According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, the term “burlesque” can be a work of literature that seeks to ridicule by means of grotesque exaggeration or comic imitation- or it can be a form of "mockery, usually by caricature." The third, and most recognizable definition is "theatrical entertainment of a broadly humorous often earthy character consisting of short turns, comic skits, and sometimes striptease acts."
But for both Telluride Theatre’s artistic director Sasha Cucciniello and burlesque veteran Melissa Harris, the art is so much more than an act.
“Burlesque has really become about female empowerment and body positivity and sacred sensuality,” said Cucciniello, who has taught burlesque in Telluride for over a decade.
Dec. 15-19 burlesque returns to Sheridan Opera House stage for the first time since March 2020. In March 2021, the show was canceled due to the pandemic. The event is a fundraiser for Telluride Theatre and is separated into two separate shows.
The first show, Cheap Thrills, takes place Dec. 15 and 16. Cheap Thrills features 11 members of the beginning burlesque class taught by Cucciniello. This will be the beginning class’s first time performing burlesque and marks their “graduation” from the course. Cucciniello described the show as an “anything goes” type of performance. Each woman has created a unique on-stage character and will perform their own piece.
“Every piece will be totally different. It's a wild, fun night because you never know what you're going to get,” said Cucciniello.
Dec. 17 through 19 will be the House of Shimmy Shake's Holiday Extravaganza. This show will feature more experienced dancers and some of Telluride Theatre's performers and musicians. Cucciniello and Harris have always wanted to do a holiday-themed show and are excited about the opportunity.
"Since we wanted to graduate the 2020 beginning ladies before starting the 2022 class in January, I thought let's make a full burlesque weekend out of it," Cucciniello said in a news release.
The extravaganza will mix theatre, burlesque, comedy, and live music, explained Cucciniello, who will also be performing in the show.
Cucciniello first started teaching burlesque 11 years ago through the Ah Haa School. Before Telluride, she lived in New York City and fell in love with the art after attending shows just as the Neo-Burlesque movement was starting up in the city. Cucciniello found Telluride was the perfect place to start teaching burlesque. Her last beginner’s class sold out in 10 minutes.
The art form has been around Telluride since the mining era, she saidd, when Hurdy Gurdy girls, as they were called, would dance at bars.
According to the Telluride Theatre press release, “This Telluride tradition harkens back to the raucous and raunchy variety shows of Telluride's Vaudeville era.”
Vaudeville refers to the entertainment popular in the mid-1890s up until the early 1930s. The era was centered around variety and short and diverse acts throughout the evening. Since the late nineteenth century, the art has evolved and changed through the decades.
“Burlesque in Telluride has become its own unique thing. A celebration of the feminine, a way for women in town to bond, have fun, and explore a different side of themselves," Cucciniello said.
Each dancer has their unique struggles. Some people struggle with body image or stage fright, or even with the walk, explained Cucciniello.
Kate Vorona, who is in the beginner's class, will perform for the first time ever at Cheap Thrills. She signed up after friends told her the class would “change her life.” Vorona found the most challenging aspect of burlesque to be the dancing element.
“I have zero dance experience and zero choreography experience. Burlesque is about you and what you create and present on that stage. Sasha did an amazing job at pushing us to make it our own and make our own choreography,” Vorona said.
In the beginning, she would listen to her performance song repeatedly in her bedroom, not knowing where to start. However, as time went by, her confidence grew.
“I am proud of myself, and I think I'm a badass for doing this. I'm not afraid to say it. It takes a lot to be on stage in front of hundreds of people. On top of that, you are showing almost everything inch of your body. That takes guts,” Vorona said.
Cucciniello explained a huge part of the draw for a lot of women was gaining autonomy over one's own body. She called burlesque her own form of “political protest.”
In March 2021, with the cancelation of the annual show, organizers and dancers shot a 2022 calendar to raise money, which will be for sale at both shows.
“Burlesque is a celebration,” Cucciniello said. “It's fun. It's silly. It's sexy. And it's totally Telluride.”
Doors open at 7 p.m. and the shows start at 8 p.m. for Cheap Thrills and the Holiday Extravaganza. To purchase tickets, visit telluridetheatre.org.