Pretty Things

Pretty Things is a documentary on the last generation of American 'Burlesque Queens' as told by a young woman searching to discover the lost art of burlesque dance.

My obsession with burlesque began at age 18 when I found two 20th century burlesque costumes hanging in a stall at the 26th street flea market in New York. This led to a self-portrait series in which I wore my costumes, emulating poses of 1940s burlesque queens in their vintage glamour portraits. They radiated self-confident sex appeal—teasing the viewer yet seemingly in control of their posturing. Wanting to absorb the tricks of their trade, I sought out the original owners of my costumes with hopes to learn more about the romantic aura of these beautiful creatures.

Through six years of letters, visits, interviews and striptease lessons I have formed close relationships with the last generation of 'burlesque queens' and have become undeniably attached to my subjects, forsaking the objectivity clause of classic documentaries to fall deeper into my romantic visions of the surface glamour of the burlesque queen. As I listened to tales of the reality of burlesque I found they did not often match the idolized woman on stage of my fantasies.

The inclusion and development of myself as a 'character' within the film is an integral subplot and changes the genre of this film from pure documentary to a mixture of fact and fantasy. Filmed by and through the eyes of a director in her twenties, Pretty Things chronicles history with personal narrative, as my subjects pass down long guarded routines and instruct me on the finer points of the burlesque queen persona. Initial awkward attempts to copy their movements progress slowly, with every step of my education and embarrassments recorded.

My eventual transformation into a 'professional' is fictionalized with 'faked archival' sequences. One dance number, in which my figure is multiplied, was shot from overhead, emulating Busby Berkeley’s famous dance sequences of the 1920s. For another “fantasy sequence” set to Eartha Kitt’s “I Want to be Evil”, I am wearing a costume belonging to one of my subjects, Betty Rowland, as I try to re-create her glamorous 1940s persona.

My experience is culminated in the finale number for which I trained in Balanchine and Bob Fosse technique for several years with choreographer Jennifer Nairn-Smith and recorded a version of “Big Spender” with the Felipe Riveros Trio. Albert Maysles, documentarian and principle cinematographer, photographed the performance in 16mm B&W at the Palace Theater in downtown Los Angeles, where Anna Pavlova and Houdini once graced the stage.

The re-recorded version of “Big Spender” is an important creative and conceptual part of the resolution of Pretty Things. The use of “Big Spender” in Bob Fosse’s work is an inspiration, as both the choreographer for Pretty Things, Jennifer Nairn-Smith (one of his original principal dancers) and Alan Heim, our supervising editor (Fosse’s editor), are key collaborators on this project.

Pretty Things has been given non-profit status through New York Foundation for the Arts. Grants received for this project include New York State Council for the Arts and the Roy W. Dean grant. Foundation and Corporate Sponsors include Shiseido, The Rudin Foundation, The Taubman Foundation and Kate Spade. Additionally, The Performing Arts Department of The New York Public Library has requested copies of my filmed interviews for their archives. Pretty Things aired on HBO in June of 2005.