“…damn everything that is grim, dull, motionless, unrisking, inward turning, damn everything that won’t get into the circle, that won’t enjoy, that won’t throw its heart into the tension, surprise, fear and delight of the circus, the round world, the full existence…” - e.e. cummings
Sunday evening in Bushwick, with the hospital halogen glow of a gas station illuminating the Pumps Exotic Dancing banner on the side of the building, I enter the third show from The Pumps Pin-Ups, entitled “Damn Everything But the Circus.” The casual bar has been transformed into a neon graffiti palace, with grotesque, macabre, inspired creatures and profane scrawlings adorning every centimeter of mirror on both sides of the stage. The artwork ranges from psychedelic foliage and casually satanic symbolism to characters that look like Robert Crumb portraits drawn for a Butthole Surfers album cover. Wise words above urge the audience to “Iggy Pop Til You Drop.” The show’s art curator, Aubrey Roemer, glides through the crowd and applies glow-in-the-dark ink to their faces with glee. She adds a few decorations to my forehead and cheeks and they feel like inverted crosses, which makes me feel like she’s seen deep into my evil soul and understands exactly who I am. When I examine the symbols they’re more like addition signs (+ + +), but what the hell, close enough. Sunny de la Vega entertains the crowd before the show officially starts and every person who came early rejoices in their decision to arrive before showtime. She seems effortless as she displays grace and impressive and strength while pole-dancing, seemingly defying gravity while the red flower in her hair impossibly stays in place. But this is the brilliance of The Pumps Pin-Ups: They make everything difficult and challenging and anxiety-inducing seems calculatedly cool and easy.
The show’s MCs, the wise-cracking Rocket Ships (rocking neon green/black lingerie and teased pigtails) and new team member Evan Von Doomstein, looking slick in a suit and combed mustache, welcome the audience to feast their eyes on Sinister Shabzzz, Harley Quin, and Foxy Highroller, each posing in their own spotlight while Scarlett la Rosa, the troup’s fearless leader and director, circled them with a whip as the evening’s Ringmistress.
The first half of the show was full of inspired performances, including: Ariel Wolf’s inventive routine in a white gown of balloons, popped one by one by a peacock-feathered quill; Scarlett la Rosa’s sultry rendition of Peggy Lee’s “Fever” concluding with a triumphant drag of a cigarette; Bella Boop transporting us all to Burning Man with an impressive display of neon hula-hooping in her awesome horned demon outfit.
Around this point Von Doomstein appropriately asked the crowd if anyone was willing to share their drugs, and received one whistle. Selfish bastards.
Sinister Shabzzz took the stage in a black corset and pink heart pasties as a spellbinding black metal siren looking for her “pussy,” who subsequently returned in the form of Harley Quin wearing a cat costume and purring. I have friends whose first crushes were anthropomorphic animated bunnies and cats who would replay their heart-warming exchange over and over, with even less clothing in mind. Shanlita Bandita then sizzled in a pink onesie, guiding Von Doomstein to a chair and giving him a private dance, if you ignore the bar full of ogling people. My friend leaned in and whispered, “The irony of paying to watch another guy get a lapdance.” Shanlita stole a flask from her mark’s pocket and proceeded to rob him at gunpoint, requesting he strip to a leopard-print thong, to the delight of the scowling guys stationed in front of him. Come on guys, you could do worse, and you probably have. If anything, this routine, apart from being incredible fun and slyly humorous, should also inspire some guys to come open their wallets when lapdances are available.
Spanx Sinatra then sang a song possibly titled “Creep,” which was not a Radiohead cover, but a brutal and totally deserved skewering of cheap, shady, disrespectful tools that occasionally wander into Pumps. She has natural ability that just dazzles and transforms any space she inhabits into a high-class speakeasy. Sasha Berkowitz danced to Marilyn Manson’s “Dope Show” (guessing her name was inspired by Daisy Berkowitz a bit) with makeup that invoked either a seductive clown or the sidekick we all wish The Crow had. With chains draped from her black collar to her negligee bracelets, she had my favorite outfit of the night. Heidi Glum, dubbed “Supermodel of the Underworld” and dressed like a 60s pin-up homemaker, steered the show to its intermission, where Kill ‘Em All-era Metallica had me drumming on the bar top while Kat and Vanessa, the establishment’s amazing bartenders, served up cold drinks with corsets and a smile.
Act Two, and Scarlett la Rosa is knocking ‘em dead again with her smooth voice and her white boa, draped over black & white bra top. Rocket insists that the audience is “Ten years younger and 20% more cancer free” after hearing Scarlett’s voice, and I have toa dmit it’s a pretty damn good tonic. Shanlita then downs half of a bottle of some anonymous liquid while donning a gol leopard-print dress. The audience thought it might be water, someone verified it’s not. My money’s on absinthe. Whatever it was, she sought escape near Dom, from Air of Ants, hiding in the shadow of his keyboard.
The performance of the evening may go to the tag-team rendition of “Don’t Tell Mama” that the lovely Ivy Nyx, Spanx Sinatra, and Scarlett la Rosa unleashed on the crowd. There was a huge reaction as each of them dared the other to sing louder and with unparalleled amounts of charisma and sass, and holy shit were each of them up to the challenge. I don’t have many notes written because I was applauding and throwing money in a nearby top hat, but in my notebook I have written down: HUGE. That could be describing the applause, their voices, their busts, or perhaps I glanced down at my own crotch.
Foxy Highroller made her Pumps Pin-Ups debut and was fantastic, pole-dancing to Radiohead’s “Talk Show Host.” With a rose-print dress, cigarette holder, and tattooed wings, she looked like she was floating and enjoying high society at the same time. Ivy Nyx was kind enough to grace us with another sing, belting out “Hit the Road, Jack” while Sinister Shabzzz brought howls and hollers from the crowd with her patented vertical split against the pole, which sounds less impressive than it looks. Seriously, watch that shit in person and tell me that pole dancing isn’t an art and a sport at once. The music wasn’t finished, as Spanx Sinatra sang one of my favorite songs ever, “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” with support from Jerry, an unfairly talented clarinetist who made that instrument sing and scat with impossible dexterity. I played the clarinet for years and it was one of my favorite moments of the night.
Before Rocket could round up a pack of “cats and small rodents to overpower her lifeless body,” Shanlita awoke from her alcoholic slumber in a sailor hat and polka dot bathing suit. With Gogol Bordello cranking out their unique brand of cabaret punk she spray-painted “see the spectacle” over the mirror artwork. The spray-paint leaked red all over her hands and chest like she was stuck in a crime scene from Dexter, which a creep like me finds very alluring. After her performance Evan Von Doomstein had his revenge, forcing her to strip with her own gun pointed at her, completing one of my darker fantasies in front of me. Who am I kidding, that’s kid stuff compared to what gets me off.
Spanx Sinatra sang a song while Sunny de la Vega, the Barcelonian dancer of undebatable skill, did a dramatic routine that was classy and captivating. I particularly liked the percussion of her opening and closing her fan as she slid pole to pole. I wasn’t sure of the song and just wrote down that it was “exotic,” a code word for “foreign” because I’m an ethnocentric douche. Rocket followed with her first solo dancing performance as a Pumps Pin-Up, entertaining the crowd in gold lingerie and headbnging like the black-souled metalhead we all know she is to “Minnie the Moocher.” At some point Evan Von Doomstein broke out the line “In Soviet Russia, Rocket fires you” and I laughed and raised my Bud in appreciation of his joke.
Heidi Glum brought hard rock and heavy metal back into the fray by dancing to “Living Dead Girl” by Rob Zombie while dressed like vintage Marilyn Manson with a Frankenstein’s monster twist. It was an inspired performance but mostly made me miss the days when Marilyn Manson wasn’t so chubby that he had to draw in a jaw line to try and convince people he was still thin. Ariel Wolf then illuminated the room with a fire-eating and breathing act to another song I love, Louis Armstrong’s “Kiss of Fire.” Damn everything but the circus indeed, and Ariel held the spirit of the evening in high regard with her two amazing sets.
The audience showed their appreciation with cat-calls and crumpled dollars as Scarlett la Rosa invited the performers back on stage while she sang “Calendar Girl.” Having seen the two prior shows, I had high expectations for the night and they exceeded every one. The admission was raised $5 (to $12 at the door), but that increase could be seen in the additional performers and artwork, the improved sound quality (especially in the show’s second half), steadier work from the new MC duo, and the lighting that seemed seamless. This is exactly the sort of event that people in New York/Brooklyn write home about to brag about the benefits of being in the city. I can’t recommend it enough.
Go follow The Pumps Pin-Ups over on Facebook so you don’t miss a show. Even if you’re dumb as hell, you can do this one smart thing in your rotten life and turn it all around: https://www.facebook.com/PumpsPinUps