The first thing to come off was a wedding veil followed by a jacket and suspenders. Then, clad in nothing but a tiny white tutu, Victor DeVonne, face caked with white paint, showed off a pair of glitter nipple pasties.
The crowd at the bar howled with delight.
DeVonne is not the kind of person you’d expect to see at a burlesque show — such performances typically have been reserved for women with porcelain skin and red lips.
Yet here on the far reaches of Christopher Street on the West Side, he is a linchpin in the city’s burlesque scene, and he’s hoping his dance troupe, the White Elephant Burlesque Society, will change the way people view burlesque.
“Because burlesque has this undercurrent of sexuality and because it includes women and gay men, it’s been forced into the underground,” said DeVonne.
Though burlesque has increased in popularity over the last decade with models such as Dita Von Teese and the reality show Forty Deuce, performances — especially in New York City — continue to stay underground, relegated to bars or small venues.
“It’s a misunderstood art form. Smart burlesque is actually quite topical; it’s witty and culturally relevant,” said DeVonne, whose team of 15 dancers perform weekly at Rockbar, a gay bar on Christopher and Weehawken streets known for its fetish and jockstrap parties.
At last Wednesday’s performance, a strap-hanging businessman reading the newspaper ended up painting peace and heart symbols over the paper's headlines — in between taking off his pants, of course.
It was the ability to mix art and performance that drew DeVonne to burlesque. Originally performing in Rocky Horror Picture Show revues, he took up a gig doing burlesque on a whim.
“I thought my first show was going to be my only show,” he said. “But I think it’s no coincidence that when I started I had gotten out of a relationship and I was in a deep depression. Burlesque cured me and became my everything.”
DeVonne’s small success has been a huge money maker for the host bar.
“We were very slow on Wednesdays,” said Jason Romas, the manager of Rockbar. “Now burlesque is easily one of our busiest nights.”
DeVonne said he’s simply lucked out, but New Yorkers crave entertainment that is avant garde yet still relatable.
“More than anything,” he said. “I want people to see themselves on the stage.”