A Royal Road

fa15_ALUMNISTORIES_CN-Trixie3_webWhat does it take to be the Miss Exotic World, Reigning Queen of Burlesque? And, what’s more, to make a career from an art form that you love? Ask Trixie Little (aka Keri Burneston ’99, visual and performing arts). Little took her crown in June at the Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekend Tournament of Tease in Las Vegas, and she offered UMBC Magazine her reflections on a career onstage that’s been capped with this unique honor.  

I’m Trixie Little. I am the Reigning Queen of Burlesque 2015.  I have been performing my own style of “acrobatic burlesque” since 2002, primarily with my partner in life and art, The Evil Hate Monkey. I live in New York City now, and I have been performing full time since 2007.

I was among the last of the painting majors in UMBC’s Visual Arts Department. (I graduated just as digital media was taking over.) I never really wanted to be a painter, but I knew I was a visual person, and I figured having a traditional foundation in visual art –  as well as a solid liberal arts education –  would help me no matter what career I chose.

On a class trip to Italy to study Renaissance painting during my time at UMBC, I was inspired by how intertwined the work of these painters was with the politics of their time, the demands of their benefactors, and the expectations of both the church and the town. It occurred to me that art was meant to be an active part of the culture and the times, something I didn’t think I could achieve by hanging a painting in some obscure gallery.

I had another epiphany on that trip: It is up to the artist to figure out how to communicate effectively with the audience, and not the other way around. Many artists I knew back then were disgusted when people didn’t “get” their work. But those Renaissance painters taught me that artists must learn how to navigate the opinions and tastes of our audience. It is up to the artist to bring their ideas to the world in ways that audiences will swallow – even (and especially) when they are pushing the boundaries of their art.

fa15_ALUMNISTORIES_CN-Trixie3a_webThe trip also pushed me to look forward. In our modern, and often disconnected, age, how do artists best communicate? For me, performing in front of people felt like the most direct way. This revelation was the birth of me as a populist and a performer!

I worked on a number of projects after graduating. An interpretation of Bizet’s opera Carmen featuring elaborately-dressed hot dogs as puppets that clocked in at under 10 minutes. A water ballet inspired by my love of Busby Berkeley performed in public pools every summer in Baltimore at Patterson Park and elsewhere. (That troupe became a nonprofit organization called Fluid Movement.)

Eventually, I wanted to do something edgier. Something that played with sexuality and female power in an overt way. My own movie star fantasy. That’s when I found burlesque.

It was 2002. Burlesque was already enjoying a resurgence in New York, Los Angeles, and New Orleans. I jumped in with both feet, dragging my boyfriend along with me to play my sidekick, The Evil Hate Monkey.  Together, we pioneered a form of burlesque that integrated acrobatics and strong characters into the striptease.

By 2006, we were successful enough to quit our day jobs to travel and perform full time.

Yet we had a vision, and knew that we needed more skill to achieve it. So Monkey and I moved to Vermont for a two-year professional circus training program. We studied partner acrobatics and duo trapeze.

All that work paid off – and not just with a crown. We have headlined countless burlesque festivals around the world, and toured Australia four times performing our own cabaret show. We have even had a feature length movie made by my fellow alumna Kirsten D’Andrea Hollander ’97 about our lives as performers: Us Naked: Trixie and Monkey.

But success makes you reflect on the tricky negotiation of making art and making a living. As an artist, you’re always thinking ahead to the next big act you want to create, the next costume you need to develop, or the next acrobatic skill you need to learn. You have to evolve and improve constantly. Stagnation is not an option. To stay at the top of your game, you have to put in endless hours of blood, sweat, and tears.

The business side requires just as much effort. You need to reinvest to build an empire that will sustain you. Often that involves taking bigger risks, including producing your own shows and international tours, creating all of your own merchandise, and finding side projects that don’t dilute your image.

In between my ongoing circus training, development of costumes, and maintenance of my repertoire, I am always looking for better and better festivals, shows, or venues to present my work. But I haven’t neglected the populist in me. The Trixie who also wants to present new work on television and in film in ways that doesn’t dilute the sexiness, authenticity, or the comedy of it.

With my newly acquired crown and title, I have a platform that just might help me do all of that and more.