“Something just seems to be trying to tell you somebody”
- Sandman #3
Despair of the Endless is neither sexy nor particularly entertaining, at least under any conventional definition of the word. Within the pages of Neil Gaiman’s medium-defining comics benchmark, The Sandman, she’s a walking buzzkill with a jutting, fanged underbite. Much like her siblings Death, Dream, Desire, Despair, Destiny, Destruction and Delight/Delirium, she’s also the distilled embodiment and existential ruler of her namesake, and all that it implies. If form is function—and it very much is—she’s the absence of fun. An anti-aphrodisiac and the equivalent of visual birth control. The character tears her flesh into visceral ribbons with a barbed ring as a coping mechanism, as well as commandeers a cloud of rats and other vermin as company. In other words, the perpetually nude character rigorously lives up to her anthropomorphic namesake.
But when performer Ruby Solitaire and her partner Moe Cheezmo—organizers of Excelsior Burlesque, a monthly show devoted to comics, games and other pop culture—decided to plan out their annual Sandman nerdlesque show, the pair was adamant about including every member of the family. Sadness avatars included. “In years’ past we’ve had Coraline and American Gods and various other Neil Gaiman joints. We always said, ‘wouldn’t it be cool if we got the whole family together, and that’s where we ended up,” Cheezmo, the host of the night’s activities, explains. “Sandman is one of our earliest shows, one of our most popular shows. It turned out to be such a hit, that it’s turned into a yearly thing. Getting somebody to do Despair wasn’t…easy. Ruby had to put together an act for it. That’s a tough thing to make sexy.”
Ruby Solitaire as Despair
For nerdlesque performers, though, challenges like these are part of the medium’s innate appeal. Performers in NYC shows like Excelsior, D20, and RAWR! (and several more across the country) don the costumes of fictional icons before shedding them within the lifespan of a fleeting song. The performances require a bizarre combination of competencies to pull off: not only does the dancer need to embody a character completely, he or she also needs to do so by strategically disrobing. Performers may stand near-naked at the end of their average two-minutes-and-thirty-seconds acts, but they can never be exposed as themselves.
Innovative artists have assumed the roles of moss-strapped flora gods, zombie ballerinas and, in one act that drills deeply into its dystopian source material, a security camera from George Orwell’s 1984. But Ruby Solitaire faces a much more daunting challenge as no other performer volunteers for Despair.
She’s “an utter lack of hope, which is the exact opposite of what burlesque is,” Solitaire laments.
And then Solitaire performs in what can only be described as a performance art barrage of conflicting jackhammer emotions. Though she may be a walking pity party, there’s a frightening vulnerability to the way the Solitaire portrays the demonic-looking matriarch, which may be the entire bittersweet point of Despair: she’s a black hole for salvation that will never arrive.
The resulting four minutes and 54 seconds of the act verge on some elaborate art oxymoron, existing at the intersection of a venn diagram where sex, misery and self-immolation might meet. It’s a gorgeous exemplar that while burlesque is a sexy celebration of the human form in all of its incarnations, it can also capture an entire spectrum of emotion that doesn’t rely on that foundation.
Solitaire slithers onstage on her knees, an appropriate station that mirrors the plush rats swaddled around her body. After stripping away the strands of fabric rodents and her underlying lingerie, she tips a lit candle toward her back. A liquid thread of candle wax cuts down her back. It looks uncomfortably similar to blood. Her fluid poise neglects any pain that might emerge from the scalding wax as it tears up and cries down her back. The distressed synth wails of Nine Inch Nails’ “Every Day Is Exactly the Same” thump to her rhythm.
What occurs next is even rare in the sultry Vaudeville-derived burlesque world, though it displays an absolute devotion to its subject matter: Solitaire crouches down, facing away from the audience. She removes one nipple pastie at a time, flipping it away with a lax facial expression that could only mean “fuck it.” She repeats the process with her crotch cover.
Ruby Solitaire as Despair
The burlesque performer disappears and Despair emerges, clothed only in tattoos, makeup and candy-red candle wax. Facing her observers directly, she pounds her fists against the stage floor for a 30-second eternity against Trent Reznor’s throaty barks.
For a splinter art devoted to delighting fans of traditionally escapist fare like superheroes and games, it’s heavy, heavy shit that dives miles deeper than the superficial promise of breasts and g-strings.
“The question is just telling the story, and finding out what’s interesting and human about the character,” Solitaire says. “One of my better-known acts is a Dalek act from Doctor Who. With that, it’s taking something that’s distinctly unsexy; it’s mechanical, and then once you get the mechanical out from underneath, it’s this disgusting, horrible, evil little blob. With something like Despair, that’s a little bit harder to do, because you don’t want to go against the basic core of the character.”
As noted, no other performer on the night’s bill (in order of the show: Magdalena Fox as Morpheus, Carriage Return as Destruction, Ruby Solitaire as Despair, Liberty Rose as Death, Stormy Leather as Desire and Lefty Lucy as Delight/Delirium) jumped to play the role for its aesthetic hurdles. But like a disciplined thespian, Solitaire employed her own method acting to the performance to ensure that she did her damnedest to convey dancing, writhing gloom.
“I connect to Despair strongly, only because I’m actually struggling with some mental illness myself. For me, this act is going to be quite a bit of catharsis. I get to go onstage and embody despair—all of the things that I’m feeling inside, all the things that a lot of people in the nerd community go through, being a fringe community and having a lot of people who feel like they don’t fit in. You have to bring that to the stage and rip people’s guts out.”
“Never Trust the Storyteller. Only Trust the Story.”
- Sandman #38
The same unadulterated passion and experimental approach behind Solitaire’s act permeates the other performances as well. Show opener Magdalena Fox channels Morpheus, the titular Sandman who often hides behind his job as dream czar at the expense of his personal relationships. Fox takes this character trait to a literal extreme, wearing a white-washed kabuki mask that remains on her face throughout the entire act, as the abrasive churn of Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” echoes off the stage.
Magdalena Fox as Dream
“For me, part of the fun thing about doing an existing character in burlesque is that you get to put your own sexy spin on it,” Fox says of her act, which she first developed six years ago. “You can take a character who isn’t presented as sexy and make them sexy. You don’t have to maintain canon. You don’t have to be true to the story; you take your own elements and mix them in.”
Fox’s innovative methods shine through halfway into her act. Literally. Craning up from the floor on her palms and knees, an eerie, applause-rousing glow bursts from the mask’s eye cavities. The creepy feat fits a near-omnipotent character who can gaze into the dreams and souls of any creature, living or dead.
Magdalena Fox as Dream
“Because this was one of the first numbers I was creating, I was experimenting with how I was performing at the time,” Fox says. “I was experimenting with different gadgets and different ways of removing things. I’m putting my own twist on it, but I still want to convey the character’s attitude, which is the fun part about nerdlesque—the playing dress-up and the acting when you have someone else’s little guideline there for you.”
In stark contrast to Despair’s evocative downer and Dream’s ethereal light show, Carriage Return—the only male performer of the group—embodies Destruction with hilarity, like a cross between The Big Lebowski’s Dude and a tipsy undergrad art major. Initially wielding armor and a sword, Return breaks from stoic soldier to weekend warrior, thrusting his devil’s horns into the air to headbang to Beastie Boys’ “Fight For Your Right.” He slims down to grunge-era flannels. The act reflects comic character Destruction’s exile from his role as warlord to sensitive amateur artist. Return breaches the core of the persona by revealing a well-endowed paint palette in a very strategic location that isn’t his heart, but…close enough. It’s another clever performance that shows the rigorous thought and creativity of an art that reveals character and nudity in equal measure. (In another crack, Moe Cheezmo’s Destiny, who also serves as the host, attempts to disrobe, only to discover hidden layers of brown fabric underneath in one of the night’s best gags.)
Carriage Return as Destruction
Death—channeled with joyful elation by Liberty Rose—winks, arches and flirts for the audience, showcasing the childlike joy of an existence that promptly ends with her very arrival. Rose’s performance patters to The Cure’s jaunty “The Perfect Boy,” nailing the essence of the reaper’s most likable incarnation from beginning to end. You can almost hear the exaggerated Mary Poppins impersonation over the music.
Liberty Rose as Death
Next, Stormy Leather strides the stage to Leonard Cohen’s “I’m Your Man,” as the androgynous Desire. Leather seethes with primal alpha sexuality. During her turn as the gender-swapping manipulator, Leather holds a gaze that reduces every audience member to a sweating 13-year-old boy. She strips away her mustache and dapper formalwear, unwraps gauze layers confining her breasts, revealing a svelte figure hiding a rose in her boxer briefs. It may be both the most arousing and confusing image since Bugs Bunny dressed in a strapless red dress and lipstick. Taylor Sweet, who provided go-go dancing as custodian Merv Pumpkinhead at the show’s beginning and intermission, appears equally dumbfounded when Leather leads her onstage, gingerly holds her cheeks with both hands and kisses her.
Stormy Leather as Desire
Finally, Lefty Lucy closes the night by choreographing the metamorphosis of Delight into Delirium—the youngest of The Endless in either phase—to Regina Spektor’s tumultuous “Apres Moi.” Fearful and manic, Lucy tears and flings rags of clothing that may as well be the layers of her sanity, revealing a convulsing, spastic avatar of madness underneath what was once a gorgeous evening gown. Also underneath her clothing: underwear adorned with giant red (mouth) lips, which is by far a sentence that this writer never, ever thought he’d have to strategize for clarity.
Lefty Lucy as Delight/Delirium
The curtain closes and reopens and Moe Cheezmo introduces the performers, and The Endless reach their end, at least for that night.
“The Things We Do Make Echoes.”
- Sandman #64
When observing the entire performance, one truth shines brightly: these performers pour an immense amount of energy and time to realize this particular dream. They all adore Gaiman’s characters and the comic they occupy, birthing them into three mostly-nude dimensions that will never be seen again in quite the same way. As with most nerdlesque, these shows provide female fans with a haven to express and honor the fictions they adore outside of male-dominated conjecture, a contentious reality Paste writer Robert Tutton explored thoroughly in his “Revenge of the Nerds” BKLYNR feature. This relatively-new performance art, nestled into the new-burlesque resurgence that ignited roughly a decade ago, comes at an especially sensitive time as big comic publishers like Marvel and DC have begun to diversify their publishing lines with female, gay and non-white leading characters. The ultimate goal in both endeavors is to expand a beloved medium into new directions for more people. In burlesque’s case, these performers are also challenging antiquated perceptions of fans and content alike.
“Trying to make a safe space for yourself in a culture that’s already tight-knit is very hard,” Solitaire explains. “And I hate to say it, but sometimes you have to use a really sharp weapon, and sometimes sex can be that weapon. It’s not like you’re using sex as a weapon like Cersei Lannister is using sex as a weapon. You’re using sex as a weapon in that you’re saying, ‘hey nerds—we think it’s sexy to be a nerd, you think it’s sexy to be a nerd. Let’s embrace this together.’”
Moe Cheezmo as Destiny with the rest of the Family
The road to that goal hasn’t always been smooth. Though burlesque is a form of stripping, the goal and intentions—if you couldn’t glean from the above description—are far different. Though the performers hope you enjoy the sexuality conveyed by their acts, the sets aren’t singularly designed to get the audience off. Burlesque celebrates all body types, and though the ladies tend to dominate its ranks, fellas like Carriage Return are just as welcome. It’s sex positive, body positive expression, rooted in Vaudeville entertainment more than that shifty girly bar out by the airport. This differentiation isn’t always appreciated.
“We’re going to be criticized for the pop culture, because it is a boy’s club—but we get to have this little section of it ourselves,” Fox says. “Most of the criticism comes more from our bodies and how we look than our relation to the subject matter. It’s how it’s been. I know when I first started performing, I did a nerdlesque show and io9 did an article about it, and they posted pictures. That’s when I learned not to read the comments.”
For this sold out-show, the reception is unanimously positive and supportive, which is incredibly fitting: Sandman was a pioneering comic in its embrace of female, gay and transgender characters, opening the medium up to the same audience diversity Solitaire and her peers strive for. Neil Gaiman recently reflected when the “Concerned Mothers of America” attempted to boycott Sandman for featuring gay, bi and trans characters. Appropriately, Sandman was the first comic Solitaire ever read as a gift from Cheezmo. The two began to date afterward and concocted the show. (“I’m just going to say that it was a test,” Cheezmo quips.)
“I really love Neil Gaiman, and I love boobs! And when those two things are together….It breaks the barrier inside people’s heads that makes them get creeped out about nudity and sexuality. I see nerdlesque as part of that gentle pressure of moving the norm over slowly, slowly, getting people to accept it.”
Fortunately, this dream has already begun to turn into a reality.
Excelsior Burlesque’s next show—”Treat Yo’Self, A Burlesque Tribute to Parks & Rec”—will debut on June 25th at The Slipper Room in New York City.
Sean Edgar likes comics and weird animals. Follow him on Twitter if you’d like to see lots of pictures of his dog.