Nuns on Fire and Striptease

Burlesque Invades Vinohrady with Wildcat Tamer, “Unholy Woman,” and More

By Erica Gonzales

Photo by Erica Gonzales

Prague Burlesque claims to be one of the only burlesque shows in the former Eastern bloc. Photo by Erica Gonzales

She emerged onstage veiled in black lace, clutching a Bible, with two nuns standing at her sides, their hands folded in prayer. As a big band melody started to play, she was fully covered – except for what the deep neckline of her dress revealed. But soon, the veil came off, then the gloves, then the dress – all while men and women hollered and cheered at her from the audience. At the end of her act, she was in a crimson thong, rapidly spinning the tassels of her heart-shaped pasties (with no hands). Her name is Miss Cool Cat, and this act is called “Unholy Woman.” It’s not hard to see why.

It’s skits like these performed by Miss Cool Cat and her three co-stars – Angelina Angelic, Lady Mousellyca, and Sonny Vargas – that embodies Prague Burlesque, a two-hour show that combines dancing, singing, skit acting, striptease, and comedy with a 1950’s flavor. These are staples of classic burlesque shows, which are known for their female performers bearing large feather fans and splashing around in giant martini glasses.

Burlesque, pairing caricature and theatrical exaggeration with striptease, was at its height in the United States in the early 20th century. Its revival there and in Europe is sometimes referred to as neo-Burlesque.

In Prague, the genre is not as popular as it is in, say, Paris or Las Vegas. In fact, Prague Burlesque is the one of the only authentic burlesque shows in the former Eastern bloc, according its to founder David Jahn. Besides his shows, other burlesque performances in the city are sparse.

David Jahn plays cool crooner Sonny Vargas Friday nights at the Royal.  Photo by Erica Gonzales

David Jahn plays cool crooner Sonny Vargas Friday nights at the Royal. Photo by Erica Gonzales

Jahn created Prague Burlesque in 2007 with a mission to thread burlesque back into the city’s cultural fabric, the way it was in the ’50s and ‘60s. This was not easy to accomplish since, according to Prague City Tourism, “professional burlesque shows are a quite young ‘piece of art’ in Prague.”

Thus, Jahn struggled to define and make burlesque known to Czechs. “It took me five years to explain the difference between burlesque and cabaret – the word was mainly used for whorehouses and strip-joints in Prague,” he said. Unlike strip clubs, Prague Burlesque’s sets are lighter and more comical – almost like a play – and never have full nudity. Jahn called the main differences “cinematographic.”

“We create dreams and magic on stage, so people can for a while think about something beautiful and forget their stressful jobs.”

Seven years later, Prague Burlesque runs into other challenges, such as the expensive nature of these extravagant performances, and the competition of solo artists. Jahn is determined to make Prague Burlesque the “lighthouse of burlesque in Europe,” although he is aware they are not yet popular enough to compete with bigger cities.

Jahn – originally from Zurich, Switzerland – is Prague Burlesque’s multi-tasking ringleader. Besides producing and directing the show, he also stars in it as Sonny Vargas, the suave Emcee clad in a suit and Ray Bans, who croons and banters with the audience. Throughout the performance, he and his three female co-stars take turns on stage, each with a special flair.

Angelina Angelic, 27, is a blonde and curvaceous Prague native and the songstress of the group. In one number she sings into a vintage microphone, draped in sparkles and a feather boa. In later skits, she acts as one of her “strong female roles” such as a wildcat tamer dressed in a sparkling red leotard and matching whip. She declined to reveal her real name.

Lady Mousellyca takes on more elegant roles and works ballet into her routines, which include tutus and pointe shoes. She has a background of six years in scenic dance and two years in self-taught pointe. With red lips and even redder hair held up in pin curls, the 25-year-old is reminiscent of what she calls a “silver screen diva.” Her real name is Anna, although she declined to give her last name.

Finally, there is Miss Cool Cat – a bright-eyed, 27-year-old redhead – whose real name is Terezia Belcakova, originally from Slovakia. According to her website, she is the fist professional Slovak burlesque dancer. Her segments are eccentric and unconventional, such as the famed “Unholy Woman”, or a bit where she plays a tropical woman who seduces a safari explorer (Vargas) as she wades in a life-size martini glass.

After two years of selling out shows at Bar and Books, an intimate setting on Manesova, the quartet premiered at the Royal Theater on Vinohradska on October 3rd. The group will hold weekly every Friday night at the new, larger venue.

“We really needed to make another step towards bigger stages,” Jahn said. “Le Royal appeared on the scene at right moment.” Royal seats 120 people, and was sold out on premiere night. Its stage can accommodate larger set pieces and props, like a massive birdcage, martini glass, and floor-to-ceiling swing, that Bar and Books could not.

“We grew up,” Angelina Angelic explained.

The theater opened this June as a theater, cinema, and café under the auspices of Jean-Christophe Gramont, 47, a Prague resident of 11 years after living in Paris and Vienna.

“The leitmotiv of Royal is: open your mind and discover new cultural events out of the beaten tracks,” said Gramont in an email. He supported the idea of adding burlesque shows to the location’s eclectic schedule, which already includes Flamenco concerts, foreign film screenings, Shakesperean plays, and even the latest album release of famed Czech singer Karel Gott.

“The atmosphere of 1920s at Royal totally matches the spirit of the Burlesque show,” Gramont said. That is most noticeable in the décor, with upholstered chairs, low wooden tables with dim candles, Persian area rugs, and grand, red velvet stage curtains evoking what Expats.cz called a hybrid of “Czech First Republic and Hollywood.” Royal was originally founded in 1929 as “the largest modern cinema” in the city, but was confiscated from its owners during the Communist era and not returned until after the Velvet Revolution, according to Royal’s website.

On premiere night, the audience, which typically ranges from the ages of 30 to 50-year-olds, consisted couples, tourists, and performers’ friends. They lounged in the relaxed seating, some dressed in 20s-inspired garb, some with thin flutes of champagne in hand.

The glamorous Lady Mousellyca is one of four main players at Prague Burlesque. Photo by Erica Gonzales

The glamorous Lady Mousellyca is one of four main players at Prague Burlesque. Photo by Erica Gonzales

Jahn and his performers do not conform to the Neo-Burlesque styles that are widespread in places like Berlin and London, which are more flamboyant or avant-garde. Instead, they pick up where burlesque left off in the 60s, with a subtly modern spin.

Gramont has seen 50 burlesque shows worldwide, and classifies Prague’s as “second degree,” which means the acts have a vintage setting, but are executed with a progressive mindset, acting almost as a “manifesto for feminism,” he said. The performances have “one foot in the past, and one foot in the future,” said Gramont after the premiere. Lady Mousellyca said their performances are a “beautiful celebration of women, beauty and diversity.”

“I was thinking, am I going to feel uncomfortable about this exploitation? Is it going to be for the men in the audience? And that didn’t seem to be the case at all,” said Daisy Sindelar, a journalist at Radio Free Europe who attended opening night. To her, the women and men enjoyed the show equally. “Everyone was watching it with a big smile on their face,” she added.

But some audience members were still underwhelmed.

“I like it. But for me, it’s more conservative now,” said photographer and designer Martin Kamen, who wore a top hat with feathers to the theater, when interviewed at intermission. “For a big stage, you need a big show,” he explained. When asked what he hoped to see in the second act he said, “Dogs jumping on naked girls with fire!”

Even Sindelar said she, her husband, and friends were expecting to see magic on stage and were disappointed to find none.

“It was kind of nice and naive,” said Laura, an audience member named who chose not to disclose her last name. She and her husband, both Prague residents for 15 years, attended the show to try something new.

Despite the naivety, Laura also thought the Prague audience is still not “ready” for a burlesque scene. The dancers, however, have a way of changing that.

Miss Cool Cat and Angelina Angelic created Prague Burlesque Academy, a series of workshops to teach women about the art of burlesque, from dancing with props, to building character, to undressing techniques. The first lesson, scheduled for Nov. 14, will be hosted by Armitage Shanks, one of the top performers in the world, according to 21st Century Burlesque.

Angelina Angelic stressed the importance of the connection between the performers and the people, comparing burlesque dancers to “psychologists” that “make people forget about their troubles.”

Lady Mousellyca agreed. She said, “We create dreams and magic on stage, so people can for a while think about something beautiful and forget their stressful jobs.”

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Erica Gonzales is in the NYU College of Arts and Science Class of 2016. Her hometown is Wyckoff, New Jersey.

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Categories: Culture, Fall 2014 Issue Number 2, NYU Prague

Author:The Prague Wandering

The Prague Wandering is an NYU based study abroad webzine- the only one of its kind. It focuses on issues in contemporary Czech culture and the city of Prague, exploring beyond the study abroad bubble.

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