Hawaii’s Burlesque Sweetheart, Violetta Beretta, talks Tiki, Hawaii Burlesque Fest, and Oscar Wilde.
By: Shoshana Portnoy
Q: It stands to reason our chosen names would say more about us than our given ones. Yours is quite unusual; would you give us the backstory on your choice?
Of course! My original Burlesque name was “Honey Lulu”. I like that it sounded like a sweet little tribute to my island home but after a few shows I decided it didn’t quite capture what I was looking to convey. I looked around for a bit for things and names that hit the mark and was super happy to hear the words “Violetta Beretta” in the lyrics of one of my favorite songs/bands- Gogol Bordello. I chose my stage name because I loved the old world prettiness of Violetta, contrasted with the make of a gun- Beretta. It’s cool being able to convey feminine beauty or explosive energy onstage and feel that the contradictory nature of the name gives me the license to portray a total weirdo, pretty lady, or whatever suits my fancy.
Q: I first heard that Hawaii had a burlesque scene when I saw the announcement for the Hawaii Burlesque Festival last year. I surprised to learn through my research that you have actually been performing for seven years now. Was Cherry Blossom Cabaret the first to kick off the revival of burlesque on the islands? Can you give us a brief “lay of the land” of the burlesque world as you know it on the Hawaiian Islands?
I’d love to! How much time do we have? Here’s a brief breakdown:
The Hawaii Burlesque Festival is now in its third year and I am super happy to hear that you were able to learn about Hawaii’s burlesque scene through hearing about the festival! I began the festival in order to showcase the talents of our amazing local performers, and to foster growth and exchange in our burlesque scene by inviting international and US Mainland performers to attend, perform, hang out, and enjoy the beauty of Hawaii! The HBF is also on a mission to bring out the best of the best in burlesque to Hawaii audiences, and contribute to Hawaii’s artistic community by offering free workshops and classes to anyone interested during the festival week. It’s been extremely successful in all of its ventures and now the HBF is growing to include not one, but two nights of star-studded performances by some of the top names in burlesque internationally and locally, as well as workshops and group activities! I’m very interested in showcasing some of the performers and troupes from Maui, the big island (Hawaii), and Kauai for this upcoming year and I am looking forward to announcing the mind-blowing line-up soon!
Cherry Blossom Cabaret, to my knowledge, was the first burlesque troupe in the Hawaiian Islands. It was started by my burlesque wife, Meghan Mayhem, and we’ve all been twirling our tassels together ever since. CBC is an amazing collection of performers with all kinds of skills from acting to visual arts and everything in between. Everyone in the troupe has something distinct to bring to the table. Our annual “Varietease” is probably our biggest accomplishment because we work super hard to present an original full length theatrical show complete with original story, script, music, choreography, and costumes. We also have several monthly shows that are really fun! I suggest checking them out if you haven’t already!
Maui is also host to several talented folks/troupes. The Kit Kat Club Cabaret is one of them! They are wonderful performers and dancers, and have very popular and regular shows. I love working with them and they are probably the sweetest women on Earth! My pal Rachel Deboer also heads up another troupe called the Ultraviolets, an outstanding blacklight burlesque troupe that recently finished a successful US tour.
I’ve heard that Kauai [one of the smallest islands] now has a troupe by the name of Black Coral Burlesque! I believe we are in the process of setting up a joint show with them and I look forward to learning more about these lovelies from the Garden Isle!
That’s just a brief lowdown…. So many great performers on the islands in general!
Q: Many of us developed our own local scenes by watching other scenes around us. It was from official or unofficial mentors that we learned even the basics of developing a quality act, building a great show line-up and structure, marketing basics- everything that goes into a quality burlesque production. With the geographic isolation of Hawaii and the cost of travel, I imagine seeing other live shows (either mainland U.S. or Japan) would prove challenging. What were those early days of developing a scene like? Did you have anything to go on or were you starting from scratch?
Great Question! It’s easier for me to answer this question on an individual basis first. As part of Cherry Blossom Cabaret and a solo performer of some experience I’ve definitely dealt with both the benefits and the drawbacks of Hawaii’s unique geographic situation. The benefits are the lack of over-saturation, a climate of expression that allows for the formation of ideas without the possible pressure of comparison to other performers or “scenes” and Hawaii’s overall laid back nature and a propensity for tolerance and fun! The drawbacks include of course- the expense of travel, the time necessary to travel, the expense of bringing in non-local performers, and the limited audience. That said, as a local girl, born and raised in Hawaii, the benefits of living in a literal paradise often outweigh the drawbacks!
I’ve always made a serious effort to not only research and learn about both the burlesque legends and the contemporary neo-burlesque scene, and attend US Mainland events like Teaso-O-Rama, etc in order to better understand not only the nature of burlesque, but the community and intent behind it. I came from a very traditional ballet background originally, and though my dance career since then has been in a broader range, I’ve always had a semi-technical approach to learning about movement and dance, which is why I enjoy the emotional part of burlesque so much. I was fascinated by the history of burlesque, the societal reactions, the sexual implications, and of course- the glamour and beauty of it all. As I traveled to perform 9and to watch any burly-q shows I could) I began to get a sense of what I felt worked well, what didn’t, and how I’d like to entertain the audience in general.
Classes have also been a good way for me to learn some amazing things! I had an excellent time with Coco Lectric at her “Big Bad Boa” workshop class during the Hawaii Burlesque Festival and came away with some good basic boa skills- Coco is amazing!
Being able to watch and perform with those in LA, NYC,Portland, etc has also been an amazing experience for me personally in terms of growth as a performer! There are too many talented and outstanding performers to name so I’m not gonna try, but it’s a long and interesting list! I’m super excited to be attending and instructing at BurlyCon 2013 and I can’t wait to learn from my sisters in arms/pasties!
In terms of Cherry Blossom Cabaret, and the overall Hawaii burlesque scene; I feel that our origins were a great convergence of people/performers of various backgrounds and expertise in the right place at the right time. Every single person in CBC has contributed to our growth in their own unique way. Although Hawaii may seems isolated, we are also very well connected to the outside world via technology. There is also a constant stream of returning locals, new residents, and visitors bringing new ideas to the island. It’s really cool to think of how much Cherry Blossom has grown and learned over the years thanks to the worldwide burlesque community, visiting performers, and vast amounts of reference material.
Q: By the same expensive travel token, year one of the festival was dedicated to local performers, but in year two, you had quite a few performers from neighboring islands and the Mainland. Were there extra challenges the location presented?
Performers traveling from the neighbor islands have a bit of an additional expense in terms of airlift and housing, however, the festival is definitely working to alleviate some of the costs with fundraisers and volunteer housing from trusted sources.
U.S. Mainland and international performers present a unique set of challenges in terms of expense, however it’s not too hard to convince people to come to Hawaii, and I am a resourceful ecdysiast.
Q: Please correct me if you feel differently, but in my experience on Kauai, native Hawaiians are very proud and protective of the authentic culture of Hawaii. Did you catch any flack when you began incorporating hula into your burlesque acts? What about with your signature hula lamp act? Would a non-native Hawaiian performer trying to incorporate hula have a different experience?
Because there is such a legacy of misunderstanding and misrepresentation of Hawaiian culture and history in general and because the issues of cultural censorship, religious freedom, imperialism and Hawaiian sovereignty are so sensitive overall as well as personal to me as a native Hawaiian, I’m not comfortable answering this question. Please know that this is absolutely nothing personal, I’m just very protective of how and when I share my personal mana’o on this subject.
Q: In that same vein, “Tiki Culture” tends to be a huge part of the Mainland pin-up/burlesque/rockabilly scene, especially on the West Coast. What most mainlanders think of as Hawaiian, can be a touchy subject for native Hawaiians. How do you feel when walking the line between the two worlds, perhaps with your recent performances at Tiki Oasis?
Wow- Interesting Question! I love attending and performing at Tiki Oasis, and I always appreciate the love of “tiki tribe” shows for all things Polynesian in general. Most of the folks I’ve gotten to know in that subculture express genuine interest in a myriad of aspects of Hawaiian and Polynesian culture and are really into learning and preserving the tiki subculture, as well as legitimate Polynesian culture for others to enjoy, which I think is admirable! The origin of tiki culture itself is most interesting to me in the sense that it was essentially born out of visitors love of Hawaiian culture/design/motifs, and the trappings (however garish) of our local tourism culture, especially in the 60’s. Basically I feel that the representation of Hawaii within tiki culture can be at worst somewhat willfully ignorant of the realities of Hawaiian culture/life, both historically and presently. At best, it is a fun and imaginative whirlwind of ideas/cultures inspired by people who truly loved and enjoyed Hawaii, but had little to go on when they got back home, say to Ohio. Necessity being the mother of all invention, tiki culture was born from the pieces of Hawaii salvaged from vacations, knick knacks, recipes and photos, and many a backyard was strewn with flower lei and populated with Aloha shirts when America went crazy for the luau. In short, as a native Hawaiian, I celebrate my culture and heritage, and enjoy sharing them with other people as long as I feel the intent is positive, and not willfully exploitative or degrading. I also welcome the chance to educate people who might not be familiar with Hawaii, it’s history, or why it’s flipping amazing!
Q: Let’s switch gears into something lighter, and one of my favorite questions to ask of anyone. If you could have dinner with any three people, living or dead, who do you choose and why?
Oscar Wilde- His wit and charm were utterly, devastatingly, rapier sharp and he was known as a brilliant conversationalist.
Mae West- No explanation needed.
My grandmother- Because she was awesome and I love her.
Q: What does the future hold for Violetta Beretta? What are your goals for 2014?