"I like performing, but I've never been huge on having to recite lines while onstage," Mena Domina says. The director, producer and performer from local burlesque company Zircus Erotique is flawlessly appointed; impossibly clean glasses glinting in the sun, a number of tattoos on display.
"I was definitely more of a movement performer than a speaking performer," she continues, recalling high school theater classes, their continuation in college, time learning bellydance, costuming, mime, hair and makeup.
Domina's been with the troupe since 2007. A native of Dallas, she had moved to Santa Fe a few years earlier to pursue a BFA in theater from long-since closed College of Santa Fe. Upon completing her studies, Domina would dance with Zircus Erotique, originally led by performer Tallulah St. James, but in those early days of burlesque's widespread international resurgence, social media was in its infancy and gathering dancers was a much more daunting affair.
"It was word of mouth," Domina remembers, pointing out that finding audiences worked similarly. "Now, when people want to see burlesque, they can see videos online, they can research it a bunch—back then, it was 'I think this is what this is supposed to be, I'm gonna try it'—but I remember when I was first starting out, there was an event at Wise Fool; a performer named September Smith who used to produce this event called the Femolition Derby. That was probably the first time I'd ever seen burlesque in person."
These days, Domina says, the vast majority of burlesque troupes reside in larger cities, thus making Zircus Erotique a bit of an anomaly. Though, Domina adds, in her early days of performance, Albuquerque was a bit of a haven, as was the Southwest Burlesque Showcase, the region's longest-running festival of burlesque.
"In Albuquerque, there are still probably a handful of producers who do burlesque and variety shows," she explains. "In some larger cities, there are thousands of performers—weekly shows, nightly shows."
By 2012, St. James would head home to New Orleans and leave Zircus Erotique in Domina's hands.
"She's an all around hustler and bomb-ass friend," St. James tells SFR. "Throughout the years she was my right-hand woman and kept me in line as a firm businesswoman. It was about the love and trust we had and still have for one another."
And now that we've got the basic timeline, it's time to ask: What is burlesque exactly? How has it managed to stay alive and evolve since the earlier part of the 1900s? Those who remain uninitiated certainly have a picture in their minds—believe me, I asked around—but it's often more performance-based than it is about the stripping. First off, yes, it's absolutely titillating, but no, burlesque isn't like club stripping—not that there's a damn thing wrong with club stripping. It's a bit more subtle and refined, a bit more about the build up and performance … the elegance, the dance, the eye contact, the fulfilled promise of slowly ramping sexuality and sensuality. But it's also intersectional and inclusive, attracting and welcoming any sort of performer one might imagine. Burlesque is packed with queer performers, varying body types, weirdos, bizarre costumes, drag (both kings and queens), elements of vaudeville and circus. It's a one-stop performance for anything its purveyors might dream up, and troupes are often only limited by their imaginations.
According to Domina, "the type of art we do is really varied, and it ranges from stuff that's very classic—feather fans, super glamorous costumes, pinup hair; very pretty—but then there's the fringe stuff, the neo-burlesque that can be BDSM-type stuff, fetish-type things, almost like avant-garde performance art."
Zircus Erotique embraces pretty much any type of burlesque, though Domina says that what audiences respond to can be completely different from town to town. A rollicking college atmosphere, she says, may be excited by a more aggressive style, whereas in li'l old Santa Fe, where she's realized the crowds tend to be more scrutinizing, the classier forms excite more often.
"We have to keep things constantly improving," she says, "but because we're not exposed to all the variants—it's not like there are five troupes here doing burlesque—we get to have a little bit of everything."
"Everything," as it turns out, includes certain fringe and esoteric elements plus no small amount of creative costuming (one photo of Domina I came across during research included gloves with mini octopus tentacles for fingers, which I'm super into, by the way). There's also the aforementioned elements of circus and drag. For Zircus Erotique's upcoming show, for example, the emcee is none other than homegrown drag queen Coco Caliente, a performer who sings live, which is oddly rare in the drag world. The theme, Domina says, is "Beasts and Babes," and no, that "doesn't mean there's gonna be a bunch of monsters onstage," Domina tells SFR. "It's the idea."
Which might be the best way to distill the essence of burlesque. It's an idea set loose and fostered by performers looking to break the fourth wall and engage with audiences. It is raucous and rough around the edges. It is ethereal and sexy and exciting and strange.
"If [audiences] are going on what they've seen in magazines or movies, if they're just thinking of that and come to one of our shows," Domina says, "they may see that it isn't what they expected."
Zircus Erotique Burlesque and Variety Show:
8:30 pm Saturday Sept. 7. $20. The Lodge at Santa Fe, 750 N St. Francis Drive, 992-5800