Image courtesy of Rares Fota
Centered on a plain black stage with dark purple and blue backlighting, Rares Fota stands powerfully with one hand on his waist and the other draped and posed over his head. He wears black high heels, black stockings, and black mini shorts with an opened white button down, black shoulder harness, and tied red neck scarf.
Being the punctual attendee I am, I arrived fifteen minutes before showtime to the Northwest Campus Auditorium on a rainy Saturday afternoon, to the Bruin Burlesque Pussycats’ first performance of the year: the Bruin Burlesque Cabaret. I admit, however, I was sweetly enticed to arrive this early, as attendees were promised a mysterious surprise if they arrived before the show’s start.
Following the sultry sounds of live music by Caroline and the Lost Angels, I walked into the auditorium on the Hill and was greeted by club head, writer, director, and Master of Ceremonies, Rares Fota (he/him/his), styled in a little black leather number, bowler hat, and long red latex whip. He walked through the rows of seats and attendees, warmly welcoming everyone and inviting us to take in the view and even touch the whip, setting the tone for what was to come. After the last few audience members filled in, the Master of Ceremonies assumed his position in center stage, and the show began.
Step 1: Have Fun!
With the first act, Bruin Burlesque introduced the audience to the liberating art of burlesque. In the opening monologue, Rares asked the excited audience, “Are you ready to be liberated?!” followed by an excited cheer from the crowd. He also encouraged us to not be shy or scared, reassuring any weary attendees that this was a space of safety, openness, and unabashed love.
With the audience fully primed and revved up, next came curtain reveal of all of the clubs’ Pussycat performers posed in their varying ensembles of corsets, white button downs, black slacks, and, of course, heels. After a long cheer from the audience, they performed the first number of the night, the perfect choice — and honestly, the only choice — for a burlesque cabaret opening number, “Lady Marmalade” by Christina Aguilera, P!nk, Lil Kim, and M.I.A.
After their performance of the classic burlesque tune, Rares assured us that we were officially on the road to liberation. With our senses primed, the Master of Ceremonies explained that our first step to liberation is “to have fun,” leave our worlds of worry behind, and embrace the “fabulous journey” that had begun.
To begin the fun, each of the pussycats were introduced by Rares, walking down the aisles one by one, each with a cheeky introduction line and spotlighted pose. With one liners such as “No wonder they are an aerospace engineer, their splits are out of this world,” and “One look at this linguist screams ‘sexy’ in 7 languages,” each introduction embraced the fun in the normalcy of the pussycats’ everyday occupations. Showing us audience members that the performers are other students, scholars, and workers like us, these introductions also helped to chip away any barriers or preconceived notions about who could do burlesque and embark on this liberating road.
Conversing with the pussycats following introductions, the Master of Ceremonies admits that “we are in an age when everyone has a lot of questions.” One of the pussycats continued, asking for the audience, “What is a cabaret?” And another followed with the Google definition, explaining studiously, “Cabaret is a form of theatrical entertainment featuring music, song, dance, recitation, or drama.” But we were not attending just any cabaret, we were at the Bruin Burlesque Cabaret, defined by the group as “Whatever we want,” in the true spirit of liberation.
Step 2: Stop taking life too seriously.
Following the iconic pop performances of the first tableau and a brief interlude of live music from music director Caroline Simmons (she/her/hers) and her band Caroline and the Lost Angels, the second tableau began. Rares introduced the second step on our liberating journeys: “stop taking life too seriously,” and educated the audience with a brief history of burlesque. As explained by the Master of Ceremonies, “burlesque is about having fun while poking fun at life.” Of course, he conceded, life can be serious and should be at times, but liberation takes an abandonment of power and release of tension, a release of fear.
With performances to songs such as Madonna’s “Material Girl,” Cabaret’s ‘Money” by Joel Gray and Liza Minnelli, and Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good,” this section highlighted the sensuality, musicality, and layered nuances of choreography required by both burlesque and cabaret art forms. It also included a number choreographed to one of Bruin Burlesque members Sydney Wang’s (she/her/hers) self-composed piece “She’s an Enigma,” recorded by Continuance. As Rares explained, burlesque began as a variety show in the late nineteenth century, entertaining crowds with its “transgressive, dangerous, and adventurous” performances. Rares, in a later conversation, pointed out that the performances “were not just sexual, but they were intelligent,” using these unconventional forms to comment on societal constructs, current events, and the absurdity of life. He goes on to explain that the strip tease, most popularly associated with modern burlesque shows, was introduced during the Great Depression as an effort to bring struggling audiences back into the theater. With the introduction of the striptease, the shows still remained intelligent, ironic, and humorous despite popular notions about the risqué aspect of these shows.
After the brief history lesson and costume change into a curiously covered-up outfit, complete with bulky looking UCLA sweats, Rares treated the audience to a UCLA-ified strip tease. Beginning with the bulky sweats, he peeled off the layers one by one only to keep revealing another layer of UCLA merch, garnering a brief moment of shock, a laugh, and cheer with each drawn out reveal.
Although this strip tease had to be cut for time in the later performances, Rares explained in our conversation that he believed it was one of the most important numbers in the show, not only because it was a tribute to the history of “legendary art form,” but because of the surprising nature of the performance and its inherent uncomfortability.
He explained further that “stripping is a ritual process. It is an act that brings attention to the fact that we have bodies that are inherently sexual and that we are living beings in the flesh.” By stripping off the layers of smothering clothing and logos made by our institution, a notoriously “serious school” whose departments, norms, and regulations tend to require, whether intended or consequently, that students “not [show] any weaknesses, vulnerability, or sensuality,” the performance called attention to the suffocating institutional pressures many of us experience, and the liberation, or metaphorical nakedness, that occurs when we bravely choose self-expression, passion, and love. It also calls attention to the fact that self-expression, passion, and love, shouldn’t require a brave choice at the risk of someone else’s uncomfortability, but because of societal and institutional constructions and norms, that discomfort is inherent. However, Rares invites discomfort as a reaction when teaching or performing burlesque. He believes it leads “to understanding, to opening up, and to learning.”
Step 3: Embrace passion.
The next tableau was a celebration of passion. With performances to songs such as “Slumber Party” by Ashnikko and Princess Nokia, and “High Heels” by Jojo, this tableau explored the ways in which we all explore and embrace passion and love. In between numbers, the Master of Ceremonies recited poetry from the likes of Sappho and Madonna, further exploring how passion and art forms, such as poetry and burlesque, inextricably link themselves to vulnerability and expressions of love.
For Rares, liberation is passion. He explained, “Passion is love, an intense feeling of love that makes you give, makes you offer, whether it is to other people, to an audience. Passion means you love something so much you want to give something from yourself. So, liberation is when you accept that passion. Liberation comes when you celebrate that passion that you have towards something and unapologetically pursue it.”
Step 4: Become a diva. Because why not?
The penultimate tableau celebrated the freedom and movement that the divas of music inspire, encourage, and implore. Dancing to Lady Gaga, Beyonce, and Madonna, the Bruin Burlesque pussycats embraced their inner diva-hood. A diva is unapologetic. Their power and sense of liberation lies in their unapologetic expressions of confidence, self-love, and unwavering commitment to their passions and artistry, and without a question, every single pussycat unapologetically conveyed their passion and artistry with these numbers.
Step 5: Freedom!
And, finally, the last tableau the audience arrived at freedom and liberation with gender bending performances of “Pony” by Ginuwine, “Be Alright” by Ariana Grande, and “Dress You Up/In the Groove” by Madonna. As queerness strongly defies gendered barriers and expectations of sexuality, it makes a space for liberation and freedom, where one can embrace their passions and love free from oppressive constructs and restrictions imposed on us by society and its institutions. The Bruin Burlesque pussycats created a space of liberation, free love, and passion with their cabaret performance—and everytime they reclaim space at UCLA for the celebration of our inner (and most naked) sensuality, creativity, and expressions.
The final act and tableau ended with an all cast dance number, inviting audience members onstage to dance with them. As Rares explained, he “wanted audiences to feel uplifted, to feel liberated. [He] wanted [the audience] to have the feeling of fun because that is the most important thing about burlesque and the cabaret.” The pussycats embraced all members who came on stage and danced with them in this final number, encouraging their explorative dance moves and innermost expressions of passion.
Most weeks, the Bruin Burlesque club has dancing-in-heels classes and anyone is welcome to come. For up-to-date information on their meetings and classes, find them on Instagram @bruinburlesque.