One performer is wrapped in a straitjacket, singing "You're Driving Me Crazy" before she peels to bra and panties. Another keeps her spangled two-piece costume on but hides behind a fluttering fan of white feathers. A third, in cowboy hat, red checked shirt and short shorts, strips to pasties and a thong while twirling a hula hoop to Patsy Cline's "Honky Tonk Merry Go Round."
It all ends with a 3D striptease: The audience wears 1950s-style three-dimensional glasses while a silhouetted dancer bumps and grinds to a wailing sax behind a white screen, her tossed stockings seeming to come right at you.
At Le Cirque Rouge, the clothes come off but the underwear stays on. "No fake boobs, no stripper moves" is how Le Cirque Rouge differentiates itself from other strip shows.
For the past five years, the troupe of dancers, singers and musicians has worked to bring back old-time burlesque — bawdy, funny but with no nudity. If it were a movie, Le Cirque Rouge (French for "The Red Circus") would be rated PG-13, with adult situations.
"It's neither strippers doing lap dances nor like a straight jazz thing or a straight theater thing," says Amy Buchanan, Le Cirque Rouge's founder, director and master of ceremonies. "It's like bringing theater to the bar scene, which is really fun."
Over the years, close to 100 people have performed with Le Cirque Rouge. About 20 performers now rotate in the cast, and each show features about 13 performers. The company performs a 2 1/2-hour show twice a month, stepping it up to once a week in the summer. Buchanan, a blond, Mae West-like figure who sings but does not strip, says the women in Le Cirque Rouge are "not like the big, showy, hot Barbie girls."
Katrin Snider, who performs as "Fanny May," agrees. "We're all the girls next door," she says.
Snider, 25, who had never stripped before, explains her attraction to the show: "Every girl likes to play dress-up and pretend that they're that girl on the TV or in the movies."
Jennifer Moses, 30, performs as "Victoria Vaughn," a blond, busty, husky-voiced singer who begins her routines in a straitjacket, a French maid outfit or a stunning red dress with elbow-length gloves and high heels. By day, she's a third-year Ph.D. student in experimental social psychology at University of Minnesota.
Burlesque in Minneapolis dates to the 1860s and peaked in the 1920s and 1930s. It began in wooden shacks frequented by railroad men and flour mill workers before expanding to two major downtown theaters — the Gayety and the Alvin, both now closed. At first, showgirls were only part of the variety show along with comics and acrobats, but eventually proved the most popular. As movie theaters cut into vaudeville's crowds, to lure back audiences, "girls would go further and further (in) what they could do on stage," said Jack Kabrud, curator of the Hennepin County Museum, where a burlesque exhibit ran for two years.
"There were very, very strict rules," he said. "Pasties always had to be worn. If a nipple became visible, the cops could bust a show."
Le Cirque Rouge harkens to vaudeville days, with comic routines, jazzy music by a four-piece band and slapstick. Singer-tap dancer Kristen Swenson ("Katinka") and her real-life sister Ashleigh ("Buttercup") collide on the small stage as dueling ballerinas. A belly dancer with the stage name "Nasheeta" writhes as she balances a scimitar on her head.
Le Cirque Rouge performed in New York last May and will return next March. The troupe is negotiating for its first trip to Europe, where burlesque is big.