After-dark inquiry: Angie Pontani

The veteran burly-Q performer gears up for the ninth annual New York Burlesque Festival.

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Angie Pontani

Angie Pontani

Before the first New York Burlesque Festival, in 2002, neither Pontani Productions, which you run with your sister Tara, nor the event's coproducer, Jen Gapay from Thirsty Girl Productions, had ever undertaken a venture quite like this. What made you think you could pull it off?
I was pretty confident that we could do this, but like most things that I did back then, I didn't really know enough not to be confident. And there was so much enthusiasm around the festival. The minute we announced that we were gonna do this, we got a tremendous response. And that response came from not only the burlesque community, but also people that were coming to the shows. Everyone was just so excited about it and into it. There was this momentum of enthusiasm from the start that we just kind of rode. And failure was not an option.

The popularity of burlesque seems to go through phases, but at that time, it seemed to be on a real upswing. Was that an impetus for starting the festival?
Absolutely. There seemed to be a market for it. And New York is the greatest city in the world; there's tons of burlesque here, there are tons of venues, there are tons of New Yorkers who want to see burlesque shows, and there are tons of tourists who want to see burlesque shows. So it seemed like a pretty good idea!

The festival now has scores of performers spread out over four nights. Was the first edition quite as sprawling as it is now?
Oh no, not at all. Well, to us it was just as big as it is now, really. But our rooms were a lot smaller. Back then, we had our opening night party at the Slipper Room, for instance.

Which fit maybe 150 people on a good night.
Exactly. Still, we were very happy when we sold it out. But this year our opening party is at the Bell House, which fits what, like 600 people? And all of the other nights are now at much bigger venues than that first year as well. Our venues have grown every year, really, and our numbers have grown and grown.

The festival always features plenty of local talent, but you seem to attract more and more performers from around the country and around the world every year.
And that's one of the most exciting things about this. There are lots of New York performers, of course; honestly, I think New York has more burlesque performers than any other city. But we do try to bring people in from all over. It makes the festival so exciting. And when you put all these performers together, you can see how they're stylistically influenced by where they come from, which is really cool.

So there are regional burlesque differences?
Oh, yeah. New Orleans has it's own style, for example; it's very traditional, very bluesy. Chicago is very theatrical, and the Las Angeles is really over-the-top glamorous. It's different everywhere. That's even more true of people that come in from other countries—those performers usual bring something into their performance that's indicative of their culture in some way, which is really cool. Cherry Typhoon—who's from Japan, and has an amazing energy and is a total crowd favorite—will usually come in wearing a kimono and do something with silk fans or something. A couple of years ago we had a girl from Scotland who did this little traditional dance—in a burlesque fashion, obviously—that was so cool.

Between corralling all these performers, dealing with multiple venues, doing publicity and everything else that goes into putting the festival together—not to mention that you're performing as well—it seems like it must be a mind-boggling amount of work involved.
It's a big, big job. After four years, we have our formula down; we know what we have to do. But there are a considerable amount of hours that we have to put into this to make it happen. We start working on the festival pretty much right after the last one ends. The minute this one is over, we'll meet, talk about what we can do to improve next year's festival and get right to work on it. But we've gotten to the point where we're not just doing it by ourselves anymore. We actually employ some people to help us, so we're not doing absolutely everything. We're not flyering the town ourselves anymore.

Which, I'm guessing, you actually were doing in the beginning.
Totally. We were walking all over the Lower East Side with our granny cart full of postcards.

Do you find that the performers are bringing their A game to the festival?
People get so excited to come to New York, and have the opportunity to perform to a sold-out venue in New York—so yeah, they're definitely bringing their A game. It's really a dream come true for a lot of people. And this is also a chance for the performers to network with these people from all over the world, a lot of who produce shows as well. So people are not only trying to knock out the audience, but to knock out their fellow performers. People debut new numbers, bring these wild props and just generally go all-out.

You seem to have a bit more boylesque performers this year than in the past.
Boylesque is getting really, really popular, and I think we probably have about a dozen boylesque people this year. Those guys really get the audience to go wild; some of these guys are absolutely fantastic. When you're at a burlesque show, you're generally gonna see a lot of acts over the course of the night, and you need a bit of variation. Boylesque definitely fits that bill. We also have live music, circus-style performers and some other things—it helps to keep the audience refreshed and alive. It's not just striptease, striptease, striptease, striptease. Not that there would be anything wrong with that.

Back in the early days of the festival, I think a lot of people looked at the burlesque scene as something of a novelty, but now it seems like an accepted, totally normal part of nightlife.
Yeah! Even I thought, when I first was getting started, that this was gonna be like the swing scene: It's gonna rock for a couple of years, and then it's gonna disappear. It has so not done that—it's just grown and grown and grown. I think it will continue to, and I find that totally exciting. I've talked to a lot of the older ladies who were performing in the '50s and the '60s—people like Dixie Evans and Tempest Storm—and they all say things like "Burlesque is an original form of American theater, and it deserves its place in the annals of theatrical history." And I kind of feel that, nowadays, burlesque is actually getting to that point again.

That might even be truer now than it was then, in a way. Burlesque used to be run by male impresarios who, I assume, were mainly out to make a buck. Now it seems like the performers themselves are in charge.
Burlesque is like 97 percent lady land nowadays. It's run by the ladies, for the ladies. But the men enjoy it too!

Are you ever surprised that you've been able to make burlesque your life's work?
Oh, absolutely. I'm constantly surprised. Really, I never intended this to happen. My sisters and I worked hard and kept it rolling, but I'm still kind of shocked about all of this. I'm blessed to have such a ridiculously fun job.

The New York Burlesque Festival is at on Thursday, Sept. 29; on Friday, Sept. 30; B.B. King Blues Club & Grill on Saturday Oct 1; and on Sunday, Oct. 2. Go to thenewyorkburlesquefestival.com for more info.

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