Above: Gilded Lily Burlesque. Below: Freaksheaux to Geaux. Courtesy photos
What’s your enthusiasm level for sword swallowing, bellydancers, burlesque shows and other alternative circus arts?
If it’s high — or even moderate — you might want to check out this week’s Festival of Doom, a three-day circus/sideshow/burlesque festival that attracts many of the nation’s top alternative performers.
Started six years ago as the East Coast Belly Dance All Star Show, the Festival of Doom has steadily grown into something of a V.I.P. party for a widely scattered talent pool of alternative circus performers. Happy performers make for happy audiences, and the cycle feeds itself, creating one of the most unique events within this unusual genre. Larger than ever, this year’s festival presents six separate shows over a three-day period from Jan. 16 to Jan. 18.
Opening the proceedings at the Tapp’s Arts Center on Thursday at 7:30 p.m. is The Burlesque Assassins, an independent film set in the 1950s and following a group of burlesque beauties as they use their special skills to seduce and destroy their communist enemies who threaten the free world. Following the film will be the Costume Ball of Doom (10 p.m.), an interactive affair featuring New Orleans’ Freaksheaux to Geaux sideshow and burlesque company and Pennsylvania music ensemble This Way to the Egress, described as “the love child between Tom Waits and Liza Minnelli.” Audience members are encouraged to create their own off-the-wall costumes and bring their dancing shoes for “the wildest prom you will ever attend.”
Day two shifts the action over to Stage 5 Theatre on Stadium Road for The Bellydance, Freestyle and Krump Show of Doom at 7:30 p.m., featuring event founder and artistic director Natalie Brown as well as a host of other dancers from across the East Coast. Returning to town for the first time since her move to Colorado last year, Brown — a major player in developing Columbia’s alternative circus performance scene — is delighted to see her art continue to thrive here.
“Everything travels in cycles,” she says. “Burlesque and sideshow are doing well now, bellydance had its day a couple years ago — but the bottom line is that you can now go see lots of art that you couldn’t see in Columbia before, and at a high level of quality.”
Friday night’s second event is the Carnivalesque Roadshow (10 p.m.), featuring international cabaret legend Armitage Shanks and Gilded Lily Burlesque of Baltimore. Modeled on the traveling sideshows of old, the event includes storytelling and midway games in addition to aerial acrobatics and other freakish displays of skill and, of course, sexuality.
The sideshow freakishness continues at Stage 5 Theatre on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. with the Cheeky Monkey troupe from Washington D.C., specializing in extreme stunts such as sword swallowing, fire eating, beds of nails and the like.
The festival’s final performance, The Sideshow and Burlesque All Star Show (Stage 5, 10 p.m.), is a collection of highlights designed to impress and also emphasize the goal of the entire event.
“Our mission is to bring challenging, unusual and sometimes even controversial underground performance content to Columbia,” Brown says.
Indeed, the Festival of Doom isn’t just about freakish skills.
“It really goes beyond the body and into the mind,” Brown points out. “It’s not just girls stripping — there is a lot of plot, some sensitive satire, tongue-in-cheek humor, sensuality, religion and even politics in the mix. Columbia is hungry, and it’s fun to throw a grenade out there sometimes and see how the audience reacts.”
In a way, this comment also playfully reinforces the festival’s title, which came from a conversation between Brown and fellow bellydancer Asharah of Atlanta when planning the festival several years ago.
“We had so many amazing performers coming to participate that we started talking flippantly about how it was going to just destroy this town,” Brown says. “We have endeavored to do so ever since, and so the name stuck.”
Festival of Doom takes place from Thursday through Saturday at the Tapp’s Art Center and Stage 5 Theatre. Tickets for individual shows are $10-$15, with $50 VIP seating available. Passes for all six shows are $75. Tickets are available at brownpapertickets.com. For more information, visit festivalofdoom.com.