2018-03-01 / Up Close

Step (Back) in Time

Lady Grey’s Lovelies perform vintage dance acts in The Attic at The State Theatre
Robyn Passante

Photo by StereovisionPhoto by Stereovision

Allie Pizzo is a professional dancer, actor and singer who recently wrapped a three-month stint in a production of 42nd Street in Chicago and is heading back there this month for a turn in South Pacific.
Gigs like those provide the New York City-based performer and 2013 graduate of Penn State’s musical theater program the bread and butter she needs to make it in the business. But her teasing, tap-dancing burlesque performances as one of Lady Grey’s Lovelies in The Attic at The State Theatre give her something else entirely.

“As a dancer, we spend our lives in front of mirrors. And as a professional, you spend most of your days in front of a panel of people who are literally judging you — it’s what you signed up for. So of course insecurities come out, and they’re going to. But in burlesque, every body type is truly embraced,” Pizzo says of the local vintage dance ensemble’s risqué shows.

“And if it’s something you don’t like,” explains Pizzo, whose burlesque stage name is Chandra Luna, “you can make it into a gimmick, into something that sets you apart from the other girls. So you really have the power to turn whatever you have in your wheelhouse into a strength as opposed to an insecurity or a weakness. It’s all about bringing your personality out, because that’s who they’re there to see. You’re not trying to fit into a mold. As a matter of fact, you don’t want to.”

The queen mold breaker is Lady Grey herself. For 30 years, Sarah Mason was a self-described “über-conservative” dance teacher with a strict dress code and no bare midriffs allowed in her studio. But the “hoofer” who had founded Footprints Tap Ensemble in Chicago, danced professionally with the likes of Savion Glover and Gregory Hines and studied under Manhattan Tap’s Heather Cornell also had a swing side to her style based on her love of vintage dance and a stint in her 20s spent in an authentic 1940s ballroom swing dancing for fun to live jazz — while dressing the part.

So when she turned 40 and decided to pivot from teaching to performing, Mason set her sights on a style of dance that would allow her and her assembled troupe to showcase their dance skills along with their comedic chops, acting abilities and feminine wiles.

“As a teacher I always struggled to instill a sense of self-worth in the kids. ‘You don’t have to be a twig. You don’t have to wear less clothing to get a job. You don’t have to sleep with somebody to get a job. You have to be a good dancer, and you have to work your way to the top,’” says Mason, who ran the Central Pennsylvania-based studio PA Academy of the Arts from 2003 to 2015. “But the other thing is that you can be feminine and still be a feminist. You can believe in the empowerment of women and still wear fake eyelashes and red lipstick. You can understand that our sexuality and our physicality and everything is also a part of who we are as people. And that’s OK.”Photo by Boom Boom Bang PhotoPhoto by Boom Boom Bang Photo

In January of 2016, Mason created her stage persona, Lady Grey, and recruited Pizzo to do a duet with her at the Vermont Burlesque Festival. The two had never danced together, but knew of each other from having both worked with some of the same people in the Penn State dance scene.

“I knew she was a studio owner, so I knew she had a background in how to lay a strong foundation for dancers. There’s something different about someone who’s a very good teacher versus someone who just knows how to dance,” Pizzo says of Mason. “But when she’s doing this type of dance, vintage dance styles, she really comes alive, I think more so than anything. It’s like she was made for that style.”

The two brought the house down with two performances at the festival — the second one a spontaneously choreographed number that was more risqué than the first — and they were both hooked on the freedom, fun and feedback they found onstage.

“It’s this gutsy, interesting art form that’s also really comedic, which people don’t really know if they don’t attend the show,” Pizzo says. “It’s funny, it’s over the top, and it’s glamorous in its own way.”

Mason held auditions for potential Lovelies in Philadelphia with the help of contacts she knew there. Their first performance was a speakeasy, held in The Attic at The State Theatre in the fall of 2016. They sold out both shows.

“It was fabulous,” Mason says. “I was so nervous; there was absolutely no burlesque in it whatsoever. It was just a speakeasy, with tons and tons of tap dancing, and some comedy.”

Eventually, the Lovelies began letting their hair down, so to speak, and their regular 18-and-over shows in The Attic draw sellout crowds that are as unique as the art form itself.

“The crowd is not the norm, they’re not your average theater attenders,” Pizzo says of the Lady Grey’s Lovelies audience. “They’re people who are interested in performance art, or interested in a sexy night out. People who are open-minded. Fun-loving people. They’re kind of off the beaten path, in a good way.”

Today, the ensemble includes several performers from State College as well as Philadelphia, Virginia, New York and New Jersey. The locals rehearse together occasionally, and those who aren’t in town choreograph their solo performances separately, keeping Mason in the loop via video calls and clips sent her way. Each performance is pulled together the day of the show during a three-hour rehearsal where the kinks are worked out and the overall production is polished.

Mason also brings in guest performers, like the “femme of all femmes” Isabelle Époque, who is from Central PA but is based in Washington, D.C. Isabelle performed in the ensemble’s 2017 Speakeasy. The first two minutes of her performance were spent enticing the crowd with the removal of a single glove, which a male audience member quickly snatched up.

Photo by Zinfandel PhotographyPhoto by Zinfandel Photography

“It was so funny because all she’d done was take off the glove — that was it,” Mason says. “But you have to be very comfortable with who you are to say, ‘That glove that was on my hand has a whole lot of power on the floor over there.’ It is not easy.”

While some of the performers might end up in little more than what you’d see at the beach, Isabelle says the sexiness in burlesque is unique because of the performers’ intention.

“In a strip club setting it is about appealing to the desires of male clientele whose fantasy is about possessing you. Burlesque isn’t about possession, but about wanting to be you, or experience the world by your side,” she says. “I deliberately craft my performance to elicit that sexiness, and the empowerment of women who might be in the audience. I’m playing more to them. To me, burlesque is the embodiment of self-possession. And through that we get to tell stories.”

But potential audience members shouldn’t be skittish of the bawdy humor, titillating performances or interactive nature of the shows, Pizzo says.

“It’s a very coy thing,” she says of a Lady Grey’s Lovelies show. “Solo performers within the group can be a little braver and daring on their own, but as a group it’s more on the vintage dance side. It’s more ‘We’ll give you a little bit, and leave you wanting more.’” •SCM

Lady Grey’s Lovelies performs Wonderland on March 17 in The Attic at The State Theatre. Performances are at 8 and 10 p.m. Audience members must be 18 and older, and are encouraged to come dressed as their favorite Alice in Wonderland character.

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