old burlesque video of Tempest Storm or Bettie Page, you will be surprised by how little happens, and for how long. Minutes go by and barely an item of clothing is removed; the dancer just stands and shimmies with a suggestive smile, moving elegantly around the stage before removing an item of clothing. In this way, Dita’s act is quite similar.

While New York and neo-burlesque is almost more like theater — with mini-stories told in less five minutes — I once saw Dirty Martini get ready for a date, set the dinner table, get stood up, have a breakdown, and commit suicide while she got totally naked. Dita’s old school burlesque is an exercise in patience.

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In the 1950s, a glimpse of thigh — let alone a flash of tummy — was truly titillating, and so teasing out the full reveal was really meaningful. Today, however, we know exactly what naked ladies look like, so watching Dita slither around on the stage artfully picking off clothing is less exciting than it should be. It was less like watching a performance than watching a modeling shoot in progress: on the big screens flanking the stage, you could see her lips quivering, her eyebrows arching just so. The faint movement of her mouth, created a feeling. She was like a sponge, soaking in adulation while looking incredibly beautiful.

There was also surprisingly less tease than I expected. Dita didn’t have layers upon layers of clothing to peel off; usually she went through one phase of deliciously glittery, alluring costuming, before we got the titty shot. However, she has a rockin’ body that I would eat puppies to have myself, so I am perfectly happy to ogle her all night long.

As someone who chronicled the New York burlesque scene for the Village Voice, it was interesting to see the difference between the two coasts — and I was curious to see how our favorite uncle, Murray Hill, would play to an L.A. crowd that has no context for Murray. Who, they must have been wondering, is this androgynous Benny Hill-like man wearing a tuxedo worthy of Vegas with a high squeaky voice?

Sweet-cheeked Murray seems to have undergone a bit of a transformation in the last few years. He’s saltier for one thing; his old partner at club Casanova (a long ago drag king night that’s ancient history), Mo Fischer, who used to do drag as Mo B. Dick, noted “Murray’s cursing a lot more.” Just then he uttered, “Oh, shit!”

And he’s a bit more aggressive, going after the laughs, calling out Carmen Electra (who may or may not have been in the house) and gave out his numbers (if you were paying attention, they were all real), and the audience members a hard time. “This is my L.A. debut and you’re fucking Twittering!” he chided one fool who was busy texting down in front.

Most importantly, though, Murray was able to rile up the crowd before the performers came on, stretching their names like taffy. “Put your hands together for the International Queen of Burlesque,” he said, “Dita Vooooooooooooooon Teeeeeeeeeeeeeese!” It was big. It was showbiz.

That was the other thing: burlesque — or at least Dita’s burlesque — is big here. Big space: held at Avalon, which has a capacity to hold a few thousand people, and was sold out. There were multitudes of celebrities in the audience: we spied Margaret Cho and Jorja Fox, (of CSI: Las Vegas), as well as Jenny Lewis (or at least her exact replica). The size of L.A.’s geography lends itself to making burlesque seem more than a quick and dirty striptease in a tiny hovel of a club in the Lower East Side. Still the acts during the second half of the show managed to invoke the edgier East Side of both coasts, (here it would be the Silverlake contingent).

Raja, the transsexual contestant from America’s Next Top Model, did a classic “reverse strip,” which is where you start out naked and get dressed. It takes on a new, mournful meaning when the performer in question is a man who should be a woman, putting on women’s attire and emerging as her true self. A moving portrait.

Raja was followed by pint-size package Selene Luna, an L.A. favorite. She is a little person, and stands all of three feet ten inches tall; she arrived on stage in a makeshift motorcycle, smoking and pouting, and very easily stole the show. I looked back up at the top rows in the V.I.P. section and could see all the way from the front of the stage that Carr and her friends were on their feet with their fists in the air cheering on their friend, victorious.

The last act before Dita’s “Opium Den” finale, Kerry Wee, performed almost entirely in the dark. We soon learned why: her act was orgasmic moans and wails set to a crescendo of tap dancing. It was the sort of thing that could be called performance art and it could have been performed in a very different context. As she reached her climax, tapping furiously and moaning ecstatically, the crowd cheered her on.

When she was finished, we all exhaled. I needed a cigarette. To quote Murray, “Oh, shit!”

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